On a recent night at an elegant Beaux-Arts ballroom in San Francisco’s financial district, Laurene Powell Jobs received an Apple Inc. computer with an unusually rich history. Around 1980, Powell Jobs’ husband, Steve Jobs, donated the computer to a non-profit organisation, the Seva Foundation, to help the group manage data from its efforts to restore sight in the developing world.
The non-profit was now giving the computer — an Apple II that spent the last 33 years in Kathmandu, most of it packed away in a hospital basement there — back to Powell Jobs and her children from her marriage to Jobs.
The Apple II would be little more than an artefact in the history of a non-profit if it was not also a rare symbol of the charity of Jobs, a man celebrated for his vision and leadership in the technology industry but who was routinely criticised before his death for his lack of giving. Some other billionaire technology innovators have given away huge chunks of their wealth — most notably Jobs’ long-time rival, Bill Gates. But Jobs shied away from philanthropy, at least of the public variety. Although his wife has long been an active benefactor of various causes, Jobs was portrayed as somewhat disdainful of philanthropic endeavours by his authorised biographer, Walter Isaacson.
That perception of Jobs has troubled Larry Brilliant, a long-time friend of the Jobses who, as a young physician, co-founded Seva in 1978. “I do want to counter the meme that he was disinterested in philanthropy and things for the greater good,” said Brilliant. “It wasn’t true.”
Brilliant has a close-up view of the intersection between technology and philanthropy. He is the president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a non-profit created by Jeff Skoll, a co-founder of eBay. Before that, Brilliant ran Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search giant.
He also had a unique perspective on Jobs, first meeting him in India in the early 1970s when an enlightenment-seeking Jobs showed up with bare feet and a shaved head at the Himalayan ashram where Brilliant was living. Brilliant went on to oversee a smallpox eradication programme in