Record thin on Steve Jobs’s philanthropy

For one of the nation’s most famous billionaires, Steve Jobs kept a low profile as a charitable donor.

Unlike fellow tech leaders Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, he did not sign the Giving Pledge, the effort under which the nation’s richest individuals commit to giving at least half their wealth to philanthropy.

His name is absent from the list of gifts of $1 million or more maintained by Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy.

And it wasn’t until after an unflattering media report about Jobs on the subject over the summer, that Apple in September initiated a “matching gifts” program, under which donations to philanthropies made by employees are matched by the company.

Now what will happen to Jobs’s fortune — Forbes has estimated his net worth at $8.3 billion — is a matter of speculation that is provoking discussion both about Jobs and the societal obligations of the very rich.

The most recent round of debate began after the New York Times published an unflattering piece in August, stating “there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity. . . . Nor is there a hospital wing or an academic building with his name on it.”

Moreover, Jobs had closed Apple’s philanthropic programs when he returned to the company in 1997 and never reinstated them despite $14 billion in profit last year, the Times reported.

“Many other innovative companies have found ways to apply their ingenuity and resources to helping society,” Vincent Stehle, a longtime grantmaker in nonprofit technology circles and a columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said Thursday. “It was a little disappointing not to see Apple at the table.”

But Jobs supporters note that the bulk of his contributions to society may reside in the quality and innovation of Apple’s products. They also pointed out ways that Jobs and Apple have been charitable.

Bono, U2’s lead singer and a noted activist, quickly responded to the Times piece, writing that “Apple’s contribution to our fight against AIDS in Africa has been invaluable.”

The company had given “tens of millions of dollars that have transformed the lives of more than two million Africans through H.I.V. testing, treatment and counseling. This is serious and significant. And Apple’s involvement has encouraged other companies to step up,” Bono wrote. “Just because he’s been extremely busy, that doesn’t mean that he and his wife, Laurene, have not been thinking about these things.”

Jobs’s supporters say it also may be impossible to know from public records what he gave away because he could have requested anonymity. Indeed, his plans for the rest of his wealth may not be known until well after his death.

The fact that he doesn’t appear on lists of public giving “doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s not giving generously,” said Adriene Davis of Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, which tracks such gifts.

What may partly explain Jobs’s absence from the donor rolls is that he was so busy with his company.

Jobs’s most direct effort at philanthropy was when he set up the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, shortly after he was forced out of Apple in 1985. To run that effort, he hired Mark Vermilion, who first spent time at Humanitas International, a charity founded by Joan Baez, and then headed Apple’s community efforts, which began when Vermilion proposed the company give away computers to nonprofits.

Jobs wanted his foundation to focus on nutrition and vegetarianism. Vermilion favored programs that promoted social entre­pre­neur­ship. But then Jobs got tied up building another company called NeXT and the foundation shut down.

“I said, ‘You really need to spend some time on this’ and he said ‘I can’t right now,’ ” Vermilion said. “I really don’t blame Steve. I think I could have done a better job on selling him on my idea or I should have done his idea.”

Had Jobs, who died at 56, lived longer, he might have gotten around to more public charities, Vermilion said, but because he was a perfectionist, he would have needed to devote a lot of his scarce time to it.

“He’s gotten a lot of criticism for not giving away tons of money,” Vermilion said. “But I think it’s a bum rap. There’s only so many hours in a week, and he created so many incredible products. He really contributed to culture and society.”

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Peter Whoriskey is a staff writer for The Washington Post handling investigations of financial and economic topics. You can email him at peter.whoriskey@washpost.com.
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