Soapbox Series: What is Philanthropy? (Soapbox Series, 8)

I wished we lived in a world where no one contracted diseases that deprived them of life at 3 months or  6, 56, or 71 years of age. Steve Jobs’ death is a very public reminder that we never know how many opportunities we will get to make a difference. Millions of moms, dads, sisters, brothers, friends, classmates, and neighbors feel that visceral reminder every day. They just don’t have quite the level of media coverage for sharing their grief.

So how do we measure making a difference in the lives of others?

There is an interesting piece in this morning’s Washington Post about Steve Jobs’ philanthropic efforts … more specifically the lack of public documentation of them. I don’t believe you have to sign a public document, have your name on academic institutions, or hospital wings to be a contributor to society. As a fly-under-the-radar kind of gal myself, I completely respect the anonymous donor who shares their wealth without attaching their name to their dollars. Public figures should have personal choices, too.

Steve Jobs very likely shared his wealth with others. How much and with whom, frankly, is his business. Just as it is my personal, private choice about the organizations or causes I believe in. Still, when I saw this in the article, it struck a nerve.

Jobs supporters note that the bulk of his contributions to society may reside in the quality and innovation of Apple’s products.

Really? Creating gadgets and opening ideas is philanthropy? Yes, he changed the ways we live … because we are now connected (and addicted) 24/7. But he – and many others – PERSONALLY PROFITED from those creations.  Even if he donated thousands of Apple products to schools, he was building brand loyalty and hoping that the recipients would one day buy Apple products.

Mark Vermilion (who helped set up theSteven P. Jobs Foundation) says “There’s only so many hours in a week, and he created so many incredible products. He really contributed to culture and society.”

Ouch! That doesn’t sound very charitable. One of the definitions of philanthropy is “Something, such as an activity or institution, intended to promote human welfare.” [source:, third definition]. Does the MAC, iPad, iPhone, or iPod for that matter, “promote human welfare”? Yes, in the sense that it is part of a technological era where we can come together in an instant to share news, ideas, and the fruits of our creative spirits from anywhere in the world. I love the ways tablets can open doors for sharing information and bringing it to life.

But to say that the innovations themselves are a philanthropic contribution to society is to stand on very thin ice.

What do you think? Is material innovation a kind of philanthropy?