World’s richest man welcomes ideas on how to spend the fortune

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
Elon Musk Image
Representational Image

Elon Musk is not only the world’s richest person, he has access to the biggest net worth ever recorded – a whopping $208 billion! And the world is eagerly waiting to see what he does with it.

Judging by Twitter, the Tesla co-founder’s preferred medium of communication, philanthropy is on his mind. One of his first reactions on becoming the wealthiest human, after some initial humor, was to ask for advice on how to give it away.

Mr. Musk is new to philanthropy compared with those he just overtook on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index of the world’s 500 wealthiest people.

This is what his predecessors did

Longtime number 1 Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his friend business tycoon Warren Buffett, co-founders of the Giving Pledge initiative that urges the ultra-wealthy to donate at least half their fortunes, have each given away tens of billions in cash and stock.

Even eCommerce giant Amazon’s Chief Jeff Bezos, who has been criticized for being slow to establish himself as a philanthropist, has stepped up his game. He pledged to give $10 billion to issues related to climate change last year and handed out $791 million to 16 environmental groups in November.

Despite signing the Giving Pledge, Musk has done relatively little publicly in the way of charity. He’s donated more than $257 million to the Musk Foundation, equivalent to .001 percent of his current net worth, which in turn distributed $65 million between 2016 and 2018 to about 200 nonprofits.

Had Mr. Gates not donated so much or Mr. Bezos not gotten divorced then their fortunes would be much bigger, possibly greater than Mr. Musk’s.

Saving up for a reason

Yet Mr. Musk has indicated that the reason he’s accumulating wealth is to give it away, or at least redirect it to his passion projects, namely, space exploration. “It’s going to take a lot of resources to build a city on Mars,” he said. “I want to be able to contribute as much as possible.”

“It’s impossible to overstate the potential his fortune could have,” said experts “We’re dealing with a scale which is difficult to fathom.” The surge in Mr. Musk’s wealth means he’ll need to greatly increase the pace of donations to have any shot at fulfilling his pledge to give more than half away, they said. “He needs to be much more aggressive than he’s being now.”

The question from philanthropy experts is how Mr. Musk will go about doing so. The world’s richest people have taken a variety of approaches: Gates has become both a full-time philanthropist and public figure in areas like public health. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has done it by posting each donation to a publicly available spreadsheet.

By turning to Twitter to get suggestions for donations, Mr. Musk is following in the footsteps of Mr. Bezos, who sent out a similar tweet requesting ideas from his followers in 2017.

MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’ ex-wife, has pioneered another model for billionaire giving: approaching hundreds of nonprofits and educational institutions and handing over big cheques with no strings attached. Her gifts in 2020 totaled nearly $6 billion.

Brian Mittendorf, an Ohio State University professor who studies nonprofits, suggested MR. Musk follow Ms. Scott’s lead and restrain his instincts to innovate.

“A trap that many wealthy philanthropists fall into is a desire to reinvent philanthropy on their own, rather than rely on those who already have expertise and experience but simply need the funds in order to expand their impact,” he said.

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