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Did Elon Musk Make Good On His $6 Billion World Hunger Promise? Nobody Knows For Sure

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Dr. Katie Spalding

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Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

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Musk has made a massive donation, but nobody knows where it's gone. Image credit: Daniel Oberhaus/Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Remember when Elon Musk got into a Twitter spat with the head of the UN’s World Food Program a few months ago over whether he should donate the equivalent of a couple of bucks (in reality, $6 billion) to help solve world hunger? Ever wondered what happened with that?

Well, it turns out the billionaire might – or might not ­– have paid up. Nobody’s quite sure, actually.

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What is certain is that, according to an SEC filing from November that was made public earlier this week, Musk did indeed donate slightly more than 5 million Tesla shares to an unnamed “charity.” Based on average share prices the days of the transfers, that would amount to a donation of around $5.7 billion, Bloomberg calculated, making Musk the second-biggest donor in America last year after Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates.

That’s curiously close to the $6 billion requested by David Beasley, Executive Director of the WFP, back at the end of October last year. The timing works out as well: the first of the stock transfers occurred on November 19, just days after Musk’s well-publicized back-and-forth with Beasley.

“If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger,” Musk wrote, “I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.”

Big words, and ones he may not have expected Beasley to be able to rise to – but Beasley immediately stepped up to the challenge.

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“WFP’s financial statements and operational documents are all public,” he tweeted in response. “So are our independent evaluation reports, audits & annual global/country performance reports. The last 10 years are all on wfp.org. Feel free to look them up – we’re an open book.”

Beasley suggested Musk meet him "in the field where you can see [the WFP’s] people, processes and yes, technology, at work.” He pointed out the organization’s decades of experience and Nobel Peace Prize, and even offered some rough calculations on where the figures came from.

So, has the billionaire made good on his word? It’s not certain – and experts say it’s downright unlikely.

Firstly, while the SEC filing does confirm the stock was transferred “to charity,” there’s no information on which charity it went to. It seems pretty clear, though, that the donation didn’t go to the WFP – the organization confirmed Tuesday that they had not stumbled into any $6 billion donations lately.

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“Whether WFP receives any of this money is yet to be seen, but I am excited to hear that Elon is engaged,” Beasley said in a statement to Forbes.

No other charity has announced any gifts that fit the description either, and Musk himself has not responded to requests for comment. Which leaves the location of the money a bit of a mystery, really.

There is another possibility though: the stock may have gone into something called a donor-advised fund (DAF). This is sort of like a bank account in a charity – you put your money in, and it sits there sometimes for years until the charity decides to use it. Musk is known to have used DAFs in the past – about one-fifth of his total previous donations came through this type of account.

Alternatively, he may have “donated” the stock to his own personal charity, the Musk Foundation. In 2021, Musk’s donations through the Foundation rocketed, with gifts going towards such noble pursuits as free education, coronavirus research, food banks, and combating climate change (it should be noted, however, that previous recipients have included “a school attended by Musk’s own children, a charity managed by his brother, a protest group fighting gridlock on Musk’s commute to SpaceX, and even an art project at Musk’s favorite festival, Burning Man,” per The Guardian.)

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In either case, there would be one major advantage for Musk: a great big tax break. His stock holdings are “a ticking tax time bomb,” Brian Foley, an executive compensation consultant, told the New York Times back in November. “Offhand I can’t think of any way for him to get around paying the tax.”

Charitable donations, though, are tax-free – so while it's impossible to say yet where those donated Tesla shares ended up, it's likely at least one person will be feeling the benefit of the gift this tax season.

“[Musk’s] tax benefit [from that donation] would be huge,” Bob Lord, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who studies tax policy, told Reuters.

“He'd save between 40 percent and 50 percent of the $5.7 billion in tax, depending on whether he could take the deduction against his California income,” Lord added, “and he'd avoid the gains tax he would have to pay if he sold the stock.”

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