In July of 2013, the seeds of the most powerful protest movement of the modern era were planted.
In a restless climate of nationwide demonstrations touched off by the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an activist named Alicia Garza uttered the phrase “Black lives matter.” A few months later, in October 2013, Garza took a job with an organization called the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the nonprofit immediately saw a dramatic increase in its funding from organizations tied to some of the wealthiest people in the world—people with names like Buffett, Soros, and Rockefeller.
This spring, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the movement became a global interest: Some 1.1 million individual donations worth an estimated $33 million flowed into its coffers. Large corporations, especially in Silicon Valley and retail, have been quick to follow suit, with brands like Square, Ubisoft, Google, Spanx, Tom’s Shoes, Lululemon, Nike, and Anastasia Beauty all making six- and seven-figure organizational pledges.
The received wisdom, echoing the official mythology around Black Lives Matter Global Network Inc.—co-founded by Garza along with fellow activists Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors—is that BLM is a grassroots movement that rose up organically out of the widespread rage sparked by viral videos of Black American men killed by police officers. According to this account, the political priorities of activists in Brooklyn screaming at cops and calling to defund the police have been fused with those of suburban moms in Peloton T-shirts, hand-painting signs with their kids using the BLM hashtags of large multinational conglomerates—an unusual union of protesters and the corporate boardroom spurred on by nothing more than everyone’s shared outrage over racism.
There is, however, another version of events, in which the heartfelt dedication to racial justice is only the forward-facing side of a more complicated movement. Behind the street level activism and emotional outpouring is a calculated machinery built by establishment money and power that has seized on racial politics, in which some of the biggest capitalists in the world are financially backing a group of self-described “trained Marxists”—a label that Cullors enthusiastically applies to herself and the group’s other co-founders.
These bedfellows, whose stories and fortunes are never publicly presented as related, are in reality intertwined under the umbrella of a fiscal sponsor named the International Development Exchange. A modestly endowed West Coast nonprofit with origins in the Peace Corps—which for decades supported local farmers, shepherds, and agricultural workers across the Global South—IDEX has, in the past six years, been transformed into two distinct new things: the infrastructure back end to the Black Lives Matter organization in the United States and also, at the very same time, an investment fund vehicle driven by recruited MBAs and finance experts seeking to leverage decades of on-the-ground grantee relationships for novel forms of potentially problematic lending instruments . And it did so with help from the family of one of the most famous American billionaires in history—the Oracle of Omaha himself.
In a small village in Northern Thailand in 1965, a young American Peace Corps volunteer named Paul Strasburg took up the plight of locals who could not afford to build a new school. Strasburg wanted to help, but he was short on cash. Calls back to friends on Long Island led to a one-off fundraising effort, which resulted in a few thousand dollars in donations to cover building materials. Twenty years later, the legacy of that effort to channel Western money into repairing one small corner of Thailand, led Strasburg in 1985 to found a nonprofit, the International Development Exchange (IDEX).
For the next several decades, IDEX’s small team in the California Bay Area connected donors in wealthy nations to fund small projects throughout the developing world. In the beginning, the sums involved were modest, in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars range. Over time, microfinancing across the Global South became a fashionable philanthropic endeavor. By the early 2000s, even as IDEX maintained a low profile, they grew a diverse grant portfolio stretching across Asia, South Africa, and Latin America.
IDEX existed to play a middleman role, identifying and vetting underfunded projects for philanthropists and financial backers who don’t have the time to personally investigate every new well-digging project a continent away. But as the nonprofit’s network grew, and the group came to exert some degree of financial leverage over the core labor pool, textile manufacturing, and agricultural production of some 750 community groups across 37 countries, the middleman started to look like the manager of an investment portfolio. The philanthropy’s array of initiatives in livestock production, land rights, water ways, rice mills, seed banks, and other essential life functions touched the lives of many millions of people in regions of the world that are often poor in terms of per capita income and functioning legal structures but rich in precious metals and other natural resources.
In the same way that a growing religious group tends to naturally become a large real estate holder, IDEX’s constellation of contacts and infrastructure became a valuable asset—potentially offering on-the-ground access to valuable commodities while flying under the radar of multinational competitors and government agencies.
Indeed, in 2013, after decades attending to the patient, detailed work of making grants to farmers in Guatemala, IDEX underwent a sudden transformation—just as the Black Lives Matter movement was beginning in earnest. For the decade prior, according to their financial disclosures, donor revenue to IDEX, which changed its name to Thousand Currents in 2016, remained in the modest six figures, often around $500,000 to $600,000 annually. But in 2013, IDEX received an unprecedented $450,000 in grant funding from a single source—raising from one donation about 73% of what the organization had taken in the year prior. That donor was NoVo, a social justice foundation formed in 2006 by Peter Buffett—the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett—and Peter’s wife, Jennifer.
Thousand Currents did not respond to requests to address the relationship between their nonprofit administration and the business interests of their donors. But a worldly observer might notice synergies between IDEX’s entrenched footprint across Latin America and Warren Buffett’s interest in Liberty Latin America, the telecom operator that was rapidly expanding its services to hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged households across Chile, Panama, and the rest of the region that are poorly served by the existing telecommunications infrastructure. Buffett’s interest in Liberty is a sizable portion of the portfolio in Latin America held by Berkshire Hathaway, the Warren Buffett holding company whose shares are converted and gifted each year to his three children as unrestricted gifts to their respective foundations.
As a nascent political project, the three co-founders of BLM—Garza, Tometi, and Cullors—grew it from its origins in the summer of 2013 as a social media campaign into a national network with more than 30 chapters in cities and regions across the United States. Garza in particular became an increasingly visible presence who helped shape BLM into a powerful entity. In her role as the organization’s most visible steward, she was guarded about the outside shaping forces that influenced BLMs formation and flexible in how it could exert its growing influence.
Describing it in 2014 as “an ideological and political intervention,” Garza didn’t want BLM to succumb “to the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities.” Rather, as she wrote then, her co-founders were in the process of building a coalition centered on any identity which could ostensibly foreground a connection to Black lives, including: “Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” Those who might seek to support “disabled folks” and “folks with records” without concern of their skin color ran afoul of the movement’s aim by, “perpetuat[ing] a level of White supremacist domination by reproducing a tired trope that we are all the same,” Garza wrote.
At the same time NoVo was making its first large donations to IDEX, the philanthropy also made another, even larger donation of $750,000 to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where in October of 2013, Garza was hired as special projects director. NoVo, with Peter and Jennifer Buffett behind it, deepened its relations to the new racial justice movement, donating $300,000 in 2014 to IDEX—the group that would soon become BLM’s financial sponsor—plus another $750,000 to NDWA, where Garza worked. Garza did not respond to Tablet’s requests for comment on this article.
In 2015, the connection between the Buffett’s giving to the two organizations became explicit. In that year, NoVo gifted $3.72 million to IDEX, a sum greater than the organization’s past three years of total revenue combined. Of that funding, $700,000 was specifically earmarked for the support of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM co-founder Garza likewise saw her employer, NDWA, get a significant bump in revenue from NoVo, with an exponentially increased $4.5 million in unrestricted funding.
Along with their new patron in NoVo, in 2015 IDEX made an addition to their board of directors—a woman named Susan Rosenberg. The child of a Manhattan dentist, Rosenberg grew up in comfort—one might now say “with privilege”—on the Upper West Side in the 1960s. She attended Walden day school and then Barnard, and emerged in the early ’70s as a fervent activist disillusioned by American imperialism and the Vietnam War in particular. Rosenberg joined the Weather Underground, where she took up with a cohort of other young, affluent, highly educated white women to found a group called May 19th, which by 1979 was working alongside the Black Liberation Army. The three groups carried out a series of bombings, shootings, and robberies in which dozens of innocent people were killed and maimed.
This was an exciting moment for Rosenberg. Writing years later in her memoir, she said: “I believed that there was no other more appealing avenue in life than to be an activist, a revolutionary who worked for justice ... I wanted to be loved, to be rewarded, to be an outlaw, and to reject conformity.”
In their aid to the Black liberation movement, the M19 women called themselves “the white edge,” meaning that they were able to buy supplies and drive cars on missions while avoiding questions from law enforcement tracking the liberation’s predominantly Black male membership. For their part, the men called the girls “crackers.” Rosenberg’s role in the Black rights movement satisfied her desire to push back against an American government that she saw as inherently violent and racist. “It was necessary to oppose it with force. I felt that we lived in a country that loved violence and that we had to meet it on its own terms,” she wrote.
Over the next several years, “the white edge” of the Black liberation movement helped spring key liberation leaders from jail, including a bomb maker held in New York’s Bellevue hospital. They also worked a series of bank robberies, the most high-profile of which was the infamous botched Brinks armored car robbery on Oct. 20, 1981, in Nanuet, New York, in which six BLA members and four members of the Weather Underground stole $1.6 million from a Brinks truck, killing Brinks guard Peter Paige and wounding two other men in the truck. In the course of their attempted getaway, the robbers shot and killed two Nyack police officers, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, and seriously wounded a police detective named Artie Keenan.
Indicted by the FBI for driving the getaway vehicle, Rosenberg fled the scene and went underground until her arrest in 1984 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, when she and a partner attempted to transfer 740 pounds of dynamite, a dozen guns, and hundreds of fake IDs from a rental truck to a storage facility.
Though the indictment for the Brinks robbery was still on the books, those charges would be dropped by then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, who instead pursued the more recent weapons and explosives charges. Rosenberg was convicted of those charges and sentenced to 58 years in prison for domestic terrorism. That term would ultimately be cut short in January of 2001 by more than two-thirds when, on the last day of his presidency, Bill Clinton granted Rosenberg executive clemency.
In her memoir, Rosenberg argued that she wasn’t truly a terrorist, only someone who “pursued a path that seemed to me a logical step beyond legal protest: The use of political violence,” she wrote. “The point was not to kill or maim innocent people, nor was it to create fear and terror ... I believed that legal protest alone could not always confront power.”
Rosenberg was installed on the board of directors of IDEX in the second half of 2015. Her first full year of service saw the initial public announcement of the formal collaboration between the Black Lives Matter movement and IDEX. While continuing their charity work in the Global South, IDEX would also take on “the legacies of colonialism” in the United States. Rajasvini Bhansali, IDEX’s executive director, said that together with BLM the way “forward will have to be rooted in the most transformative vision possible for a world that is not race blind, nor race-neutral.” Keeping up the legacy of the Weather Underground, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors told an interviewer in 2015, “Myself and Alicia [Garza], in particular, are trained organizers; we are trained Marxists.” Some of that training likely came from Eric Mann, another former member of the Weather Underground who Cullors has called her “mentor.” (A representative of Cullors’ declined to comment for this article; Thousand Currents did not respond to a request for comment on Rosenberg’s behalf.)
To that end, IDEX—now Thousand Currents—became BLM’s official fiscal sponsor—an IRS designation wherein a government-sanctioned nonprofit can accept and manage tax-deductible donations on behalf of another organization that has not attained nonprofit status. In addition to managing BLM’s finances, Thousand Currents took over the movement’s “administrative and back office support, including finance, accounting, grants management, insurance, human resources, legal and compliance,” according to a Thousand Currents statement.
That year, NoVo donated another $3.08 million to Thousand Currents and another $4.9 million to NDWA. In keeping with its history of providing direct financial support to organizations that employed the leaders of the movement, NoVo also gave a $300,000 grant to Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which was then helmed by BLM co-founder Opal Tometi. Tometi did not respond to Tablet’s requests to comment for this article.
Any question about how seriously NoVo was invested in setting up Thousand Currents as the financial and administrative power behind Black Lives Matter was put to rest in 2017 and 2018. In those years, NoVo dispersed a whopping $12.91 million grant to Thousand Currents. By then the group had promoted Susan Rosenberg to vice chairman of the Board of Directors. Breaking with three decades of tradition offering small, no-strings-attached grants across their international network of farmers, agricultural workers, and local laborers, the new Thousand Currents would continue as a nonprofit entity with a new name and bigger ambitions, making a mix of loans and grants at a ratio of about 4 to 1, according to trade reports.
NoVo and Thousand Currents became formally entwined when in 2018 the two organizations together launched the Buen Vivir Fund, “a global network of partners ... [with a] transformative approach to impact investing that aims to shift the ownership of investment in the impact space.” Buen Vivir, which loosely translates as “right living,” would be one part new age spiritualism and one part capitalism. Thousand Currents describes the project in its own materials as a “community-centric, ecologically-balanced, and culturally-sensitive ... alternative beyond the consumerist and ecologically damaging components of neoliberalism.” In practice, according to Thousand Currents, the fund identifies “lending practices ... and then uplifts and applies these practices to the level of a global investment fund.”
To help execute the fund’s mission, NoVo and Thousand Currents have begun recruiting for the Buen Vivir Finance Fellowship. A two-year program for candidates “with an MBA or financial services credentials preferred,” fellows spend one year in the Bay Area at the Thousand Currents office, and another at NoVo in New York City, where they can steep themselves in a “transformative approach to impact investing” while adopting their unique financial skill sets to “the Fund’s investment model [which is] controlled collectively” by an undisclosed group of investors.
NoVo may have seen in IDEX/Thousand Currents and Buen Vivir a unique opportunity to leverage the power of capitalism to achieve social justice. But it’s also useful to see NoVo’s new cause through the lens of the organization’s new involvement as a major financial backer for other American minority group organizations, including American Jews.
In 2013, the year that NoVo began funding both Thousand Currents (then IDEX) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, NoVo made their second major contribution of what would eventually total $14.2 million to Bend the Arc—a New York-based Jewish political action group. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance financial disclosures in 2013, NDWA itself paid $53,000 to Bend the Arc that year, followed by $40,000 and $77,000, respectively, over the next two years, for services or assets unknown. As previously reported, once NoVo became a major funder, Bend the Arc moved from providing local services to Jews to becoming the Jewish-branded outfit in a nationwide effort to promote an agenda, established by the Obama administration, which champions a civic universalism to neutralize conflicts driven by gender, class, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even religious affiliation.
It is interesting to wonder whether NoVo’s involvement with Thousand Currents and the Black Lives Matter movement is intended to have a similar result, namely to channel the specificity of the Black Lives Matter movement into a larger civic universalism that grows increasingly distant from the movement’s initial concerns in favor of supporting a broad, neutralized political platform that may help the one party win elections and appease its own powerful interest groups, and focuses less on the grassroots problems faced by Black families trapped in declining and physically dangerous neighborhoods in cities like Minneapolis, Washington, or Baltimore.
The infusion of $33 million in donations into BLM has recently led to new scrutiny of the group’s financial arrangements. Several inquiries were also made by predominantly conservative media organizations into why Susan Rosenberg, a convicted domestic terrorist, held a senior position of the board of Thousand Currents, in charge of the movement’s money.
In a statement released in early July, Thousand Currents clarified why they had scraped their website of information about their board’s identity, as well as previously posted documents on the organization’s finances. Pointing at “attacks ... aimed at discrediting the Black-led, multiracial mass movement of millions of people around the world who are speaking out against state-sanctioned violence, anti-Blackness, racism, and white supremacy,” the Thousand Currents statement said the removal of information from the web was part of an effort “to protect our team ... [and] shield the privacy and safety of our staff, donors, and partners.”
A few days later, on July 10, according to documents filed with the California attorney general, the Thousand Currents board voted unanimously to “transfer the fiscal sponsorship of the BLM Project” to another California-based nonprofit known as the Tides Center, which along with the Tides Foundation exists underneath the control of the Tides Network—an umbrella organization which managed more than $591 million in revenue in 2018. In their statement to the attorney general, Thousand Currents wrote that the transfer was “in the best interest of all parties,” citing “BLM’s growth and their need for greater support.”
The transfer of BLM’s fiscal sponsorship from Thousand Currents to the Tides Network would appear to end the relationship between NoVo and the Black Lives Matter movement. However, according to public financial documents, NoVo has continued its relationship with BLM, just through a different shell organization. Indeed, NoVo is now even more deeply involved with BLM now that BLM is a part of the Tides Network: In 2018 alone, NoVo dispersed more than 100 separate donations totaling at least $121 million to Tides directly. (The relationship between NoVo and Tides is not strictly financial, either. According to their own public disclosures, the Tides Network provides “executive, administrative, and consulting services ... to NoVo Foundation,” in much the same fashion that IDEX served as the back office for Black Lives Matter.)
If all these organizations and layers of administration seem a bit confusing and opaque, that is the point. Shuttling Black Lives Matter over to the Tides Network does more than shield Thousand Currents from intense inquiry. It allows BLM to join a massive repository of projects that can be administered behind extra layers of protection in the form of donor-advised funds, which allow donors to anonymously fund projects while still reaping tax benefits, and multiple organizational shells which include the Tides Network, Tides Center, Tides Foundation, and a slew of other incorporated nonprofit shell organizations which are housed within a single institutional silo. There, they are overseen by a small band of executives who operate with virtually no outside scrutiny—and can coordinate and leverage the political, social, and financial opportunities that these projects create for whatever forms of gain their donors decide to prioritize.
Much like an investment bank that operates a portfolio of hedge funds and family wealth accounts while collecting fees and percentages of the profit, the Tides Network administers hundreds of individual projects called Tides Projects. These projects collectively accumulate value for both the parent network and its largest donors. How exactly Tides disseminates that value remains something of a mystery, though there are some common threads that run throughout the network—starting with an emphasis on maintaining the privacy of its donor base.
Tides was founded in 1976 by Drummond Pike, a California real estate investor who named the entity after a Bay Area bookstore popular among left-leaning activists. From the beginning, according to their own documents, Tides was designed unlike most other nonprofit institutions. Rather than building up or spending down an endowment, it sought to become more like a sophisticated piece of software—a financial instrument that would allow wealthy individuals and donors to contribute to the causes of their choosing with more anonymity than is generally allowed by the laws governing ordinary nonprofits.
Recently, after Pike stepped away, the Tides network has taken on a distinctly political role, whose guiding star appears to be Barack Obama. The secretary of the Tides board is Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations in the Obama administration; board member Cheryl Alston was appointed by Obama to the advisory committee of the federal pension program. Peter Buttenwieser, the heir to the Lehman Brothers fortune who passed away in 2018, financed a fund in his own name which is administered and distributed entirely by the Tides Foundation. A “major behind-the-scenes supporter of Democratic candidates,” Buttenwieser was one of President Obama’s earliest high profile backers, helping the then-senator organize his bid for the White House.
Moreover, Atlantic Philanthropies, a nonprofit created by billionaire retailer Chuck Feeney in the 1980s, has directed more than $42 million in grants through the Tides network since 2000. Based in Bermuda, Atlantic Philanthropies was able to participate in political lobbying efforts in ways that continental United States nonprofits cannot. Atlantic became increasingly aggressive under the Obama administration. As Gara LaMarche, Atlantic’s president, said in one think tank address, when Obama was elected “we saw opportunities to assist our grantees in moving forward more rapidly and broadly in a number of areas central to our mission.” In return, Atlantic dispensed $27 million to help push Obamacare through Congress. At the ceremony to sign Obamacare into law, LaMarche stood beside President Obama in the East Room of the White House.
In any case, what’s clear is that there is now a sophisticated and complex structure underneath what many assume to be an organic and spontaneous social movement, one with deep pockets and ambitious goals. “After over fourteen years of learning and over 700 million dollars invested ... the collapse we have been expecting is surely underway,” reads the NoVo Foundation’s website. Right now there’s only this one statement on the site, which is under construction as noted: “Working on solutions now so old patterns of power can’t, once again, re-form to rebuild and continue to repress.”
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and co-editor of The Scroll, the magazine’s afternoon newsletter. For alerts about his work, sign up for his newsletter here.