In his New York Times column today, "The Mystery of Steve Jobs's Public Giving," Andrew Ross Sorkin shines a spotlight on the fact that the former Apple CEO and Forbes billionaire has never been public about his philanthropy. He briefly considers, though seems to dismiss, the possibility that Jobs has been an anonymous donor.
Sorkin does an admirable job of marshaling the evidence that Jobs has devoted much more energy to building wealth than to sharing it. But whether Jobs has been charitable or not, what he does with his money is his choice. And he has the right to remain silent about it.
Like other wealthy people, Jobs has no doubt been badgered by fund-raising requests. He refused to join the lineup of nearly 70 U.S. billionaires who have pledged to give away at least half their fortunes during life or at death. Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz are among those who have joined the philanthropic campaign led by Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Wouldn't it be something if Jobs has been giving anonymously all long?
One of the few surveys on anonymous giving concluded that the primary reason donors like to keep their identities a secret is to avoid solicitations from other organizations. The 1991 study, Survey on Anonymous Giving, by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, was based on responses from 563 senior development officers who had either graduated from a training course at the university’s fund-raising school or been certified as fund-raisers by the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives. It showed that 50.6 percent of people who give anonymously do so to minimize solicitations from other organizations. The next most frequent motivation cited in the study was a deeply felt religious conviction—5.3 percent of the respondents gave that as a reason.
Charles Feeney, who went from rags to riches as co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers chain, is an example of someone who carried anonymous giving to extremes. He reportedly gave away $600 million over several decades before going public with his story in 1997, anticipating that a pending lawsuit from the sale of his company would blow his cover anyway. Only then did he reveal that he had conducted most of this philanthropy through private foundations set up in Bermuda. Although going offshore ensured his anonymity for many years, it disqualified him from the tax deductions that he otherwise would have been entitled to.
As his experience suggests, giving anonymously isn't easy, especially for the superrich. If they set up a private foundation in the U.S., the yearly tax filing, IRS Form 990-PF, is a public record that shows assets, gifts, grants, and the names and addresses of trustees, directors, and officers. Some wealthy donors give through trusts, a limited liability company or a donor-advised fund. Others rely on a law firm, bank, or trusted adviser as intermediary. In that case, the client would channel the funds through this adviser—say it’s a law firm—which would issue a check to the charity and get a tax receipt for the donor.
The intermediary can also negotiate privacy terms with the recipient organization, including who within the charity can be aware of the gift. But all it takes is one slip up, whether it’s an overheard cell-phone conversation or an e-mail message sent to the wrong person, for the donor's privacy to be breached.
Rampant conjecture can also play a role. As Sorkin notes, there has been speculation that an anonymous $150 million donation to the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of, California, San Francisco, came from Jobs. His lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer would certainly make him what fundraisers call "a grateful patient."
When philanthropists talk about the spiritual aspects of giving anonymously, they often cite the 12th-century Jewish wise man Maimonides, who ranked anonymous giving as the second-highest level of charity. Maimonides taught that the rich person shouldn’t feel superior for giving and the poor person shouldn’t feel inferior. Julie Salamon explored that philosophy in her 2003 book, Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give (Workman). "Likewise, some wealthy people today prefer to give anonymously because they feel very lucky that they had the brains or the right family to have more than the person down the block," Salamon once told me. “They want to set the balance straight and don’t want a lot of credit for it.”
Perhaps this describes Jobs's feelings about philanthropy. If he has given generously and anonymously during his life--or plans to through his estate plan--I hope he makes sure we will never find out about it.