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Racial justice groups have never had so much cash. It’s actually hard to spend it.

The backlash against the Minnesota Freedom Fund, explained.

Demonstrators marching to defund the Minneapolis Police Department dance on University Avenue on June 6, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Protesters march in Minneapolis to commemorate the life of George Floyd.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, Americans eager to support protests against police brutality have flooded racial justice groups with donations. The groups are, of course, grateful. But they’re also not used to receiving so many millions of dollars at once. Some are struggling to figure out how to handle the unprecedented influx of cash.

And now they’re facing another problem: angry donors.

Much of the backlash is aimed at the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF). The charitable organization, which pays bail and bonds for people who can’t afford them, has received more than $30 million since Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, igniting protests in the city that soon spread worldwide. That’s 300 times the organization’s annual budget — a truly staggering increase.

MFF proved popular as people sought out organizations that would bail out protesters who’d been arrested. But some donors have learned that so far, only a tiny fraction of that money — $200,000 — has been used to bail out protesters, and they’re not happy about it (even though MFF has already bailed out all of the jailed protesters in the Twin Cities).

Some of the money, donors have discovered, is going to causes they didn’t intend to fund: MFF says it’ll spend some of it paying long-term legal costs for people who were caught and released during the protests, bailing out people in jail for things other than protesting, and paying bonds to free immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Feeling scammed, some of these donors took to social media this week to accuse MFF of “stealing” and “hoarding,” and to demand transparency, saying, “Show us the receipts.”

Other groups that received a deluge of donations in a short period of time, like the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis, have been transformed overnight from shoestring operations into well-funded organizations. They’re facing similar questions now, too.

The trust issues aren’t helped by the fact that certain people really have taken money that wasn’t meant for them. A Venmo account claiming to be affiliated with MFF, for instance, turned out to be a fake. Separately, people donated millions to the Black Lives Matter Foundation, only to find out later that it’s not at all the same as the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the insinuations against local nonprofits like MFF are off the mark. There are legitimate reasons why a small group that had no national profile a month ago can’t spend millions of dollars right away. Besides, as early as May 29, MFF was already telling people to donate elsewhere, as it already had more than enough.

“To demand that groups immediately solve problems that were systematically constructed over so many years is unreasonable and does not advance the cause of liberation,” said Chloe Cockburn, a program officer who directs criminal justice reform grantmaking at Open Philanthropy. “It’s often not possible for a small group with minimal staff to immediately deploy millions of dollars. That does not mean that people were wrong to give the money, or that they should stop giving.”

It is, however, an opportunity for us all to learn more about how our donations are spent and how to be strategic when we donate. Using this moment as an object lesson in effective giving can help guide our future decisions — and prevent future misperceptions about where the money we give goes.

Why small racial justice groups can’t spend all our donations right away

The first thing we need to consider is the capacity of these groups. Let’s use MFF as our example, since it’s received the most attention.

This tiny group has only one full-time and two part-time staff members, plus seven volunteer board members. Before the recent flood of donations, it didn’t even have a single full-time paid staffer. It’s now working to rapidly increase its capacity by hiring for a bunch of positions, including an executive director, but finding the right people to fill those positions will take time.

Second, nothing in MFF’s four-year history could have prepared it for the sudden flood of donations it has received. “This is definitely the first and maybe the last time we’ll see this much money,” said Octavia Smith, president of the MFF board. “It’s a crazy time right now.”

Smith pointed out that while people are upset the group has spent only $200,000 in the past two weeks, that’s double what the group normally has to spend in an entire year. (Before all this, it operated with an annual income of $110,000.) What seems like a paltry amount from the outside actually represents a rapid scaling-up of activity from the group’s point of view.

Perhaps most importantly, MFF has already bailed out everyone who was jailed because of the protests in the Twin Cities. More than 400 people were arrested there, but only about 40 were actually jailed, so it didn’t take millions to bail them out.

Even if MFF hadn’t run out of people to bail out, it’s just not possible to responsibly spend tens of millions of dollars on bail in two weeks. The cash bail system requires people to pore over paperwork to find those being held, then walk the cash over to the relevant jail, making sure they have the exact right amount of money on hand, down to the penny. This can create safety issues for a group like MFF, which has experienced doxxing. The group has to ensure staffers won’t be targeted with many thousands of dollars on their person at once.

“If we could wave a magical wand and release $35 million into the ecosystem to bail folks out today, we would,” Smith said.

Again, it’s important to note that MFF actually begged people to donate elsewhere once it realized it had more money than it needed. By May 29, the MFF Facebook page was directing people to other charities; by May 30, its website was doing the same. This is also true of other Minnesota-based groups that received a glut of donations, from the Black Visions Collective to Reclaim the Block to Northstar Health Collective.

Such groups can’t necessarily redirect funds they receive to other groups, either. On Twitter, many have called for MFF to give some of the surplus money to black people without homes or to black-owned businesses.

But MFF can’t legally do that. It is bound by bylaws and articles of incorporation, which specify that MFF’s mission is to pay criminal bail and immigration bonds. Smith said that because MFF “blew up overnight,” she fully expects it to be audited by the IRS, making it that much more important to stick to the letter of the law. (That said, the MFF is actually working with lawyers right now to figure out what’s permissible and what isn’t in terms of re-granting, Smith noted.)

She added that while some donors are upset because they wanted their money to go only to black people and didn’t realize it could be used to free immigrants in ICE detention, that goal has always been squarely within MFF’s mission and clearly articulated on its website. (Smith also pointed out that many of those in ICE detention in Minnesota are African immigrants.) So she thinks the complaint is misguided, though she also said the anger among these black donors is coming from a valid place.

“They’ve often seen funds for their cause, for their pain, being exploited. There’s a very real history of organizations exploiting the money that’s supposed to be used to help people on the ground for different purposes,” Smith explained. That said, she doesn’t want black and brown and indigenous people to see their struggles as separate and zero-sum.

“I try really hard not to get enmeshed in that Oppression Olympics narrative,” she said. “That internal fighting moves away from the fact that these systems were built to keep us at arm’s length ... to keep us pissed at each other for what we have and don’t have.”

“Room for more funding” and other factors to consider when donating

During a national crisis, so many people feel moved to give, and that’s great. But it’s best if we don’t all heap money on the same charity. After a certain point, a nonprofit runs out of “room for more funding,” meaning it has enough money to fund all of the work it’s good at doing, so more donations may not be used effectively.

That’s generally a useful factor to consider when making donations. So is geography: If everyone is donating to charities devoted to serving one place (say, Minneapolis), it can sometimes make sense to donate to the same cause in other places, where our dollars may make more of a difference. In other words, look out for more neglected charities in more neglected cities.

It’s also worthwhile to think hard about which causes are being neglected. If bail funds suddenly become hot, do more research into adjacent or underlying issues. Donating to a group that advocates for ending the cash bail system altogether (as MFF does) might actually become a more appealing option. That’s a broader, more systemic change than bailing out a few dozen protesters right now, but it may well do more good in the long term.

Another useful question to ask is whether an organization is set up to re-grant dollars to other groups or to chapters in other regions, should it have a surplus. The Black Lives Matter Organizing Fund has received millions of dollars since Floyd’s killing (it declined to specify exactly how many millions, and didn’t respond to Vox’s request for comment). Last week, it announced it would give $6.5 million of that money to various chapters, which can each apply for funding of up to $500,000 in multiyear grants.

All that said, Smith doesn’t think the problem is that MFF has been overfunded. “I think the money can for sure be used to go to our mission, which is mass liberation for people experiencing mass incarceration,” she said. “That has farther-reaching implications than just the jail cell.”

Cockburn agreed: “The money that’s pouring in now should be understood as filling gaps that have long existed, and that will continue to exist after this surge of attention has passed,” she said. “It can and should be used over time to build the capacity of groups to fight for major victories over the next five to 10 years, which would require bringing on more staff, doing strategic planning, paying for training and communications support, and deploying more expensive tactics (like a bus tour), among other things. If people can be a bit patient and allow this wave of money to settle and be put to work, we will start to see the fruits of that investment growing over the coming few years.”

Cockburn also said she does not think that work in Minneapolis has been overfunded. At the same time, there are also major needs in communities across the country, from Los Angeles to Louisville. People looking to donate can consult her list of recommended charities; if making picks outside this list, Cockburn generally advises staying local and focusing on organizing, particularly by young people of color.

Although it’s ideal to find out if a group has room for more funding before you donate, that can be hard to figure out, and it’s not always practical.

“I think there is a middle ground, where donors can pick places that have been less on the national radar and give to local organizing groups there,” Cockburn said. “They probably won’t know for sure if the groups are doing great work or have room for funding, and that is okay. High-impact giving in the policy advocacy space often requires making decisions without perfect information, and taking risks that some gifts will fail to achieve their desired purpose, if the potential upside is large enough.”

Open Philanthropy, where Cockburn works, calls this “hits-based giving.” The organization notes that some of the greatest victories in philanthropic history were long-term, long-shot initiatives that were not guaranteed to succeed — but did.

“Just because victory is not achieved overnight does not mean an organization has failed or that donations were made in vain. It takes time to build power and momentum,” Cockburn said.

MFF plans to apply this long-game thinking to its work going forward. It’ll use its $30 million to push for systemic change, including abolishing money bail and overhauling immigration detention. That was always its mission, stated on its website for all to see. The complaint among some donors that this mission isn’t what they signed up for highlights, more than anything, the importance of doing due diligence before donating and adopting a rigorous approach to giving.

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