The time has come to call out Apple: They must do much more to support the social sector

The time has come to call out Apple: They must do much more to support the social sector

Not a Post I Enjoy Writing

I have spent almost my entire career in the nonprofit sector and while I have a Windows desktop in the office, I do most of my work on some combination my iPhone 6 Plus, my MacBook Air and my iPad Air.  I am not an Apple fan-boy, but I believe in their products and appreciate their ability to elegantly combine design and technology to make fantastically usable and useful products.  Because of my affection toward the Apple brand and the qualities for which it stands, I have been slow to criticize Apple for doing so little in their philanthropic support of social sector.  Most of us in the nonprofit, education, civic and nonprofit tech sectors have given them a pass. It is time to say that we expect a lot more from the richest company in the world.  

Some history: Steve Jobs, Not a Philanthropist.

In the lean years of the 1990s when Steve Jobs was away from the company, the social sector (in particular education - primary through university) kept Apple alive.  Educational and nonprofit organizations often made tough decisions to spend more with Apple. During the years after Mr. Jobs' return to the company, there were no glimpses of loyalty to the sector that helped keep Apple alive.  As Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and others worked to build product donation programs (with and without TechSoup) and impactful corporate volunteer and charitable giving programs, Apple lagged considerably behind the rest of the tech sector in its charitable giving and engagement with the social sector. To the contrary of more giving and engagement, Jobs eliminated all corporate philanthropy programs.  

Jobs developed what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for disengagement with philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.  The Chronicle of Philanthropy quoted Peter Hero, a philanthropy consultant who was president of a precursor organization to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation as saying, "He wasn’t known as a philanthropic leader — that’s the kindest thing to say.  There were some [philanthropic] leaders during the growth spurt of the ’90s, and Apple wasn’t one of them." (  Michael Gentilucci in his piece on the subject recounts the old " joke floating around the Internet. It was PDF file entitled the 'Complete Book of Steve Jobs' Philanthropy,' and when you clicked the file, it was just a bunch of blank pages." (  As his long-time rival Bill Gates was laying the groundwork for the largest and most influential foundation in the world, Jobs was cutting his company's philanthropy and leaving little traces of his own philanthropic efforts. His company must overcome this legacy if it hopes to be a better corporate citizen. 

The one highlight for Job's tenure was the Product Red programs which used social marketing to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.  The program has raised more than $100 million in the last decade since inception.  Let's be clear though, this is not philanthropy.  Some might argue it was a marketing ploy that involved U2 (again) as means to send a more positive message about Apple, while costing Apple little.  Indeed, the consumers made the product choice of something red.  How much any additional sales for Apple did that drive form a marketing perspective?  I'm sure they have the numbers.  

Progress is Being Made, Is it Enough?

Tim Cook made some substantive changes to Apple's posture with the social sector.  There a few highlights to Apple's engagement and investment in the nonprofit sector from his tenure:

  • They maintain both a matching gift and volunteer match program.  If their employees take the initiative to donate their time or money to an organization, Apple will match. Cook instituted a program of giving $25/hr for every volunteer hour provided to nonprofit up to $10,000.  These matching programs provided over $50 million to the sector in the first 3 years from 2012-15.   
  • Apple gave a $100 million in product and cash grants to ConnectED, an initiative of President Obama to provide resources to 114 underserved schools across the country.
  • $50 million commitment to train women and minorities going to both the Thurgood Marshal College Fund for historically black colleges and universities and the National Center for Women and Technology.
  • For a more complete listing of Apple's philanthropic engagement, check out this list on Mac Rumors.  

Mr. Cook's intentions and actions on these issues are clearly different than his predecessor.  He's personally committed to giving away most of his $800 million fortune before he dies.  A great unknown in the Apple fortune is what becomes of Steve Job's wealth after his death.  If a foundation was set up, it could immediately be at a scale to make a significant impact on the nonprofit sector.  

Conclusion: Apple Can and Should Do Much More

Nonprofit organizations and indeed nonprofit techies have come to expect so much more from the likes of Microsoft, Google and other technology leaders.  Its time we expect the same of Apple.  Here's a list of steps they should take: 

  • Initiate a product donation program through TechSoup.  Apple turns over its product annually and could donate some of the previous generation equipment on each turn.  Donating $50 million in product each year could be quite a boost to the nonprofit sector.
  • Provide free icloud and developer accounts to nonprofits and provide training programs to foster app development for the social good.  
  • Establish the Apple foundation.  Take 5% of the cash hoard of over $200 Billion that Apple is sitting on and establish one of the world's largest foundations at $10 Billion.  Focus on a couple of big problems (like Gates Foundation has done in public health in the developing world) in order to make a huge impact.  If the heirs are willing perhaps they could ajoin Job's wealth to the foundation.  Perhaps Cook and others who have Apple wealth would also want to pool assets in the Apple Foundation. The 2nd largest foundation in the world could quickly be established and doing unprecendented good.
  • Provide a focused team within Apple who are churning out apps for the AppleWatch, iPhone and AppleTV that are focused on social good.  A crowd sourced app development platform where dedicated Apple staff who are working collaboratively with social sector developers could lead to more game changing applications for mobile devices.  Think the Health App...many times over for social good. 

Do you have any other ideas about how Apple could do more for the social sector?  I'm interested in hearing your thoughts.  

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