January 09, 2011

Apple’s Disdain for Philanthropy Is Rotten for Charities and Society

Courtesy of Apple

The iPhone

Holiday season is always a time for giving—but not on your iPhone.

That’s because Apple doesn’t allow nonprofits or other organizations to include a direct donation system in the phone’s applications, so the only way to give is to go to a charity’s Web site, a cumbersome process with a small phone-size keyboard.

The only question: Is it a mere glitch or a natural extension of Apple’s policy that is generally indifferent to nonprofits and philanthropy?

The company’s policies toward philanthropy and nonprofits are growing increasingly problematic as Apple products become an ever larger part of our media and communications landscape.

The iPhone controversy started to appear in the general press after the social-media expert Beth Kanter wrote on her popular blog that Apple’s restrictive donation policy made her so mad that she was thinking of trading in her iPhone for an Android, a phone that uses Google software.

She also started an online petition that has generated more than 10,000 signatures demanding that Apple loosen its restrictions on charitable donations through iPhone apps.

Ms. Kanter noted that the concern about Apple’s donation policy was first raised by Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange, which provides technology and digital distribution services for public-radio producers.

In an article for Ars Technica, a technology blog, Mr. Shapiro complained that Apple’s policies made it hard for public-radio producers and stations to invite millions of podcast listeners to support the programs they gain access to on their iPhones.

For its part, Apple has said that it does not permit charitable donations to be made through its iPhone applications because it has no way to verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations that might receive donations through its media platform.

But numerous organizations vet charities today, including such prominent ones as Mission Fish, Network for Good, and TechSoup.

What’s more, Bob Ottenhoff, president of GuideStar, the Web site that makes charity tax forms available to the public, has gone so far as to offer his organization’s services to insure the legitimacy of donations through the iPhone.

Ultimately, the iPhone donations controversy raises questions that are larger than the facilitation of donations.

One question is how best to generate sustainable revenue for media outlets that deliver journalism, entertainment, and other information that keeps communities vibrant.

As noncommercial media organizations play an increasingly important role in communities, they need to find new sources of financial support to survive.

In the competition between commercial and noncommercial media outlets, Apple seems to favor commercial media companies—even while many of Apple’s customers seem to favor public-media content.

While for-profit businesses have long been able to use Apple’s iTunes distribution platform to promote their wares—and sell their products—public-media outlets have had more of an uphill battle.

At first, they could not even put their programs on iTunes. Then the Public Radio Exchange created Pubcatcher, a way to let people download radio programs easily to digital recording devices, outside of the iTunes system.

Suddenly, Apple opened its system to include downloads of public media.

Now public-radio programs are some of the most popular podcasts available, with a recent ranking from iTunes showing that six of the top 10 podcasts in the United States are from public-radio producers, including “Radiolab,” “This American Life,” and “Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me.”

Nobody thinks nonprofits should ask their listeners to pay for every podcast, but they ought to be able to invite their listeners to contribute in the easiest way possible.

Perhaps if Apple doesn’t see this necessity soon, public-radio producers should get together and agree to withhold their content from the iTunes distribution system until Apple sees fit to loosen its rules on charitable giving.

A couple of weeks without access to Ira Glass, Peter Sagal, and the other hosts of the most popular programs, and the anguished howls of wounded public-radio fans would be impossible to ignore.

But media organizations are not the only ones that wish Apple would develop policies that are more sympathetic to nonprofits.

Every type of nonprofit group could benefit from support from Apple, which is largely absent from the major places where other technology companies provide support to nonprofits. So a second question is what responsibility does a major technology company like Apple have to the nonprofit world?

Apple’s defenders—and they are legion—will argue that the company’s greatest contribution to society is to provide tools that spark creative expression and make it easier for people and organizations of all kinds to spread ideas.

And without a doubt, the best thing Apple can do to improve society is to continue to serve as a powerful engine of innovation.

But other technology companies have found ways to promote innovation and help nonprofits.

A decade ago, when Microsoft and America Online were practically in open warfare, they nevertheless came together to support the creation of the Nonprofit Technology Network, which now serves 10,000 members from nonprofits across the country and around the world. Now Google has announced a grant of $1.1-million, designed to support the technology network’s programs over the next two years.

Cisco Systems spearheaded the creation of NetHope, a technology support organization that helps large international relief groups deploy sophisticated communications and distribution technology systems in times of crisis.

Adobe, Cisco, Microsoft, and Symantec are just a few of the 44 companies that have together donated more than $2.1-billion worth of products through TechSoup Global.

And the grandfather of many of those companies, IBM, has long been a leader in corporate contributions and developing creative solutions in collaboration with nonprofits and government, particularly in its work to improve education.

Apple has a lot to contribute. If the company has made any New Year’s resolutions, let’s hope philanthropy is on the list.


Vincent Stehle is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a philanthropic consultant in New York.