Last November, in the midst of a tumultuous, headline-grabbing series of stock sales, Elon Musk quietly slipped more than 5 million Tesla shares out of his portfolio and donated them—somewhere.
That stock, worth about $5.7 billion, would launch Musk to a spot as the second biggest philanthropist of 2021, behind Bill and Melinda French Gates, according to the Wall Street Journal. But observers have a couple big questions. Namely, where did all that money go? And why all the secrecy?
For now, the money might not be going anywhere, really. There’s a good chance that the stock went to Musk’s foundation, which could hold on to it and make grants later. In the past Musk has made donations through so-called “donor-advised funds” (DAFs)—essentially investment accounts where deposited assets, like stocks, can continue to grow in value with the promise that they’ll eventually go to charity. Donating in such a way would allow Musk to immediately take advantage of tax breaks from charitable giving (Musk’s Tesla stock options have slammed him with a $15 billion tax bill) and figure out who specifically should get the funds later.
The timing of the stock transfer does have people speculating that the assets could be bound for the United Nations. In October, about three weeks before Musk offloaded the Tesla stake, the world’s richest man declared on Twitter that he would sell $6 billion of Tesla stock “right now” if the UN’s World Food Programme would explain how the funds could avert a global hunger crisis. The organization had previously called on the world’s billionaires to pitch in $6 billion “to help 42 million people that are literally going to die if we don’t reach them.” As of yet, the World Food Programme hasn’t received any of the funds, according to Fortune.
There’s been some speculation that Musk may seek to align his charitable giving with the goals of “effective altruism,” a philosophical movement that seeks to put charitable efforts toward causes that will have the greatest net benefit for human and animal life. Igor Kurganov, a former pro poker player who Musk brought on board to help manage his charitable giving, is highly involved in the world of effective altruism, according to Bloomberg. If Musk gave his $5.7 billion in line with the tenets of that movement, it might mean putting the money towards fighting extreme poverty, helping reduce the excessive cruelty of factory farming or planning ahead for threats that could affect generations to come—such as by trying to mitigate future surefire problems (climate change) or speculative ones (runaway AI).
People in the philanthropic world who have worked with Musk in the past point out one possible explanation for his secrecy: Though he’s flashy about new Tesla products and SpaceX rockets, Musk just isn’t the world’s biggest self-promoter when it comes to charity. Marcius Extavour, vice president of climate and energy at XPrize, the nonprofit managing Musk’s $100 million carbon removal prize, says Musk was particularly focused on making the most of how the money could advance the field, rather than trying to look good while doing it. “Some people are really focused on the appearance, or, frankly the communications value,” says Extavour. “His instruction to us about the content of the prize was to make it really good. Just make this mean something.”
There may also be practical considerations involved. It’s not all that unusual for the ultra-rich not to reveal where their donated funds are going, notes Scott Walter, president of Capital Research Center, a Washington-based philanthropy watchdog group. “It opens you up to pleadings from charities,” he says. “Let’s say he gives to a charter school. Every other charter school in America is going to be pounding on his door.”
“You make one donation and then you’re on 15 mailing lists, and most people hate that,” Walter adds. “Well, when you have as many zeros in your donations as [Musk] does, imagine the relative pleading quotient that’s involved.”
Musk’s more recent high profile donations include about $30 million toward school and downtown revitalization in a Texas county near his SpaceX launch facility in South Texas, and $100 million that went toward a prize for projects that would help pull CO2 out of the atmosphere last year. The comically Spartan website of his foundation features little more than a list of charitable goals of supporting renewable energy, space exploration, pediatric health, STEM education and AI that will help humanity. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars from that foundation have also gone toward pet philanthropic projects, like the school that Musk’s children were attending at the time, or a gardening nonprofit headed by Musk’s brother Kimbal, according to a 2019 investigation from the Guardian.
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