STEVE JOBS: THE WORLD’S GREATEST PHILANTHROPIST

Writing in September this year for the Harvard Business Review, nonprofit sector expert Dan Pallotta argued that– contrary to widespread opinion – Steve Jobs was the world’s greatest philanthropist.

Pallotta begins:

A student at one of my talks on the non-profit sector asked if I could name a for-profit company that was making a difference on the scale that nonprofits do. I said I’d be hard-pressed to name one that wasn’t.

His reply highlights one of today’s great misconceptions.

Our youth are growing up with the strange notion that the only way to make a big difference in this world, or to be of service, is to work for a non-profit organization, or become the next Bill Gates and establish a private foundation, or to start some kind of “social enterprise,” often without any understanding of what that means.

Indeed Bill Gates has done much more   for society by improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people through the benefits derived from access to computers than he could ever hope to accomplish through his laudable personal philanthropic work.

The word philanthropy comes from the Greek philanthropos which comes from philein for “to love” and anthropos for “human being.” Philanthropy means love of humanity.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs.

Shortly after he returned to Apple in 1997 Jobs allegedly ended all of the company’s corporate philanthropy programs to cut expenses until the nearly bankrupt enterprise regained its footing. Some have claimed the programs were never reinstated.

A 2006 Wired article on Jobs, “Great Wealth Does Not Make a Great Man,” reported that even though his wealth was estimated at $3.3 billion, Jobs’s name did not appear on Giving USA’s list of gifts of $5 million or more for the previous four years, nor on another that list showing gifts of $1 million or more. (The article acknowledged that he could have been giving anonymously.)

The article took a cheap shot: “Jobs can’t even get behind causes that would seem to carry deep personal meaning…he is a cancer survivor. But unlike [Lance] Armstrong, Jobs has so far done little publicly to raise money or awareness for the disease.” It went on, “…he’s nothing more than a greedy capitalist who’s amassed an obscene fortune. It’s shameful…[Bill] Gates is much more deserving of Jobs’ rock star exaltation. In the same way, I admire Bono over Mick Jagger, and John Lennon over Elvis, because they spoke up about things bigger than their own celebrity.” Yes, but in part their own celebrity was connected to the things they spoke up about.

In a 1985 Playboy interview, Jobs acknowledged that it takes enormous time to give money away, and stated that, “in order to learn how to do something well, you have to fail sometimes…the problem with most philanthropy-there’s no measurement system.. you can really never measure whether you failed or succeeded…So…it’s really hard to get better.” He added that, “When I have some time, I’m going to start a public foundation.”

In 1986, he did, but closed it after 15 months. According to the man he hired to run it, “He clearly didn’t have the time.” Jobs’s friends told one reporter, “he figures he can do more good by expanding Apple.” And thank God for that.

Indeed, a typical business firm employs resources, such as labour and capital, and transforms them into goods and services desired by consumers – such as the almost ludicrously desirable iPod. Highly-profitable businesses such as Apple succeed in the process of cooperation and exchange that occurs through voluntary buyer and seller transactions in a competitive market economy that rewards and encourages innovation. Competition and the profit motive drove Apple’s extraordinary innovation, and the business has obviously been enormously successful.

What a loss to humanity it would have been if Jobs had dedicated the last 25 years of his life to figuring out how to give his billions away, instead of doing what he does best.

We’d still be waiting for a cell phone on which we could actually read e-mail and surf the web. “We” includes students, doctors, nurses, aid workers, charity leaders, social workers, and so on. It helps the blind read text and identify currency. It helps physicians improve their performance and surgeons improve their practice. It even helps charities raise money.

We’d be a decade or more away from the iPad, which has ushered in an era of reading electronically that promises to save a Sherwood Forest worth of trees and all of the energy associated with trucking them around. That’s just the beginning. Doctors are using the iPad to improve healthcare. It’s being used to lessen the symptoms of autism, to improve kids’ creativity, and to revolutionize medical training.

Of course Apple’s products have also improved business efficiency in many ways with positive knock-on effects for society, such as providing more efficient delivery of goods and services. We can now do our banking, shop for books, and even do  our weekly grocery shop, from our telephones.

And you can’t say someone else would have developed these things. No one until Jobs did, and the competitive devices that have come since have taken the entirety of their inspiration from his creation.

Without Steve Jobs we’d be years away from a user-friendly mechanism for getting digital music without stealing it, which means we’d still be producing hundreds of millions of CDs with plastic cases.

We would be without Pixar. There’s a sentence with an import inversely correlated to its length.

We would be without the 34,000 full-time jobs Apple has created, just within Apple, not to mention all of the manufacturing jobs it has created for those who would otherwise live in poverty.

How often this point is forgotten by anti-big business groups.

We would be without the wealth it has created for millions of Americans who have invested in the company.

We would be without video conferencing for the masses that actually works. Computers that don’t keep crashing. Who can estimate the value of the wasted time that didn’t get wasted?

We would be without a whole new way of thinking. About computers. Leadership. Business. Our very potential.

Last year Change.org wrote of Steve Jobs, “It’s high time the minimalist CEO became a magnanimous philanthropist.”

I’ve got news for you. He has been. What’s important is how we use our time on this earth, not how conspicuously we give our money away. What’s important is the energy and courage we are willing to expend reversing entropy, battling cynicism, suffering and challenging mediocre minds, staring down those who would trample our dreams, taking a stand for magic, and advancing the potential of the human race.

On these scores, the world has no greater philanthropist than Steve Jobs. If ever a man contributed to humanity, here he is.

Read the full article here.

Thomas Sowell, who gave the Business Roundtable Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture in 1996, also recently wrote about philanthropy and Steve Jobs. Read it here.

I blogged on how businesses gives back to society last week.