Black lives still matter, but fiscal support is waning

Monetary support for BLM has diminished in the aftermath of 2020′s racial reckoning.

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In the first three months of 2020, The Youth Justice Coalition – an Inglewood-based non profit working with juveniles to challenge the criminal justice system in America – made $355 in individual donations. Over the next three months – from April to June – they received nearly 420 times that amount from donors, for a total of approximately $149,000.

This sudden and dramatic influx of funds was transformative for the organization, provided much-needed funding and allowed them to continue pushing for long-fought victories, such as the establishment of the LA County Youth Development Department. That generosity, however, proved to be short-lived. Now, over a year later, the YJC is struggling to keep these once-benevolent donors engaged with their cause.

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When the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and a host of other Black Americans were splayed across screens and discussed more widely than ever before, well-meaning people everywhere sought to help in any way they could. Support among American voters for Black Lives Matter spiked dramatically after Breonna Taylor’s murder, peaking on June 3, 2020, according to the New York Times. This was less than a month after Floyd’s murder, when protests spread to over 140 cities across the nation.

Taking to heart the plight of Black Americans, people across the nation felt compelled to help in any way they could. For some, to help meant to protest in the streets, for others, support looked like spreading awareness through social media campaigns, disseminating petitions, infographics and Linktrees to various causes and explanatory videos. For others still, aid came by way of their wallets – those who could, donated to nonprofits supporting Black people and movements that summer, most of which received little attention beforehand outside of the communities they assisted.

“We saw an incredible, incredible increase of individual donors last year,” said the Development Coordinator of the Youth Justice Coalition, Justin Marks. “The comparison between this year and last year or last year and the year prior is a big, big difference. There is a large disparity in terms of some of the numbers we’ve gotten.”

The distinction between individual and foundational donorship is an important one, particularly in the context of nonprofit funding. While financial support from foundations is welcomed and needed, a strong individual donor base is indicative of an organization’s power beyond the dollar.

“There’s a couple of benefits in terms of this money going towards Black-led organizations from individual donors as opposed to foundations,” Marks said. “It is a reflection of the strength of our membership. We believe, in this moment, that many people turned to us [because] they saw we had a track record of the work that we had done, and decided to give and support.”

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Megan Hayward, Director of Development at the Social Justice Learning Institute said her nonprofit experienced a similar trend – a boom of new individual donors parallel to the explosion of protests and national attention.

“You know, contemporary police killings are not new,” Hayward said. “But I think with everyone being at home, it just kind of exacerbated it... because now everybody has a lot of time and attention to really, really pay attention to what was going on.”

But that was over a year ago, when people had nothing to do but pay attention while in quarantine.

As the summer of 2020 fades further and further from view, so does the public vigor for Black Lives Matter and other similar causes. After that peak in early June 2020, support of BLM dropped among white and Latinx supporters by over ten percentage points, with white voters supporting BLM even less than they had before Floyd’s murder. Even Black American support for the cause dipped from last year’s peak, though noticeably less so, by 2021.

As a result, the thunderstorm of support for Black movements has become a mere drizzle, leaving grassroots organizers in a similar fiscal situation as before. In our own backyard, the same Los Angeles nonprofits that received an increased volume of donations face the challenge of reconciling with this comparative dry spell.

From July to September of 2020, the YJC received $37, 670 in individual donations, a 75% decrease from the previous quarter. The final three months of the year saw even less financial support, dropping over $25,000 for $12,310 total. Although the amount remains a significant step up from the $355 of quarter one, the sharp decline in contributions is still glaring – and if current trends hold steady, the YJC and similar organizations will find themselves in a situation akin to before to the summer of 2020.

The YJC and similar nonprofits now face the challenge of retaining and accommodating the 2020 wave of donors – a difficult task considering the limited capacity of smaller organizations which had never faced such a large-scale need. The YJC’s donor base had more than doubled itself, increasing from 50 sustainers to 2500. Keeping all of these donors engaged was necessary, however, as the organizational advancements catalyzed by the influx of donations wouldn’t be sustainable without consistent support.

“What we’re asking people is, if you gave last year, to continue to be a recurring donor and a sustaining member of the YJC and [other] Black-led organizations,” Marks said, “and to allow that subscription to justice to continue and for you to be able to continue to vote with your dollar that way.”

To attempt to recapture the fervor of 2020, however, may be difficult according to Dr. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. From her vantage point, there has never been an overlap of circumstances like the ones observed that summer.

“It’s unprecedented because there hasn’t been a movement like this, and there’s a lot of specificity around the last year of and people wanting to figure out how to help without getting into the street,” Dr. Abdullah said. “All of those things are factors and generating the contribution of funds. So I don’t think that there’s anything to really compare it to.”

The dip in donations more than a year later did not surprise Dr. Abdullah. The attention that Floyd’s murder drew while “everyone was on pause” remains specific, she said, and doesn’t apply to all instances of police killings, like those that BLM LA continues to protest to this day.

As if to illustrate this point, Dr. Abdullah’s interview for this article was kept brief as she had to organize for the police killing on the 605 Freeway.

“There is also an ongoing truth that Black people continue to be killed by police,” Dr. Abdullah said. “And so it’s really important that we understand that the work has to continue and the dollars support the work. So it’s disappointing that we’ve seen such immediate and substantial decline in contributions.”

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Disapproval of policing among white respondents to a Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape survey jumped to +10 percentage points while protests were happening in June – however, that reproach was short-lived as law enforcement quickly regained favor with those white respondents, their disapproval declining to -6 points in August.

Media coverage also reflected this all too familiar theme. The number of raw clips covering racism on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News reached 2000 in June, only to drop to below 500 in August. Clips specifically featuring Black Lives Matter followed the same trend.

Even trust in the movement is eroding, as trust in police experiences an inverse growth, according to a March 2021 USA Today/Ipsos poll. About 69% of respondents trust local law enforcement, while just 50% trust the Black Lives Matter movement. Almost a year ago, this dynamic was flipped, with 56% of respondents trusting law enforcement and 60% trusting BLM.

As energy for the defense of Black humanity dissipates, our society appears to be falling back into the same patterns leading up to the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery and countless others.

“They can recognize that making Black lives matter can’t just be something that happens as something is trending, but it needs to be an ongoing commitment,” Dr. Abdullah said. “Unfortunately, I think what we’re seeing is people walking away; the moment is over.”

Yet only some are able to walk away, while Black Americans continue to experience trauma and brutality at the hands of police, killed by officers at double the rate of white Americans despite accounting for just 13% of the total population. The fight doesn’t end for those actively fighting injustice, like Marks, Hayward and Abdullah, nor does it end for everyday Black citizens impacted by this disproportionate violence. Yet the power behind these movements depends on outside support to accomplish their vision. Whether that means donations, protests or just attention, concrete change blooms only out of consistency.