There are growing pains for the newest generation of civil rights activists.
Groups that sprouted up in response to a string of police killings of black Americans — grabbing the nation’s attention with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #BaltimoreUprising and #BlackSpring — are beginning to grapple with the more mundane challenges that come along with success.
One of the chief issues they’re confronting: money.
Donations to many of these groups have come from far and wide including the hip hop moguls Jay Z and Beyonce, who quietly donated tens of thousands of dollars to a bail fund for the Baltimore chapter of #BlackLivesMatter to release protesters from jail.
While activists praised the Carters for their contribution, less star-studded sources of funding have also begun to turn their attention to the cause, including the Ford Foundation and Resource Generation, an organization of wealthy people under 35 who support progressive movements.
Activists say that while they need money to expand both locally and nationally, they are concerned about how much influence donors might have on the movement and its mission to combat and protest racial injustice.
“The nonprofit system is set up for foundations to have an inordinate amount of power and control over what grassroots organizations do,” said Phillip Agnew, the executive director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida based group that was created in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Agnew said the organization has sold T-shirts and accepted online contributions from individual donors and others to raise money so they can continue to expand in the state.
And unlike many of the newer groups that have emerged out of the protest movement, including #BlackLivesMatter and Ferguson Action, the Dream Defenders recently became classified as a tax-exempt nonprofit, a status that allows them to accept donations from organizations like Ford.
The group now has seven full-time staff members including a political director and a chief operating officer and an operating budget of about $500,000. Agnew said the Dream Defenders relationship with Ford was one that he had “full confidence in,” but he also cautioned against relying too much on foundation dollars to survive.
“If any of our partners ever get into a position where they feel like our political stance will jeopardize our relationship, our political stance comes first,” Agnew said.
Hugh Hogan, the executive director of The North Star Fund, a New York-based organization that recently created a grant program called the Let Us Breathe Fund to fund local racial justice groups, said the newer civil rights groups were wary of accepting traditional sources of funding.
Many of the activists are “black folks who are not part of the policy elite or the civil rights elite,” Hogan said. “They don’t want a new elite set of activists created out of this work.”
In May, the group announced its first round of grant recipients: eight organizations that received from $5,000 to $20,000. Many of the recipients, however, were also tax-exempt nonprofits and already had a relationship with North Star, Hogan said.
Newer civil rights groups “don’t know how to play the game, don’t want to play the game or are new to our game,” of how to raise money, Hogan said.
Susan Taylor Batten, the president and chief executive of ABFE (formerly the Association of Black Foundation Executives) said her organization has started to advocate around the country for more funding to support the activists.
“Many organizations on the ground don’t know how to access funds,” Taylor Batten said. And even if activists could access those funds, they would have to be aware that the money “comes with a set of rules typically about how a funder wants to see things on the ground.”
As a result, both foundations and activists are seeking new models of funding that may include asking their members to pay dues and allowing foundations to give money to individuals or groups that haven’t attained have tax-exempt nonprofit status.
Still, individual donations remain the bulk of the money going to these groups. Resource Generation recently called on its members — three quarters whom are white — to donate money for “black-led, black liberation organizing.”
Jessie Spector, the group’s executive director said the organization’s members had given $1.4 million in donations that would be distributed to more than 100 groups including the Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100 and #BlackLivesMatter. Spector said she expected the money would be used for things like rent, convening spaces and transportation needs.
Since many protesters today are young people with moderate incomes, “you can’t just charge your credit card indefinitely for all of the costs that are incurred with this type of protest,” Spector said.
Eric Ward, a program officer for racial justice and minority rights initiatives at the Ford Foundation, said new sources of funding for these new civil rights groups would also have to move beyond foundation dollars to include black fraternities and sororities, black religious institutions and black businesses.
“There are thousands of Fergusons in the United States and it’s beyond the means of social justice foundations to be able to fund them in a way that can sustain these levels of partnerships,” Ward said. “We can’t allow this movement to ossify from lack of resources. We have to ensure that there’s oxygen.”
But sometimes philanthropists are the problem, said Judith Browne Dianis, the co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group that has worked with many of the activists around the country.
“Philanthropy in general has not been very supportive of grassroots organizing, especially black-led grassroots organizing,” Browne Dianis said. “Philanthropy has a risk-analysis that tends to disadvantage these new groups that are coming out of a crisis.”