Apps and Other Innovations Steve Jobs Gave to Nonprofits

Steve Jobs benefited the nonprofit sector by radically leveling the technological playing field.

Steve Jobs was not much of a philanthropist during his life. He didn’t sign The Giving Pledge like so many other billionaires did. He pretty much left engagement with the nonprofit sector to his wife and did not seem committed to any other cause beyond Apple itself.

And yet he did give to our sector—very much so.  What he contributed was the radical leveling of the technological playing field, a shift that brought unprecedented power to the small, under-resourced organizations that dot the nonprofit landscape. 

A mere 10-15 years ago, only larger companies and well-endowed nonprofits like universities and hospitals could take advantage of technologies such as mobile computing, collaborative file sharing, remote accessed databases, and virtual meetings. In contrast, smaller nonprofits had trouble attracting talent, because they could recruit only locally and needed people who could work standard hours. There was also the cost of office infrastructure—staff at the average nonprofit had to work in the same location to accomplish anything. This meant higher costs for office space and other physical assets—things many nonprofits have a harder time affording.

Today, more and more nonprofits run virtual offices with staff based around the world, who can work remotely but still communicate and collaborate effectively. This means a larger talent pool. And today, office infrastructure costs less—a few laptops, a printer, and an Internet connection, and you’re up and running.

Of course, Steve Jobs did not accomplish this by himself. But he led the way to making new technologies available to more people—including the average nonprofit executive director. Certainly, the Apple aesthetic appeals to the non-conformist and progressive spirit that pervades the nonprofit world.

The emergence of the smartphone app—pioneered by Apple under Jobs’s leadership—is no exception. The very spirit of the app is small versus big. It is an implicit rebuke to the bloat and incomprehensibility of software suites that pervade the corporate environment. They are simple to use and usually focused on a singular purpose (indeed, a good nonprofit should resemble an app), and allowed cash-strapped nonprofits, among others, new tools for collaboration. Here are a few to try if you don’t use them already:

For nonprofits running their donor database on the Salesforce platform (free for nonprofits), you can access fundraising information wherever you are. About to meet a donor and forgot what her latest gift was or the name of her husband? Want to record her new status in your donor pipeline after the meeting? A few taps and swipes on your phone, and you can access and change database information.

This app lets you back up files or share them with a coworker by creating project folders that sync changes across users. As a sidenote, I prefer this file-share app to DropBox or Google Docs.

Get more efficient at managing the dreaded “When can we all get together on a conference call?” routine. Tungle cuts out a lot of steps and the usual wait for everyone to get to their desk before they respond.

Time Cave
Here’s a common issue in virtual staff teams. You’re on the road, and you remember you’re supposed to check in with a colleague on something—only you’re supposed to do that next week. Instead of having to remind yourself to send a reminder to your colleague, you use Time Cave to write a message now and schedule it to send later. You can do this via Outlook on your computer, but I usually need this when I’m on the go.

You can manage team projects with this to-do app that distributes and tracks tasks across users. Everyone can keep each other updated, all from their smartphone.

Are there other apps that your organization couldn’t do without? Of course, apps are just one tiny piece of Steve Jobs’s massive impact on the world. But for the little outfit in a world that so favors the big, their impact can be significant. For that, we in the nonprofit world say, “Thank you, Steve.”

Read more stories by Curtis Chang.

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  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON October 8, 2011 04:01 PM

    I am flip flopping a lot on the whole Steve Jobs saint or sinner debate.  I just tweeted about his wanting to start a foundation to support vegetarianism but now reading this I am again wanting to list his credentials for the sinner (no sign of personal philanthropy, abusing labor in China, terrible philanthropic culture at Apple, etc.).

    This post is a stretch.  Credit him for Salesforce, really? 

    He was clearly a complicated man.  Perhaps it is just easier to remember him as a saint, but does that let Silicon Valley and their enablers on Wall Street get away with thinking they can be irresponsible and greedy and have people sing their praises at their wake?

    I hope that in the next few years as we learn about his wishes for his estate a clearer picture emerges.  Until then I am likely to remain a Clinton-esque flip flopper on this topic.

  • Curtis Chang's avatar

    BY Curtis Chang

    ON October 10, 2011 12:26 PM

    How one labels most any human beings (especially historically outsized characters like Jobs) squarely in a “sinner” or “saint” camp is beyond me - and certainly beyond my hopes for my piece. 

    What I wanted to point out is a historic contribution he made to our sector that is different than the usual categories of personal philanthropy or corporate social responsibility. What he actually accomplished was to lead the way towards accessibility to a whole new set of technologies that leveled the playing ground for small organizations. (Note: he of course didn’t do it by himself as I point out, and by the way, my piece never credited Jobs with Salesforce, only with creating an iPhone and App ecosystem that made Salesforce accessible to folks on the go like me). 

    I don’t think this historical point is a stretch at all - in fact you’d be hard pressed to find a narrative of technology that argues otherwise.  But you’re absolutely right that any attempt to make a final moral judgment of Jobs as a human being is going to be way more complex that this.

  • BY Jacob Chandy Varghese, Founder, Prismtree Consulti

    ON October 11, 2011 02:43 AM

    I loved the emphasis of the article. Out of the corporate world and in the social sector for a year, I keep advocating friends in corporate to invest to the society with what they are good at. Unfortunately, even today, I got a proposal from a world famous multi-billion multinational on how their local unit in India want to ‘reach out’ to the society. I told them that they should reach out with what they are good at, and not with fancy thoughts of volunteering to be teaching, which they have no clue about. I know there will be lot of frowns about Steve Jobs being written about having made significant impact to non-profit. These frowns emerge from our tendency to ‘bucket’ people into different groups and building our own definitions, failing to see that the best impact is made through natural investment of what we are best at. Great article.

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