Money and the Movement in the Case of Black Lives Matter

Ideas and Issues

BLM, black lives matter, social justice, nonprofit organization, funding for nonprofit organization

March 26, 2021


Little Rock      The Associated Press it what it described as an “exclusive,” reported recently on information it had received from the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the chief recipient of massive levels of donations, large and small, following the protests in 2020 over the George Floyd killing by police. In what the AP called a “snapshot,” the BLM foundation said it had received over $90 million in 2020. In its spending,

The foundation said it committed $21.7 million in grant funding to official and unofficial BLM chapters, as well as 30 Black-led local organizations. It ended 2020 with a balance of more than $60 million, after spending nearly a quarter of its assets on the grant funds and other charitable giving.

The numbers are huge and reflect the outpouring of anger that triggered millions to open their pocketbooks. The foundation said the average donation was over $30, but only 10% were recurring, which must be concerning to its leadership. The foundation would not reveal the identity of large donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or foundations, though in the case of foundations, eventually this will be reported elsewhere, if anyone has the time or energy to look. It’s also important to realize that in this rare tsunami of support for social change and racial justice, the amounts going to the BLM foundation are the tip of the spear, since many millions also went to racial justice groups in Minneapolis and a number of BLM chapters along with other groups committed to advancing social justice. The wake of the waves was large…

According to an upcoming report by Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, 35% of the $20.2 billion in U.S. funding dollars from corporations, foundations, public charities and high-net-worth individuals to address COVID-19 was explicitly designated for communities of color.

With this bounty of resources, what could go wrong? Mixing money and movement can make the answer, “quite a lot!” The Black Lives Movement doesn’t seem immune to these issues, even though they had built a lot of experience in the almost eight years since they erupted onto the scene after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Only one of the three founders is active in the foundation, and the foundation claims its focus is on economic development in Black communities. Certainly, that’s a laudable objective in some ways, but critics make the point that the resources came as the result of organizing and action. They certainly made the case since these funds could have been unrestricted and used for direct action organizing, as I can attest, struggles in resource desert. The foundation seems more focused on building itself, in its director’s words, “as an institution,” than developing the movement.

In fact, in 2020, it split off the base building and support activity to a separate organization called BLM Grassroots for the dozen “official” chapters who were then offered access to a $12 million pot from the foundation. There’s trouble in paradise for sure in that the AP reports that,

… several chapters, including in the cities of Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago, were notified last year of their eligibility to receive $500,000 each in funding under a multiyear agreement. Only one BLM group in Denver has signed the agreement and received its funds in September.

This is a mess obviously. The BLM foundation received its own IRS tax exemption late in 2020, but is now currently operating under the San Francisco-based Tides family of philanthropic organizations, where I was a board member for over thirty years. Though there is little to no transparency, Tides seems to have insisted that “spending be approved by a collective action fund, which is a board made up of representatives from official BLM chapters.”

As exciting as untold resources at this level would have been for building widespread social change, it’s hard not to feel some disappointment that once again money seems more likely to divide a movement than actually build one, and the vision of peoples’ power can somehow be sidetracked by a concern for some distant legacy. The story is still being told, so there’s hope for a happy ending, even though history so often shows dreams like these are broken, rather than realized, when money becomes less of an instrument and more of an objective.