renewable energy research and advocacy, human space exploration research and advocacy, pediatric research, and science and engineering education. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, is the sole funder of the Musk Foundation, with at least $257 million donated to date. He is an altruist whose philanthropy reaches to clean water, disaster relief, and sustainability innovations of all kinds. Grant making for progressive social reform is only one of the many ways that Musk’s philanthropy is a symbol of what government aid programs could do if appropriate resources were to be methodically and intentionally directed.
But he’s not waiting for institutional intervention — like a handful of others, Musk has chosen to give the majority of his fortune to charity rather than to his descendants. Joining Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and others, Musk is a member of The Giving Pledge, the promise some of the mega-wealthy have made to donate the majority of their fortunes to justice goals that are urgent and worth advancing.
Musk’s Business Accomplishments Tied to Altruism
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives … nor the most intelligent that survive. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
— Charles Darwin —
We know from climate scientists that this century must be a time in which temperatures are kept well below 2 degrees Celsius (compared to pre-industrial levels). The Paris climate agreement is aimed at making that happen. More importantly, and luckily, financially beneficial business decisions and sustainable energy initiatives are now highly compatible.
Elon Musk has brought a vision of what such a sustainable future can look like through the various companies he has founded and led, demonstrating perhaps better than anyone the potential to take strong environmental action and make money on it.
In its ideal configuration, a Tesla all-electric car can draw upon SolarCity solar panels or a Tesla solar roof and store energy in a residential Tesla Powerwall. That combination would likely meet an individual’s entire home and transportation energy needs. No, these are not examples of philanthropy, per se. Rather, they are efforts toward the common good, as these Tesla products are helping to accelerate the mass adoption of sustainable energy.
Another Musk company, SpaceX, designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Neuralink is developing ultra-high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers. The company aims to create brain-computer interfaces. (In 2015, Musk donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to run a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial to humanity.) The Boring Company is looking for the most efficient and fastest ways to dig low-cost tunnels that enable rapid transit across densely populated regions.
But, in business and in giving, Musk continually returns to the need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy options such as wind and solar. “We’re playing with fire in coal and oil,” he has said. Indeed, never before in human civilization have the stakes been so high. The future of the planet is at stake, and many solutions will come from incentives offered from billionaires like Elon Musk.
Philanthropy for Social and Environmental Justice
“Philanthropy and social change work are at their best when they are driven by your values and connected to what you care about most.”
— Charles Bronfman —
Foundations, investors, charities, and some public bodies around the world have increasingly financed and supported innovative forms of business tackling clear societal or environmental missions. It appears that Musk is one such person and favors efforts that address social justice and equity within ecological contexts. Successfully addressing such challenges can have a positive impact on other challenges, creating the proverbial domino effect. An example is drawing upon technological advances to provide better education for impoverished children.
As someone who is often included in a top 5 list of philanthropists, Musk has contributed $15 million in donations to an XPRIZE program called Global Learning. This contest challenges teams from around the world to develop open-source, scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic within 15 months. The project recognizes that an estimated 250 million children around the world cannot read, write, or demonstrate basic arithmetic skills.
When the prize was launched in 2014, 700 teams from 55 countries around the world signed up to compete. By 2017, the top 5 concepts were placed in the hands of more than 2,500 children in 141 remote villages in Eastern Tanzania to test each team’s application.
The team that brings their cohort of roughly 500 children to the highest levels of literacy will win the XPRIZE.
Flint, Michigan’s Water Contamination
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr. —
Within philanthropy, there is also important interconnectivity of the 3 major agents of change in our society – government, business, and people.
Four years ago, lead and other toxins were found to be tainting the water supply in Flint, Michigan. The community has struggled since with water contamination problems. In October 2018, Musk and the Musk Foundation donated $480,350 to install new water fountains with filtration systems in all its schools. “The UV water purification method within the water filtration systems will disinfect all lead and bacteria coming from the water pipes to allow students to drink from and fill up water bottles from school water
fountains,” the city of Flint said in a press release.
Flint Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez added, “The new water filtration systems will be instrumental in helping our students return to the normalcy of what should be a fundamental right: having access to safe, clean water from water fountains in their school.”
Musk is also in the process of fulfilling a promise he made earlier in 2018 to fund repairs to any water filtration system in Flint homes that are contaminated above FDA levels.
Puerto Rico Energy Infrastructure
“The results of philanthropy are always beyond calculation.”
— Mary Ritter Beard —
Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, spoke to Elon Musk via Twitter social media in late 2017 about the possibility of Tesla’s intervention to restore energy to the island after devastating Hurricane Maria. Reporter Maria Galluci described the island then as a place where water treatment facilities couldn’t provide drinking water, markets and restaurants couldn’t refrigerate food, banks couldn’t conduct transactions, and people couldn’t communicate with cell phones or the Internet. Street lights and traffic lights stopped working. Schools and hospitals closed their doors.
Musk offered Tesla’s services to help restore power to Puerto Rico. After his initial personal donation of $250,000 came a shipment of hundreds of Powerwall rechargeable battery packs to the island. By the end of October, Musk and Tesla successfully returned the island’s largest children’s hospital to full power through a combination of Powerwall packs and solar power technology. This was possible because the Tesla technology was able to bypass the broken energy grid infrastructure.
The company started work on 6 more battery projects in Puerto Rico to aid key community areas like the Susan Centeno hospital, the Boys and Girls Club of Vieques, the Arcadia water pump station, a sanitary sewer treatment plant, and the Ciudad Dorada elderly community.
Each pack, which links up to existing solar arrays, holds 550 kilowatt-hours of power. In April, Tesla shared that the company shipped more than 1,000 batteries, which are currently providing power in 662 locations.
Do the math on that one to determine how many MWh Tesla has already deployed. Yowza!
The Tesla contributions became part of a larger initiative for Puerto Rico to turn away from reliance on fossil fuels to a green new deal. San Juan’s Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, offered a vision for clean energy self-reliance during a recent Sanders Institute gathering, describing the island’s renewable energy reliance as part of a need “to live, to thrive, not only to survive.”
Politics & Altruism Intersect
“Politics have no relation to morals.”
— Niccolo Machiavelli —
The Musk Foundation has contributed to at least one right-of-center nonprofit, the libertarian-aligned Cato Institute, according to Influence Watch research done through Foundation Search.
The Musk Foundation also funds politically active organizations which support a progressive agenda and include the National Wildlife Federation; Sierra Club Foundation; the grantmaking New Venture Fund; Global Green USA; Energy Foundation; the Clinton Foundation; People for the American Way Foundation; Oxfam America; Oceana; the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation; the Tides Center; and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.”
— Elon Musk —
Lore has it that Greek playwright Aeschylus coined the term “philanthropy” in the 5th century BCE to mean “love of humanity.” It is rare in our society that someone like Elon Musk who wields such influence and power is also such a role model around moral, scientific, and environmental altruism. He donates time, money, experience, ingenuity, skills, and talent to help create a better world.
Many philanthropists are driven by a deep desire to solve social problems and help others. And, yes, the US federal tax code includes incentives for giving in a variety of ways (so far, at least — stay tuned for the April 2019 returns for updates). That provides donors with deductions against income, capital gains, and estate taxes for charitable contributions they’ve made. Certainly, Elon Musk and other billionaires are keenly aware of financial advantages to charitable giving.
Yet, Musk’s self is so tied up with his philanthropy that tax benefits seem to be just one part of a much larger whole. Indeed, through his environmental philanthropism focus, Musk has incorporated values, knowledge, political orientation, and a variety of sociodemographic variables into the equation of US wealth today. He has demonstrated how people across the highest social strata can do the right thing when called upon in ways that produce ethical and productive goals.
At a crucial moment in history in which we need to be engaged in cross-sectoral, honest discourse about the plight of our planet and the responses we must have as a global community, good environmental stewardship can arise, at least in part, from models like Musk’s philanthropy. The successes and failures of philanthropy can impact remote villages or the oil industry, a farmer affected by deforestation threats or a small city whose water has been contaminated by fracking. Musk’s philanthropy deserves our attention and appreciation.