The May 25 killing of George Floyd by a police officer Derek Chauvin—who was subsequently charged with Floyd’s murder—touched off a nationwide wave of protests and riots that have thrust Black Lives Matter back into the forefront of America’s consciousness. But what exactly is Black Lives Matter as an organization?
In the broadest sense, Black Lives Matter refers to a protest movement spawned by recent and repeated instances of black men and women being killed under apparently controversial to outrageous circumstances. It traces its origins to the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman (who was acquitted of Martin’s murder) and to “three radical Black organizers—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.” The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is frequently employed to show opposition to police brutality, as well as in connection to other racially charged issues. Used in this way, it does not imply affiliation with any particular organization.
However, a number of distinct entities operate to one degree or another within the broader Black Lives Matter framework, and they make use of the term or a closely related variant. Two groups in particular—the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and the Movement for Black Lives—appear to be networks of particular coalescence.
Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation
Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is probably the central Black Lives Matter organization. It claims Garza, Cullors, and Tometi as co-founders and operates the BlackLivesMatter.com website. It has been a fiscally sponsored project of Thousand Currents, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, since 2016. Fiscal sponsorship is an arrangement through which an organization that does not have its own IRS tax-exempt status can operate as a “project” of an organization that does. In the case of 501(c)(3) fiscally sponsored projects, this allows for tax-deductible donations.
Things are further complicated by the existence of a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit named “Black Lives Matter Foundation,” based in Santa Clarita, California (EIN: 47-4143254). Recent reported statements from both this organization and BLM Global Network Foundation have emphasized that they are not in any way affiliated. But Thousand Currents (the fiscal sponsor of BLM Global Network Foundation) reported a combined $90,130 in grants to the Santa Clarita–based Black Lives Matter Foundation on its fiscal year 2018 and 2017 tax filings.
Comprehensive financial data for fiscally sponsored projects such as BLM Global Network Foundation are often difficult or impossible to discern because projects do not file their own tax forms with the IRS. In a 2019 audit, Thousand Currents disclosed $3,354,654 in donor-restricted assets for Black Lives Matter. That number was $2,622,017 in 2018.
According to grants reported on their respective tax filings and websites, organizations that have specifically earmarked contributions to Thousand Currents for Black Lives Matter (and thus presumably for BLM Global Network Foundation) include the NoVo Foundation ($1,525,000 from 2015 to 2018), the W.K. Kellogg Foundation ($900,000 from 2016 to 2019), and Borealis Philanthropy ($343,000 from 2016 to 2018). Given current circumstances, funding totals will likely be significantly higher in 2020, as BLM Global Network Foundation recently announced a $6.5 million grassroots organizing fund thanks to “the generosity and support of donors.”
In addition to its own operations, BLM Global Network Foundation serves as the center of a network of 16 affiliated local chapters, such as Black Lives Matter Chicago and Black Lives Matter NYC. In some cases these chapters are themselves fiscally sponsored by other nonprofit organizations. For example, Black Lives Matter Detroit is sponsored by a 501(c)(3) called Allied Media Projects, while Denver-based Black Lives Matter 5280 is sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. Donations made directly to these chapters would be routed through (and reported as contributions to) their respective fiscal sponsors, rather than through Thousand Currents.
The Movement for Black Lives
A second organization that functions as something of a hub for official Black Lives Matter organizing is the Movement for Black Lives. This group also operates under a fiscal sponsorship arrangement as a project of the Alliance for Global Justice, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. On its website homepage, the Movement for Black Lives describes itself as “a collective of more than 50 organizations,” while its donation page says it “is made up of over 150 organizations.” One group listed among the 150 is the “Black Lives Matter Network,” though it is unclear whether this refers to BLM Global Network Foundation.
The Movement for Black Lives and BLM Global Network Foundation do appear to share a common history, and there is some level of organizational overlap between the two. Black Lives Matter Boston, for example, is listed as a chapter of BLM Global Network Foundation, while also explaining on its website that “Black Lives Matter Boston remains committed to being active in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and its broad mission platform.”
The Movement for Black Lives does not disclose its financial statements due to its status as a fiscally sponsored project. The Alliance for Global Justice, though, has reported in its tax filings giving $326,078 to the group from 2016 to 2018. Other organizations that have reported grants to the Movement for Black Lives (through the Alliance for Global Justice) include Borealis Philanthropy and the San Francisco Foundation.
Movements Versus Legal Entities
The upshot of this is that the structure of Black Lives Matter means something different depending on what part of the movement is being referenced. To the person using it on social media or the protestor writing it on a sign, it might simply reflect that individual’s anger at events such as George Floyd’s killing or serve as a way of expressing support for policy changes. But this ambiguity can cause confusion among observers and commentators when decentralized movements are conflated with actual existing legal entities that accept tax-deductible donations.
Consider a recent example: Michael Jordan released a statement saying “Black lives matter” and committing $100 million over 10 years “to organizations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education.” This was sometimes reported as a $100 million contribution to Black Lives Matter. While the context makes clear that Jordan intends to give in conjunction with the broader goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, he did not indicate which entities would be the recipients—and there are many, many out there that could fit his description. The unique way that Black Lives Matter straddles the border between decentralized protest movement and organized nonprofit entity makes this confusion understandable and likely to persist.