In the tragic and fast-paced year of 2020, with racial justice protests sparked by the murder of black men and women at the hands of police officers, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation raised $90 million, much of it small donations of grassroots supporters. . A recent tax return from the group shows that as of the middle of last year, more than half of that money had been given to smaller organizations or spent on consultants and real estate, leaving the foundation with $42 million in assets.
The foundation’s finances have come under fire from both participants in the Black Lives movement and its opponents. Many local groups that are part of the movement have called for more transparency and a greater role in decision-making, as well as more money for activist-led organizations on the ground. At the same time, opponents of Black Lives Matter have sought to portray the spending by one of the group’s founders as evidence of widespread mismanagement in a way that appears intended to impugn the cause of racial justice and the group.
“No one expected the foundation to grow at this rate and on this scale,” Cicley Gay, chairman of the board of directors, said in a statement Tuesday. “Now, we are taking the time to build an efficient infrastructure to run the largest black, abolitionist, philanthropic organization that has ever existed in the United States.”
Ms Gay was one of three new board members the group announced last month. In an interview Tuesday, Shalomyah Bowers, another new board member, said the picture the documents paint shows an organization redesigning itself for the long term.
“As a new board, we are building policies that did not exist, operational and administrative infrastructure that did not exist. We are making it clear to Black people that we are an institution and that we are here to stay,” Mr. Bowers said. “To do that, we need to show that our financial house is in order.”
During the fiscal year covered by the tax form, the only voting member of the board was Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. While such a structure is legal in Delaware, where the group is incorporated, charity experts say it’s far from best practice, especially for a group with tens of millions of dollars in its coffers.
“Imagine you have the equivalent of a cruise ship with no one in charge, you have a huge organization, lots of money, no structure, no accountability, no staff,” said Ashley Yates, a St. Louis-born activist who was involved. with Black Lives Matter nationally in its early years, but has since criticized a lack of transparency within the group. “Who makes the decision about who writes the checks?”
Ms. Cullors, who stepped down as chief executive in May 2021, said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that within the group, they often referred to the experience of recent years as “building the plane while flying it.” “.
“My only regret with BLM is wishing we could have taken a break for a year or two, to not do any work and focus on infrastructure,” he said in the interview. Much of the external critical attention on the group focused on their participation.
Last month, New York Magazine reported that funds raised by the foundation were used to purchase a home in California for nearly $6 million in cash in October 2020. The tax return shows a property worth $5.9 million, held by a Delaware company. The house was to be used, among other things, as an artists’ retreat, according to the filing, but identifying information “is not being released here due to security concerns and threats to BLMGNF leadership, staff and creators,” it said. the formula.
The tax form stated that Ms. Cullors received no compensation during the tax year, but “served as an unpaid volunteer.” A family member, Paul Cullors, was listed on the tax form as the recipient of a payment for “professional security services” in the amount of $840,993.
According to the tax return, Ms. Cullors also paid the organization back for “charter trips,” saying she “voluntarily repaid after the end of the year.” She also paid the nonprofit organization for the personal use of her real estate, which appeared to relate to a birthday party for her son held at the $6 million home.
“I think they are doing what a lawyer in this situation would advise them to do, which is to be as open as possible and as accurate as possible,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at the university. of Notre Dame that specializes in non-profit organizations. “They are trying to be transparent. They’re trying to right the ship. There is still work to be done.”
The release of the tax return, the Internal Revenue Service Form 990 for the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, was the first time the group had offered an official accounting of its finances. It is also a delayed snapshot. The form covers the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, almost a year ago.
In 2021, the foundation released its own report, not a required federal tax return but a voluntary accounting of its funds, saying it raised $90 million in 2020, with an average donation of $30.64. At the time, the group said it spent $8.4 million in operating expenses and disbursed $21.7 million in grants to some 30 organizations and 11 Black Lives Matter chapters across the country.
On the tax form, the foundation said that for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, it received contributions and grants totaling $76.9 million, with total expenses of $37.7 million. Those expenses included grants of $500,000 each to Black Lives Matter groups in Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit and elsewhere.
Jacob Harold, a nonprofit expert, said he was particularly struck by the number of paid employees listed on the form, which was just two, versus the number of volunteers, which was 49,275. “That ratio pretty much tells the story right there,” Mr. Harold said. Two paid staff members would rarely be enough to run a $90 million organization. “This 990 tells a story of weak government not for profit,” he said.
Justin Hansford, a professor at Howard University School of Law, said the stakes were high because the public couldn’t always tell the difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and a specific organization. “It is extremely important to have transparency and good governance in any organization with this level of world fame,” said Mr. Hansford, who is also executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Center for Civil Rights. “The credibility of the entire movement is at stake based on these elections, for better or worse.”
But he added: “They deserve a little grace here. When protesters suddenly received a large amount of money, they had to learn how to run a large nonprofit on the fly, and that’s a lot to ask.”