During the global anti-racism protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, corporations, celebrities and regular people chose to show support for the cause with donations eventually totalling billions of dollars. What comes next?
There was a lot going on when Imam Makram El-Amin received a message from some out-of-town friends.
His North Minneapolis mosque is home to Al-Maa’uun, a charity that runs food, work and housing programmes in a part of the city with some of the highest rates of disparity in the state.
“Healthcare, wealth gap, education, home ownership. Whatever. You pick it, we got it here. So there’s no shortage of need,” he says.
Al-Maa’uun’s resources were being stretched by economic shocks caused by the global coronavirus pandemic when Minneapolis was rocked by the 25 May killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose death in police custody in that Midwestern city launched global protests.
Even before those two tragedies – Floyd’s death and the pandemic – Mr El-Amin says “we were struggling mightily in this community to just get the support that everyday common residents needed”.
Then the turbulence and civil unrest in Minneapolis after Floyd’s death meant some neighbourhood stores were closed, reducing access to groceries, essential items and medication for the community.
At that time, Mr El-Amin took to Facebook with “just a real time assessment of what was happening and what we were trying to do to combat it”.
Soon, offers of help came from friends who told him there was deep concern across the US regarding Floyd’s death, and on matters of policing, racism and injustice.
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People were ready to help groups that were doing work on the ground in the community, they told him.
They helped the charity quickly craft an online fundraising campaign to take advantage of the moment, though the imam told them: “Let’s start small and if it grows, fantastic.”
“And my goodness. I was not expecting the response that we got.”
The initial $25,000 (£19,650) goal was reached in 24 hours. In another six, they reached $50,000.
The campaign eventually closed at $400,000, an amount Mr El-Amin calls a “game changer”.
“This is what we wanted all the time, this is what we prayed for, you know what I mean?” he says.
“And this moment – as tragic as it is, as hurtful and traumatic as it is – has also blessed us in this moment in terms of being able to help more folks.”
Al-Maa’uun was not alone in receiving the largesse of donors around the world seeking to make a difference in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Since 25 May, roughly $5bn in pledges and commitments were made to racial equity organisations, according to data compiled by Candid, which tracks and analyses global philanthropy.
That accounts for over 50% of the racial equity funding that Candid has identified since 2008.
The funds come from tech firms Google and Microsoft, finance firms like Morgan Stanley, and entertainment giants like Netflix and YouTube, celebrities and philanthropists, and are pledged to various causes like the Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the National Urban League.
While donations have slowed in recent weeks with many big firms having made their commitments, foundation grants are now beginning to flow in, says Candid’s corporate philanthropy manager Andrew Grabois, pointing to a recent $220m commitment by billionaire philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
This week MacKenzie Bezos, former wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, said she had given over $585m in recent months to racial equity causes as part of her broader philanthropic pursuits.
Candid’s accounting does not include small donations from individuals that flooded charities, bail funds and GoFundMe campaigns set up for George Floyd’s family and for the families of other black Americans killed in interactions with police.
Mr Grabois does not believe they would come close to matching the billions in large corporate and celebrity pledges, but they will still be significant.
ActBlue, an online small donations fundraising platform for progressive non-profits and Democrat candidates and committees, confirmed to the BBC that June was its biggest month since its 2004 founding in terms of the volume of donations, and that racial justice charities led the way.
Among the most popular places to donate was community bail funds, which pay to free people held on bail and advocate for criminal justice reforms.
Driven in part by the online endorsement of celebrities like singer Lizzo, performer Janelle Monae and actor Don Cheadle, millions of dollars went to bail out protesters nationwide.
The National Bail Fund Network – an organisation of over 60 community bail funds – has received over $80m in donations since late May, according to its director, Pilar Weiss.
One member, the Minnesota Freedom Fund – a small local fund with an annual budget of about $200,000 – alone raised $35m in two weeks from some 900,000 donors worldwide.
In early June they paused donations and, like a number of smaller nonprofits suddenly flooded with funds, referred potential donors to other charities doing work in the racial justice realm.
Ms Weiss says while the donated dollar amounts are large “the bail amounts are also large”, noting the recent total to bail out protesters in Oklahoma City came to $4m.
It also allows the bail funds to post bail – an amount some people charged with crimes must pay in order to be released while they fight their case – for people with amounts set at higher levels, she says.
Unsurprisingly, the massive influx of donations has not escaped controversy.
Millions were pledged – mostly in apparent error – to a California-based organisation called the Black Lives Matter Foundation, which had no affiliation to the broader Black Lives Matter movement.
New York’s attorney general later ordered the foundation to stop soliciting funds in the state and urged people to do their due diligence before giving.
ActBlue had to debunk false online claims that donations to the charities linked to the Black Lives Matter movement were being funnelled to the Democratic campaigns.
And the Minnesota Freedom Fund faced an online backlash with the hashtag #wheresthemoney trending as people questioned why they had only spent about $200,000 on bail in the two weeks despite raising millions.
The fund released a statement urging donors to remember that “scaling up to put this amount of resources to use with integrity takes time”.
Tyrone Freeman, an assistant professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, cautions that when a non-profit is “suddenly confronted with a massive influx” it’s “important that donors take a breath and have some grace, if you will”.
Donors should remember the social change they wanted to help pursue with their money in “not like an Amazon purchase”, he says.
“Social change is not going to show up on your doorstep. It takes time. Activism is a long-haul proposition. Activism is all about people, the process, keep showing up and moving an agenda forward. It can be slow work.”
For some charities, he compares it to a life-changing lottery win, saying “things will be very different for you tomorrow and you probably want to slow down and capture a sense of how to move forward before you get out there and go crazy with all the money”.
For Al-Maa’uun, their influx has allowed them to hire extra staff, including potential permanent positions, to bolster their affordable housing, mentoring and community organising work and to respond to immediate needs in “a larger way”, says Mr El-Amin.
It has heightened their profile, allowing them to look into building collaborations around bringing medical services and legal aid into the neighbourhood.
They also want to nurture the relationship with their 7,000 new donors, hoping to get them both to share ideas and to help amplify Al-Maa’uun’s message.
“This really gives us an opportunity and space to be able to do that,” says Mr El-Amin. “Ultimately make us much stronger down the road.”
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