When Elena Iliadis searched for “Black Lives Matter” on GoFundMe, the popular online fundraising platform, she didn’t do much research on the first verified foundation that popped up.
Inspired to help the cause, the 19-year-old Georgetown University sophomore and her a capella group, the Phantoms, raised nearly $1,100 for what they thought was the global movement to bring racial justice and defund the police. It wasn’t until she was contacted by BuzzFeed News that the student learned her group had been collecting money for a completely unaffiliated cause.
The Black Lives Matter Foundation, a Santa Clarita, California–based charitable organization that has one paid employee and lists a UPS store as its address, has a very different goal, according to its founder: “bringing the community and police closer together.”
The Phantoms weren’t the only ones to mistakenly support the Black Lives Matter Foundation. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, corporations including Apple, Google, and Microsoft raised $4 million for the soundalike foundation - and almost delivered the money. Hundreds of grassroots fundraisers also directed more money and attention.
“I don't have anything to do with the Black Lives Matter Global Network. I never met them; never spoke to them. I don't know them; I have no relationship with them,” Robert Ray Barnes, the founder of the Black Lives Matter Foundation, told BuzzFeed News in a lengthy interview. “Our whole thing is having unity with the police department.”
While Black Lives Matter has morphed from a 2013 hashtag following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer into an international movement, its early lack of centralized leadership or formal hierarchy left opportunities for copycats like Barnes’ foundation. Based on estimates from BuzzFeed News, donors raised at least $4.35 million for the Black Lives Matter Foundation in the first weeks of June, though the bulk of that was frozen before it could be disbursed. In some cases, companies including GoFundMe were unaware the foundation had no affiliation with the wider movement and froze funds only after being contacted by BuzzFeed News.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Black Lives Matter spokesperson confirmed that the groups are indeed “two completely separate organizations” and that Barnes’ foundation “has nothing to do with us.”
“The Santa Clarita group is improperly using our name,” the spokesperson said. “We intend to call them out and follow up.”
But Barnes, a 67-year-old music producer in LA, defended his organization and its name. “No one owns the concept,” Barnes said, adding that as a Black man, his life had been tainted by painful experiences with the police, including the 2011 death of his wife’s ex-husband allegedly at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Though the social movement entered the national consciousness during the Ferguson demonstrations in August 2014, he claimed Black Lives Matter had actually “stolen” his name and idea, and cast the global movement as an opaque organization that hasn’t been transparent about how it uses donations. Barnes registered his foundation in May 2015.
“It appears there is a lot of scamming going on, but how can it have to do with me?” Barnes asked. “I had plenty of motivation to create the Black Lives Matter Foundation and the people who were doing Black Lives Matter weren’t interested in a foundation. They never created it. Now all of the sudden they’re interested in it.”
Further obscuring the situation is the movement’s official name, “Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc” - which wasn’t registered in the state of Delaware until 2017 - while Barnes owns and operates the Black Lives Matter Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit registered in California. Because the official movement is not a nonprofit - it raises money through a charity arm called Thousand Currents - Barnes’ organization has benefited from the brand confusion as people have conflated the two and donated money to his charity via GoFundMe, PayPal, or employee donation matching platforms.
“They took my name and put this ‘inc’ behind it,” Barnes said. “They took my name. I own that name. I haven’t stolen anything from them. They have stolen from me. They have lied and been able to profit using my name.”
Barnes refused to tell BuzzFeed News how much his foundation has raised to date. He hasn’t done anything with donations thus far, but insisted he intends to use those funds to create his “prototypes” for community and police bonding. As of 2017, the year of its most recent publicly available tax filings, Barnes’ Black Lives Matter Foundation had raised more than $300,000 in donations, a figure that has grown with the actual movement’s rise in notoriety, a national shift in public opinion on systemic racism, and a rush in charitable giving this spring.
Although the names are similar, the organizations have very different stances on police relations. While the Black Lives Matter movement has advocated for the “national defunding of the police” and reinvestment of money into Black community resources, Barnes’ foundation wants to “help bring the police and the community closer together in an effort to save lives.”
“Today, we think most people would agree, that regardless of race, something must done to heal the riffs between some communities and the police, and with your help we at BLMFoundation have the very ideas to do just that,” reads a Black Lives Matter Foundation mission statement posted to Benevity, a charity platform used by Apple, Google, and other companies to encourage employee giving.
In the statement that quotes from both Harry Potter and former president Barack Obama, Barnes presents a vision for “Community Organized Programs” or “COP events” that would bring police officers and members of certain neighborhoods together for an annual buffet dinner and other gatherings. He also describes a program that would distribute bulletins featuring positive news about police for display at local businesses.
“Crime exists now and will forever continue, so we desperately need the services of the police; however, we need the services of good police,” Barnes writes of the foundation. “We need police officers that will respect all life equally and apply deadly force only when absolutely necessary. I know this may sound a little crazy, but what happened to warning shots and shooting unarmed fleeing suspects in the leg?”
Barnes acknowledged to BuzzFeed News that his organization has a very different mission than the Black Lives Matter movement currently changing the country.
“We don’t want to be enemies of the police. We will let the movement do that,” the music producer said. “We want to get to the point where we have programs and that’s where the change will happen. That’s where we come in.”
While his organization has existed for five years, Barnes has yet to launch any of the programs because it’s taken him a while to “outline a real plan of action.” One such idea is “have a cup with a cop” local meetings where residents would chat with police officers over coffee and donuts.
“It can’t be done overnight. The idea is to go slow,” Barnes said of the work, calling his program “a blueprint for how we can work with police.”
Santa Clarita, however, does not have a police department. The city, where the foundation is based, contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that it has never heard of Barnes or his organization. Santa Clarita's city manager was also not aware the foundation existed.
The foundation’s 2017 tax filing - its most recently available -shows that it took in more than $279,000 in contributions and gifts that year, while spending $89,000 on expenses, including $24,000 for Barnes’ salary. Besides a $5,150 cash grant to something called the “Family Renewal Develop Center” in Carson, California, there are no other disbursements or indications the foundation has worked on its stated goal of fostering better community relationships with police. BuzzFeed News was unable to reach the center for comment.
Barnes says he donated to some churches, his family-run veterans foundation, and scholarship funds, but could not provide names or details when pressed further. And while he claimed to be operating his foundation properly, the California attorney general's office issued a cease and desist order to Barnes' organization in December for failing to file annual financial reports.
A spokesperson from the California attorney general's office acknowledged BuzzFeed News' request for comment, but did not provide a statement.
Despite the order, the Black Lives Matter Foundation was still listed on online donation platforms, which have only recently started to untangle the problem presented by its similar name. GoFundMe stopped all active campaigns associated with the foundation earlier this month and froze a collective $350,000, which included more than $1,000 from Georgetown sophomore Iliadis and her a capella group.
“You would assume it's popular for a reason and I didn’t have any reason to assume it wouldn’t be the official one,” Iliadis said. “It feels terrible to know the money might have gone to who knows what and that’s very concerning.”
A GoFundMe spokesperson said the company uses PayPal’s Giving Fund to allow people to select charities and that because the foundation had been included in PayPal's database, it then was allowed on the fundraising platform.
“We'll work with all campaign organizers to make sure the money goes to the right place to support the Black Lives Matter movement,” the GoFundMe spokesperson said. From 2018 to 2019, the platform sent $1,400 in donations to the Black Lives Matter Foundation. GoFundMe said it will refund that money if the donors did not intend for those funds to the Santa Clarita–based organization.
A PayPal spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the Black Lives Matter Foundation had been added to its Giving Fund database because it was an IRS-registered charity. They called the addition “a unique situation” because the Black Lives Matter name hadn’t been trademarked.
PayPal declined to say how much money had been raised for the Black Lives Matter Foundation as a result of its inclusion in the widely used database, but noted that it was working to redirect funds to charities directly associated with the Black Lives Matter movement following questions from BuzzFeed News.
On another fundraising platform, Benevity, some of the world’s largest corporations had pushed their employees to support Barnes’ cause, which racked up seven figures-worth of donations. Via the service, which allows employers to track and match employee donations to charities, companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Dropbox raised $4 million between May 31 and June 5, according to Benevity founder Bryan de Lottinville.
The size of that sum was fueled by companies like Apple and Microsoft which promised to double or triple employee donations to approved racial justice causes. In letters to their employees, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston listed the Black Lives Matter Foundation as a charity approved by their companies, though both linked to the website for the actual movement. Apple’s internal Benevity portal listed the Black Lives Matter Foundation as an organization eligible for the company’s two-to-one match for the month of June.
Employees of those companies tweeted about matching donation programs, some with screenshots of the Benevity platform featuring Barnes’ Black Lives Matter Foundation. Within Google, employees led a donation campaign for the foundation through Benevity, the search and advertising company confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
De Lottinville said that while the Black Lives Matter Foundation had raised millions of dollars from companies on Benevity’s service, it hadn’t yet distributed the funds to the organization. Money is typically pooled together before it’s sent in single payment at the end of the month, he told BuzzFeed News, and some donors had expressed concerns about the Black Lives Matter Foundation to Benevity, leading it to initially add a disclaimer to the organization’s page before “deactivating” it on June 5.
“Part of the problem is that it’s using the exact same name, and it’s a 501(c)(3) and is in good standing with the IRS,” he told BuzzFeed News. He noted the foundation’s description seemed “a little contradictory” with the stated goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Benevity and its partner companies plan to offer Black Lives Matter Foundation donors the option of rerouting the funds to the actual Black Lives Matter movement or other racial justice causes. De Lottinville said that over the past three years, Benevity had collected and sent about $80,000 in donations to the foundation, $5,700 of that from May alone. He did not say if it would be taking any action on funds already disbursed to Barnes’ foundation.
YourCause, an employee donation service used by companies like SiriusXM and Electronic Arts, had featured the Black Lives Matter Foundation on a list of popular causes on its donation portal, according to a recent donor who spoke with BuzzFeed News. A spokesperson for the site said in a statement that it has “a vigorous vetting process to ensure the legitimacy of these nonprofit organizations.” However, the spokesperson declined to say how much the platform had raised for the Black Lives Matter Foundation or how much money it had delivered to the organization in the past. “We are doing our due diligence to ensure that donations for Black Lives Matter are going to the intended cause,” they said.
Smaller donation platforms were also unaware the Black Lives Matter Foundation was not affiliated with the global movement, explaining that the nonprofit was pulled into their sites from larger databases. Josh Kelly, a spokesperson for Bonfire, a site that allows for fundraisers through the sale of apparel, explained that his company pulls in groups from nonprofit information services Charity Navigator and GuideStar and relies on those databases to vet organizations.
Bonfire has since frozen the $14,000 raised by 738 people and slated to go to Barnes’ foundation and will reach out to those fundraisers to ensure the money goes “where it’s supposed to be.”
Pledgeling, another fundraising website, added the Black Lives Matter Foundation to its database in 2017 following the request of a user. That year, the foundation went on to raise $1,000, before the company realized donors might be confusing the organization with the movement.
Cassie Fowler, Pledgeling’s chief impact officer, said that the company attempted to reach the foundation but never heard back. “Given our concern for donor confusion and the lack of response from the nonprofit, we proactively placed a warning label on their nonprofit profile page in 2017 alerting donors that there are multiple organizations with the same name,” she said.
As a result, only three donors appear to have created campaigns for the Black Lives Matter Foundation this year, raising just $42.
Barnes said he sympathizes with Black Lives Matter supporters who unwittingly sent money to his organization thinking they were donating to the global movement. But he says it’s a rare occurrence, arguing that people really do want to support his organization and its programs, which he finally feels ready to bring to fruition.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “I have nothing to hide. I am for real. This is part of my heart. I even wrote a song called ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.’ Maybe I’ll release it now.”