What We Know and Don’t Know About the Philanthropy of Apple CEO Tim Cook



According to a recent SEC filing, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently donated 23,700 Apple shares—or nearly $5 million at the current valuation—to an unidentified charity. This is not the first time Cook has given to an anonymous cause. In 2015, Steve Jobs’ successor gave 50,000 shares to an unnamed organization, and in August of last year, he transferred additional shares to an unspecified entity.

Executives of publicly traded companies are not required to disclose the recipients of their donations. So whenever a CEO, especially one of Cook’s stature and prominence, makes an anonymous donation, we can’t help but wonder who is on the receiving end of that largesse.

What the Public Record Shows

Fortunately, Cook hasn’t always been shy about disclosing his grantees, so we can make some educated guesses. In 2014, he donated to the Human Rights Campaign’s Project One America, which seeks to expand LGBTQ rights in the southern United States. Cook has also given (somewhat controversially) to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and recently announced plans to help fight the fires in the Amazon.  

Philanthropists tend to give to issues that hit close to home, especially early in their philanthropic careers, and Cook—who is gay, from Alabama, and went out of his way to hire a former EPA head to develop Apple’s environmental program—is clearly no exception. Thus far, his philanthropic resume consists of LGBTQ rights, an emphasis on the Deep South, and a penchant for environmental issues. Cook was also misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1990s, which, according to Cook, made him “see the world in a different way.” Physical fitness has since played an integral role in his life, and Cook has taken part in numerous cycling events to raise money for MS charities.

But if there’s one personal value Cook has been very public about, it’s been his privacy. Cook is known for his solitude, choosing to work out in an off-campus fitness center, for example, to avoid being recognized. And little is known about his private life. In fact, when he publicly came out as gay, becoming the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to do so, he did so on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, saying, “Where I valued my privacy significantly, I felt that I was valuing it too far above what I could do for other people, so I wanted to tell everyone my truth.”

Joining the Giving Pledge?

Clearly, privacy is an integral part of Cook’s lifestyle, which makes his apparent inconsistency regarding the Giving Pledge less dubious. In 2015, Cook announced his plan to sign the Giving Pledge and commit to donating the majority of his then $800 million fortune during his lifetime. But Cook has yet to be listed on the Giving Pledge’s website, which signals that he hasn’t officially followed through on the pledge—only announced that he was planning on making it. It’s possible he has, in fact, joined the pledge, but asked not to be listed on the website due to privacy concerns. But then why make the announcement in the first place? It’s also possible that Cook simply hasn’t gotten around to joining, though it’s been nearly five years.  

Meanwhile, Apple’s corporate giving has markedly developed under Cook. While Steve Jobs famously had little interest in philanthropy, either his own or Apple’s, Cook has led the company to develop its corporate giving. In 2015, in keeping with Cook’s environmental interest, Apple announced the donation of tens of thousands of acres of forest to the Conservation Fund. And in 2017, we reported on more ambitious giving by Apple executives, thanks in no small part to Cook’s innovative employee matching program. Since then, Apple’s corporate social responsibility has continued to evolve—you can see a list of activities here—but remains far less developed than other tech companies such as Google and Microsoft.

While Cook is clearly more concerned with philanthropic impact than his mentor, Steve Jobs, he’s yet to push Apple to be a true leader here, and in his personal giving, doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about highlighting specific causes, or even naming the organizations that will receive his financial attention. However, one shouldn’t mistake a lack of public giving in the near term with a lack of interest in giving overall. Cook clearly has charity on the brain, and will eventually give away hundreds of millions of dollars. We just don’t know when the truly big gifts will start to flow, or have a full picture of where support is going so far.