Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street: Two Ways to Disrupt Philanthropy

(Bradford K. Smith is the president of the Foundation Center.  This post first appeared October 10, 2011, in PhilanTopic, a blog of opinion and commentary from Philanthropy News Digest. )

Occupy_wallst_large In the fifty-six impossibly creative years he spent on the planet, Steve Jobs did far more to disrupt philanthropy than any of us who write, think, live, and breathe it as a profession or avocation. By taking the hulking mainframe computers pioneered by the likes of IBM, Honeywell, and Control Data and putting them first on our desktops and then in our ears and in the palm of our hands, he connected us 24/7 to information and to each other. Perhaps because he never seemed that interested in philanthropy, we never fully grasped -- and may not still -- how profoundly he was changing our industry.

Far more radical than the sleek design and tactile interface of the company's inventions, however, was the profound way in which they democratized the control of and access to information. Philanthropy, a cumbersome latecomer field that is only beginning to operate in the digital world, cannot ignore what this means for social change and the way we do business. People, causes, organizations, governments, businesses, and everything in between are becoming networked in ways that bring into question our notions of "grantmaker," "grantee," "not-for-profit," and "for-profit." This kind of disruption, so competently explored by Lucy Bernholz, compels us to re-imagine, re-position, re-tool, and aspire to a future in which we can and must do far more to make the world a better place than we've done to date. Still, this is disruption philanthropy can live with: even as Jobs' innovations challenged us, many a foundation prospered by hitching their endowments to the upward spiral of Apple's geometrically expanding market cap.

Then there is Occupy Wall Street, a "leaderless resistance movement" that claims it is "the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%" and employs "the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic" to achieve its ends. When it comes to disruption, this is more like a fist to the solar plexus. No matter how you slice it, philanthropy is driven by asset-based wealth; indeed, large organized philanthropy of the foundation variety is fueled by the top 1 percent of the population that holds 23.5 percent of national income -- and whose "greed and corruption" the Occupy Wall Street movement is protesting. For foundations, Wall Street is not some distant exotic land, given that their investments are often entrusted to some of the biggest financial firms; nor is it unheard of for foundation presidents and executives from some of those firms to sit on each other's boards.

On the heels of a brutal recession caused, in large part, by an orgy of financial excess, it is dangerously easy to tar everyone in the top 1 percent with the same brush, even those who might have made their money the old-fashioned way and are giving something back through their philanthropy.

Occupy Wall Street has no Steve Jobs to personify it, yet the thousands who are swelling its ranks use his iPhones and iPads to document, communicate, organize, and network. A visionary business leader that saw a connected world beyond anything most of us could have imagined and a burgeoning social movement that refuses to accept the accumulation of vast wealth without the exercise of social responsibility: as philanthropy is disrupted, those of us who work in the field will have to adapt and change. And foundations will need to do a far better job of connecting themselves to the digital world, being transparent, and telling one big, overriding story: every day foundations strive to use the immense privilege and freedom of action that comes with wealth to fill the world with justice, beauty, and opportunity for all.

(Photo: Getty Images)

-- Brad Smith