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AP Exclusive: Black Lives Matter opens up about its finances

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FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2021, file photo, Epilogue Kitchen & Cocktails owner Jonathan Jones speaks with customers near an image of George Floyd while serving free meals in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Salem, Ore. A financial snapshot shared exclusively with The Associated Press shows the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation raked in just over $90 million last year. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

NEW YORK – The foundation widely seen as a steward of the Black Lives Matter movement says it took in just over $90 million last year, according to a financial snapshot shared exclusively with The Associated Press.

The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is now building infrastructure to catch up to the speed of its funding and plans to use its endowment to become known for more than protests after Black Americans die at the hands of police or vigilantes.

“We want to uplift Black joy and liberation, not just Black death. We want to see Black communities thriving, not just surviving,” reads an impact report the foundation shared with the AP before releasing it.

This marks the first time in the movement’s nearly eight-year history that BLM leaders have revealed a detailed look at their finances. The foundation’s coffers and influence grew immensely following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man whose last breaths under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer sparked protests across the U.S. and around the world.

That growth also caused longstanding tensions to boil over between some of the movement’s grassroots organizers and national leaders — the former went public last fall with grievances about financial transparency, decision-making and accountability.

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.

In its report, the BLM foundation said individual donations via its main fundraising platform averaged $30.76. More than 10% of the donations were recurring. The report does not state who gave the money in 2020, and leaders declined to name prominent donors.

Last year, the foundation's expenses were approximately $8.4 million — that includes staffing, operating and administrative costs, along with activities such as civic engagement, rapid response and crisis intervention.

One of its focuses for 2021 will be economic justice, particularly as it relates to the ongoing socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on Black communities.

The racial justice movement had a broad impact on philanthropic giving last year. 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.

After the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, BLM’s founders pledged to build a decentralized movement governed by consensus of a members’ collective. In 2015, a network of chapters was formed, as support and donations poured in. But critics say the BLM Global Network Foundation has increasingly moved away from being a Black radical organizing hub and become a mainstream philanthropic and political organization run without democratic input from its earliest grassroots supporters.

BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors told the AP that the foundation is focused on a “need to reinvest into Black communities.”

“One of our biggest goals this year is taking the dollars we were able to raise in 2020 and building out the institution we’ve been trying to build for the last seven and a half years,” she said in an interview.

Cullors, who was already active in her native Los Angeles, where she created her own social justice organization, Power and Dignity Now, became the global foundation’s full-time executive director last year.

Fellow co-founders Alicia Garza, who is the principal at Black Futures Lab, and Opal Tometi, who created a Black new media and advocacy hub called Diaspora Rising, are not involved with the foundation. Garza and Tometi do continue to make appearances as movement co-founders.

In 2020, the foundation spun off its network of chapters as a sister collective called BLM Grassroots. The chapters, along with other Black-led local organizations, became eligible in July for financial resources through a $12 million grant fund. Although there are many groups that use “Black Lives Matter” or “BLM” in their names, less than a dozen are currently considered affiliates of the chapter network.

According to foundation records shared with the AP, 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.

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CHAPTERS CALL FOR MORE TRANSPARENCY

A group of 10 chapters, called the #BLM10, rejected the foundation’s funding offer last year and complained publicly about the lack of donor transparency. Foundation leaders say only a few of the 10 chapters are recognized as network affiliates.

In a letter released Nov. 30, the #BLM10 claimed most chapters have received little to no financial resources from the BLM movement since its launch in 2013. That has had adverse consequences for the scope of their organizing work, local chapter leaders told the AP.

The chapters are simply asking for an equal say in “this thing that our names are attached to, that they are doing in our names,” said April Goggans, organizer of Black Lives Matter DC, which is part of the #BLM10 along with groups in Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, San Diego, Hudson Valley, New York, and elsewhere.

“We are BLM. We built this, each one of us,” she said.

Records show some chapters have received multiple rounds of funding in amounts ranging between $800 and $69,000, going back as far as 2016. The #BLM10 said the amounts given have been far from equitable when compared to how much BLM has raised over the years. But Cullors disagreed.

“Because the BLM movement was larger than life — and it is larger than life — people made very huge assumptions about what our actual finances looked like,” Cullors said. “We were often scraping for money, and this year was the first year where we were resourced in the way we deserved to be.”

Still, the #BLM10 members said reality didn’t match the picture movement founders were projecting around the world. In its early years, BLM disclosed receiving donations from A-list celebrities such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Prince, prior to his death in 2016.

Leaders at the BLM foundation admit that they have not been clear about the movement’s finances and governance over the years. But now the foundation is more open about such matters. It says the fiscal sponsor currently managing its money requires spending be approved by a collective action fund, which is a board made up of representatives from official BLM chapters.

After Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, the surge of donations saw the foundation go from small, scrappy movement to maturing institution. Last summer, leaders sought nonprofit status with the IRS, which was granted in December, allowing the organization to receive tax-deductible donations directly. In the near future, that also will require the foundation to file public 990 forms, revealing details of its organizational structure, employee compensation, programming and expenses.

Brad Smith, president of Candid, an organization that provides information about philanthropic groups, said there are other ways for nonprofits to be transparent with the public besides federal disclosure forms. He said a philanthropic organization’s website is its best tool to show how willing it is to be held accountable.

“In exchange for getting tax exempt status, you as an organization committed to providing a greater level of transparency to confirm you are fulfilling your mission,” he said.

It’s because of Cullors, Garza and Tometi’s vision, along with the work of so many Black organizers in the ecosystem, that the BLM movement finds itself at a new phase of its development, said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of BLM’s first ever chapter in Los Angeles.

“We’re turning a corner, recognizing that we have to build institutions that endure beyond us,” Abdullah told the AP.

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Morrison is a member of AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.