Black Lives Matter’s National Organization Opens Its Books. What Do They Reveal?

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

On Monday evening, the most prominent organization in the modern civil-rights movement, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, held a special meeting on Zoom. In attendance were the three members of a newly installed board, representatives of groups from 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 was harming the movement for racial justice; multiple states suspended its ability to solicit funds, and two launched formal investigations. Now the nonprofit was preparing to release the first official accounting of its finances at midnight. On the call, a recording of which I listened to, members of the board apologized for not being more transparent sooner and said they hoped the new disclosures would clear the bad air. “And so, despite past efforts, what we also recognize is that there is still more work to do to increase transparency and ensure transitions in leadership are clear,” said Shalomyah Bowers, one of the board members. Later, he added, “So folks, again, understand what this 990 is and that we are clearing up all of the misinformation and disinformation.”

Some things are indeed clearer — and others are not. The document that 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 nearly $77 million during the fiscal year. It spent nearly $38 million, with about $26 million in grants going to other activist groups, Black Lives Matter chapters, and other social-justice causes. By the summer of 2021, the organization had $42 million remaining in assets.

The report also reflects how BLMGNF has often operated in ways that trouble experts in nonprofit compliance. 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 a single voting member during the fiscal year: Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the group who served as executive director until May 2021. Under Cullors’s leadership, BLMGNF relied heavily on outside consultants — and often paid large sums to individuals in leadership positions or with family connections. According to the filing, Bowers’s 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’s child, received nearly $970,000. Cullors Protection LLC, a security firm run by her brother, Paul, was paid more than $840,000. The three entities were the highest-paid companies or independent contractors disclosed on the tax document.

“My impression is that they’re trying to clean up the transparency and accountability problems they’ve had, but they still have a lot of work to do,” Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School who specializes in nonprofits, said after reviewing the document. “There are lots of transactions with businesses that have ties to the former founder and executive director, and charities aren’t prohibited from engaging in business with insiders or people related to insiders, but naturally those transactions receive more scrutiny.”

Mayer said that two issues concerned him the most: There isn’t evidence of a bidding process in place to prevent the appearance of conflicts of interest, and the board appears too small to adequately oversee an organization with such a large level of assets and a focus of such high national importance. “I think it is surprising they didn’t anticipate the need for this, these sorts of controls and so forth, given the amount of money and the interest that was being shown in the movement,” he said. “They were undoubtedly aware that they would be subject to potentially withering criticism if they didn’t dot every i and cross every t.”

Some of the strongest broadsides against BLMGNF have come from inside 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 Magazine revealed that BLMGNF had secretly bought a sprawling $6 million property with donor money. “This is sickening and a betrayal to 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 threw private parties there and recorded videos for her personal YouTube channel. After I questioned the organization about the house, BLMGNF said the property was intended to be a space for Black creatives to produce content.

“The extent the house was used for the personal benefit of those who run the organization raises significant additional legal and tax concerns,” said Jeffrey Tenenbaum, a nonprofit lawyer in Washington, D.C., with nearly three decades of experience. According to 990, Cullors reimbursed the organization $390 for her use of the house. Considering the cost of the property and what would be considered a fair market value for its use, Tenenbaum said, “That only $390 was paid back to the organization for the use of the house for personal benefits seems fairly egregious on its face.” He was also bothered that Cullors served as BLMGNF’s sole board member for the fiscal year. Such an arrangement is permissible under Delaware corporate law, where the organization is incorporated, he said, but it remains “a big red flag to me from an IRS perspective.”

A nonprofit board is supposed to provide impartial oversight, offering guidance that is in the best interest of the charity. “Board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies,” begins a description by the National Council of Nonprofits. When BLMGNF announced its new board April 27, it did little to dispel the notion that the organization is run by a small group of insiders. All three members — Bowers, Cicley Gay, and D’Zhane Parker — were listed as staff members on an initiative Cullors directed at Reform L.A. Jails, a California nonprofit. Bowers was treasurer for the local political committee, along with being the chief financial officer for another of Cullors’s nonprofits. He’s also the treasurer of the BLM political action committee.

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

Joining the earlier virtual meeting on Monday was YahNé Ndgo, a former core organizer of BLM Philly who was involved in the November 2020 schism between city chapters and the national organization. Even though her chapter ultimately received a grant from BLMGNF, Ndgo told me she feels it pales in comparison to the money paid to consultants. She’s especially bothered by the disclosure that Cullors reimbursed the nonprofit $73,523 for a charter flight, which Cullors says she booked because of security and COVID concerns. Ndgo said she finds it disgraceful that Cullors has been enriched by the movement to such an extent that she could spend so much on a plane ride, while Ndgo saw an organizer in the Los Angeles chapter of BLM living out of a tent the last time she visited the city. “It’s such an extreme and unnecessary expense,” she said.

Many of BLMGNF’s activities give her grave concern. “All of these decisions are completely unprincipled,” she said, “and organizers are supposed to be driven by principle a hundred percent of the time.”

Black Lives Matter’s National Organization Opens Its Books