Elon Musk Asks: How Should I Spend My Fortune?

Earlier this month, Elon Musk donated $5 million to Khan Academy, an educational platform that has helped millions of children with online learning. With a $188.5 billion fortune, Musk just became the richest man in the world. To mark the milestone, the tech entrepreneur and Tesla CEO posed a question: How should he spend his money?  

“Btw, critical feedback is always super appreciated, as well as ways to donate money that really make a difference (way harder than it seems),” he tweeted earlier this month.  

Since its founding in 2002, Musk’s foundation has focused primarily on five grant-making areas: “renewable energy research and advocacy,” “human space exploration research and advocacy,” “pediatric research,” “science and engineering education” and “development of safe artificial intelligence to benefit humanity.” 

Plenty of nonprofits in these fields and others will have advice to offer Musk on how to disperse his fortune. But we’d like to pose a few questions to him. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s recently published donor intent guidebook, Protecting Your Legacy by Joanne Florino and David Bass, has lots of helpful tips for both new and experienced philanthropists looking to guide or redefine their giving, and it offers several questions to consider when defining your mission:

  • What are the ideas, traditions, persons, events, and circumstances that shaped you as a person? How are they reflected in the personal and professional choices you have made in your life? 
  • What experience have you had with charitable giving, and what has given you the most satisfaction? What has disappointed you? 
  • Why are you establishing a philanthropic entity now? What good are you trying to achieve? What problems do you want to address? Are you working to improve society in general, help a specific segment of the population, benefit a certain geographic area, or support a particular institution? 
  • Do you want your faith to be reflected in your philanthropy? If so, how? 
  • Is family involvement in your philanthropy important to you? If so, then carefully spell out who will be involved and what role they will play.  
  • Are there philanthropists whom you admire? On what grounds? 
  • Are there nonprofit leaders you admire? Why? 
  • What are the biggest mistakes you see in philanthropy? How will you avoid repeating them? 
  • What values do you want to form the basis for your philanthropy? What steps can you take to ensure that others understand and honor those values? 
  • Are there ideas, institutions, and places that you will not support?  

However Musk choses to spend his billions, we hope that he will begin by carefully considering his own values and mission, not fixating merely on what’s fashionable in philanthropy today. We know that private charity is a nimble, entrepreneurial source of funding for all sorts of causes, one that 47% of Americans would choose over the government to solve social ills. Last year, charitable giving soared despite the coronavirus pandemic, as millions of Americans chose to use their resources to support causes close to their hearts.

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