Political organization

National Black Lives Matter organization opens its books

From left to right, D’Zhane Parker, Cicley Gay and Shalomyah Bowers.
Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP

On Monday night, the most prominent organization in the modern civil rights movement, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, held a special Zoom meeting. In attendance were the three members of a newly installed council, representatives from groups across America that had received grants from the organization, and other stakeholders. For months, BLMGNF had endured criticism that its finances were opaque and inequitable and that its lack of transparency harmed the racial justice movement; several states have suspended its ability to solicit funds and two have launched official investigations. Now the association was preparing to release the first official report of its finances at midnight. On the call, a recording of which I listened to, board members apologized for not being more transparent earlier and said they hoped the new disclosures cleared the bad air. “And so, despite past efforts, what we also recognize is that there is still work to be done to increase transparency and ensure leadership transitions are clear,” said Shalomyah Bowers, one members of the board of directors. Later he added, “So again people understand what this 990 is and we’re taking out all the misinformation and misinformation.”

Some things are indeed clearer – and others are not. The document BLMGNF filed with the federal government, an IRS Form 990, breaks down financial activity between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. George Floyd had just been murdered in Minneapolis, and donors gave the nonprofit organization nearly $77 million in the fiscal year. It has spent nearly $38 million, including about $26 million in grants for other activist groups, Black Lives Matter chapters, and other social justice causes. As of summer 2021, the organization had $42 million in assets remaining.

The report also reflects how BLMGNF has often operated in ways that confuse nonprofit compliance experts. According to the 990, BLMGNF had few permanent staff for a group of its reach, listing 49,275 volunteers and just two employees. The board had one voting member during the year: Patrisse Cullors, the group’s co-founder who served as chief executive until May 2021. Under Cullors’ leadership, BLMGNF relied heavily on external consultants – and often paid large sums to people in management positions or with family ties. According to the filing, Bowers’ consulting firm was paid more than $2.1 million during the accounting period. Trap Heals LLC, an entertainment, clothing and consulting company started by Damon Turner, the father of Cullors’ child, received nearly $970,000. Cullors Protection LLC, a security company run by his brother, Paul, was paid more than $840,000. All three entities were the highest paid businesses or independent contractors listed on the tax document.

“I feel like they’re trying to work through the transparency and accountability issues they’ve had, but they still have a lot of work to do,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law school professor. the University of Notre Dame. in nonprofit organizations, said after reviewing the document. “There are a lot of dealings with companies that have ties to the former founder and chief executive, and charities are not prohibited from engaging in business with insiders or people connected to insiders. insiders, but naturally these transactions come under greater scrutiny.”

Mayer said two issues concern him most: there is no evidence of a bidding process in place to prevent conflicts of interest from arising, and the board appears too small to adequately oversee an organization with such a large level of assets and a center of such national importance. “I think it’s surprising that they didn’t anticipate the need for this, these kinds of checks and so on, given the amount of money and interest in the movement,” he said. he declared. “They were no doubt aware that they would be subject to potentially scathing criticism if they did not all point I and cross each you.”

Some of the strongest attacks on the BLMGNF have come from within the movement. Ten city chapters banded together to speak out against the organization’s lack of financial transparency in November 2020. Earlier this year, New York The magazine revealed that BLMGNF had secretly purchased a sprawling $6 million property with donor money. “It’s sickening and a betrayal of the movement,” BLM Chicago wrote on Twitter. Few people knew of the property’s existence, and it was barely used for 17 months, although Cullors hosted private parties there and recorded videos for his personal YouTube channel. After asking the organization about the house, BLMGNF said the property was intended to be a space for black creatives to produce content.

“The extent to which the home has been used for the personal benefit of those running the organization raises significant additional legal and tax concerns,” said Jeffrey Tenenbaum, a nonprofit attorney in Washington, D.C., with close three decades of experience. According to 990, Cullors reimbursed the organization $390 for its use of the home. Considering the cost of the property and what would be considered fair market value for its use, Tenenbaum said: “The fact that only $390 was reimbursed to the organization for the use of the house for personal looks pretty obvious at first glance.” He was also bothered that Cullors was the only BLMGNF board member for the fiscal year. Such an arrangement is permitted under the corporate law of Delaware, where the organization is incorporated, he said, but it remains “a big red flag for me from an IRS perspective.”

A nonprofit board is expected to provide impartial oversight, offering advice that is in the best interests of the charity. “Board members are the trustees who guide the organization toward a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical and legal governance and financial management policies,” begins a the description by the National Council of Associations. When BLMGNF announced its new board on April 27, it did little to dispel the idea that the organization is run by a small group of insiders. The three members – Bowers, Cicley Gay and D’Zhane Parker – were listed as staff on a Cullors initiative directed at Reform LA Jails, a California nonprofit. Bowers was treasurer of the local political committee, in addition to being the chief financial officer of another of Cullors’ nonprofit organizations. He is also the Treasurer of the BLM Political Action Committee.

In a call with members of the black media on May 19, Bowers said there were plans to increase the board to nine members and release an independent external audit on a new transparency webpage that the group has set up on its website. “We need to keep our community safe and prosperous,” Gay said during the session, “and we’re going to center transparency as a core value of this work.”

YahNé Ndgo, a former lead BLM Philly organizer who was embroiled in the November 2020 schism between city chapters and the national organization, joined the previous virtual meeting on Monday. Even though her chapter eventually received a grant from the BLMGNF, Ndgo told me she thinks that pales in comparison to the money given to consultants. She is particularly bothered by the revelation that Cullors reimbursed the nonprofit $73,523 for a charter flight, which Cullors says she booked for safety and COVID reasons. Ndgo said she finds it shameful that Cullors has become so enriched by the movement that she can spend so much on air travel, while Ndgo saw an organizer from the Los Angeles chapter of BLM living in a tent the last time she visited the city. “It’s such an extreme and unnecessary expense,” she said.

Several of the activities of the BLMGNF are of great concern to her. “All of these decisions are totally unprincipled,” she said, “and the organizers are supposed to be principled one hundred percent of the time.”