Here’s the Real Takeaway From Black Lives Matter’s Sketchy Finances

·4 min read
Jesse Grant/Getty for Viacom
Jesse Grant/Getty for Viacom

Following the reveal of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation’s IRS tax documents, it’s now safe to say that there’s something questionable going on at the social justice nonprofit.

According to the group’s Form 990, first reported by Associated Press, BLM is worth nearly $42 million in net assets—after spending more than $37 million of the $90 million it previously had on high-end real estate, familiar consultants, ambitious grants, and more.

One of the more concerning situations revealed by the financial disclosures is the fact that co-founder Patrisse Cullors was the foundation board’s sole voting director, and held no board meetings, before stepping down last year. Under her leadership, Cullors authorized a six-figure payout to be given to her child’s father for various services, paid $1.8 million to companies owned by her relatives, and ensured that her brother, Paul Cullors, was one of the highest-paid employees of BLM.

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This is yet another wave of bad news for Cullors, who has constantly denied financial impropriety, as she has previously tried to quell any growing concerns around her decision-making. These tax documents not only proved that Cullors lied about misusing some of the funds (such as hosting a birthday party for her son and throwing a private Biden inauguration celebration in the multimillion dollar property intended for activists and creators), but that she did so repeatedly.

“I’m a human being that has made mistakes that want to change, want to challenge those mistakes and want to learn from those mistakes,” Cullors told Tramaine Lee of MSNBC’s “Into America” podcast on Monday. “And I think what’s been hard is feeling like there isn’t room and space for that.”

While all of this news is disappointing and alarming, there’s one truth that we should all take in: All politics is local, including the grassroots activism it takes to organize.

For years, much of what Cullors now describes as the “white guilt money” has been geared towards national organizations, like BLM, that say their missions are focused on addressing racial injustice. Cullors once made headlines for saying that hearing the term “990s” was “triggering” to her—but that’s what nonprofit transparency looks like. If the public at large wanted to fund multimillion-dollar villas, top-flight exec travel, and cashed-out gigs for the founder’s relatives, they could have easily donated to the Trump Foundation.

Local Black Lives Matter chapters across the country have for years raised concerns over how the national arm had been leaving them fiscally malnourished. And that this could happen as their co-founders garnered lucrative book deals, speaking engagements, and career opportunities.

For donors of all identities, giving to the national organization felt like an easy way to maximize impact. But I would bet that most donors are probably furious to see their money going towards anything but direct action on the ground.

It’s hard not to imagine how this money could have best been spent if local chapters and other more direct on-the-ground activist groups were given a larger chunk of this money to do the actual work. To now be fully aware that a great deal of the $90 million raised for BLM during the racial uprisings of 2020 didn’t actually go to fuel the continuation of similar activity on the local level—that feels like betrayal. Even worse, it’s hard not to consider such fundraising as anything more than just a big grift.

To those who have been giving money to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, now is the time to stop.

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This is not to say that you shouldn’t give money to Black activism efforts, but to rethink who and where you’re giving it to. While it will require some additional work on your end to find local groups worthy of your financial support, such funds will make a more meaningful impact than whatever trickles down from some giant conglomerate—especially one that can afford to buy mansions, while many neighborhood orgs can barely keep the lights on.

To cite one personal example, I made the informed decision to cease donating to national political LGBTQIA organizations in 2016. The impetus was the Human Rights Coalition—a big national org—dragging its feet on rescinding its endorsement of former Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who had made racist remarks at the time. As a Black queer man, I was furious that the organization had decided to use diverse resources to back a Senate Republican who they hadn’t fully vetted for problematic behavior.

Since then, I’ve found more pride in direct giving funds and donating volunteer hours to local nonprofits that do more intersectional work, such as the William Way LGBT Community Center in my own backyard of Philadelphia.

At a time when resources are scarce and there appear to be more problems than solutions, it’s time for us all to remember the importance of local grassroots efforts that have always empowered the people and politics. If the power is truly to the people, so should the funding—and such funding should never fall onto $6 million mansions and VIP parties, but on the ground where the people are.

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