A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.
-- Senator Everett Dirksen
Last week, I took heat from some readers for having the audacity to suggest that Apple do something positive for society with all its billions. Today, I come not to criticize, but to praise one William Henry (Bill) Gates III, a man who aims to give away all his money to make the world a better place before he dies.
Let me say up front that I haven't always been a huge fan of Bill Gates, and he's certainly no saint. Like many billionaires, he made his money in sometimes less-than-scrupulous ways. Read up on the Microsoft antitrust suit and some of his company's market practices if you doubt me.
But Gates, whose net worth as of January of this year was estimated at $61 billion, left Microsoft in 2008 to run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation full time. He got some other billionaires on board, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Even though he is is the richest man on the Forbes billionaires list, by all accounts Gates is surprisingly unpretentious and solidly grounded -- and he clearly understands that with great wealth comes great responsibility.
Now Gates puts all that intelligence he put into building his company into helping the least fortunate people on the planet. In his latest letter from his foundation, he discussed the link between innovation and ending abject poverty:
The private market does a great job of innovating in many areas, particularly for people who have money. The focus of Melinda’s and my foundation is to encourage innovation in the areas where there is less profit opportunity but where the impact for those in need is very high.
An article last week in The Telegraph described Gates as a man of simple tastes, including DVDs and takeout burgers. In the article, he comes off as a humble and positive force for change in the world. He would love if all the rich people in the world joined him, but he understands that he isn't going to change minds by scolding or shaming people.
Instead, he just keeps on delivering his positive message -- and walking the walk by giving away millions at a time, while traveling the world to ensure the money he provides gets put to good use on the ground where it's needed.
Contrast this, if you will, with Apple and its $100 billion (and growing quickly) stash. Tim Cook, like Steve Jobs before him, has tried to say that Apple wants to be a force for good in the world. But I don't see an Apple charitable foundation. And I looked for one -- I'm sure you will correct me if I'm wrong.
Now, I can hear you arguing already that Apple is a publicly traded company, Bill and Melinda Gates are individuals, and it's a different dynamic with different legal and moral requirements.
This is true to an extent, but it doesn't mean that Apple, or other rich companies, for that matter (because I truly don't mean to single out Apple), couldn't set up an Educational Foundation or an Employee Rights Foundation or find a pet project and seed it with a million dollars. That's chump change for any of these companies, great PR, and a tax writeoff, to boot.
To its credit, Apple announced last fall that it would match employee charitable contributions, but this isn't really what I have in mind. I mean setting up and funding a charitable arm like Google.org, which on its face appears to be a good model for all tech companies.
Gates says in the Telegraph article that his goal is to give all his money away before he and his wife die, and to let their kids make their own way, their own money, and their own mark.
It's a worthy goal to want to leave the world a better place. Too bad every tech billionaire and the companies they founded haven’t tried the same.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.