On October 31, Elon Musk got into a bit of a social media tiff with the U.N. World Food Program. These kind of public barbs are not new to the Tesla and SpaceX founder; he's long been vocal on social media, to the point of stirring up antipathy among loyal followers.

But the October Twitter parry was particularly egregious in my view, as it contrasted two lopsided, problems: world hunger and Elon Musk's ego.

In a nutshell, Musk responded to a CNN article about food depravation, headlined: "2% of Elon Musk's wealth could solve world hunger, says director of the UN food scarcity organization," with an edgy: "If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it."

Seems reasonable on some level -- demanding transparency from an organization that put Musk in the hot seat.

But here's why Musk response was a misstep:

  • The director's example of Elon Musk's wealth compared with the resources needed to solve world hunger was just that: an example. He could have used any billionaire's name and wealth, but the point was to show the gap between haves and have-nots. In short: This wasn't about Musk. It was about getting both governments and the public to recognize the systemic economic problems in play.
  • Philanthropy should be about problem-solving, not self-aggrandizement or personal defense. Even though the CNN article used Musk as an example, if Musk were truly solutions-oriented, he would have approached the director privately to discuss how he might contribute. Confronting publicly was just show.
  • Musk set a bad example for those who are climbing up the wealth ladder and need models of good philanthropic behavior. Ben Soskis, a research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, called this out plainly: "After insisting on right to give privately, Musk is developing a public philanthropic persona unlike any we've seen from a mega-donor: it lacks coherent framing principle (other than interplanetary ambition) & seems focused as much on trolling as winning praise, defining mission."

To reiterate: Yes, nonprofits and organizations should be transparent about spending and budgets. But if Musk had absorbed the first two paragraphs of the CNN article he referenced in his tweet, he would have understood that the point extends beyond himself -- to a world in need.