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How has the Minnesota Freedom Fund's mission changed since an uptick in donations?


Three years ago today, George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis. Hours later, he was dead after one officer kneeled on his neck and others refused to help him. Millions protested around the country and the world, and millions of dollars poured into Minnesota's social justice organizations. Marianne Combs takes a closer look at one of them.

MARIANNE COMBS, BYLINE: The Minnesota Freedom Fund was a scrappy little nonprofit in the spring of 2020, with just one paid employee and 7 or 8 working board members. Annual budget - $150,000. Most of that went to paying bail and immigration bonds for its clients. Then came May 25. Mirella Ceja-Orozco was a Minnesota Freedom Fund board member. After George Floyd's murder, she says there was an astonishing uptick in donations.

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MIRELLA CEJA-OROZCO: From, you know, $50,000 to $100,000, to $1 million, to $5 million within the first week.

COMBS: Public generosity quickly crashed the nonprofit's donor page and its email server. Less than three weeks after Floyd's death, Minnesota Freedom Fund shut down its donation page entirely. All told, the nonprofit received close to $42 million.

CEJA-OROZCO: Everything about our organization changed.

COMBS: Three years later, Orozco is now one of two directors of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which employs 27 people. They work out of an office with no listed address because the organization also got attention from people who believed it only served to get criminals out of jail.

CEJA-OROZCO: The doxing started, where all of a sudden now all of our names were out in the ether. And we were being targeted with hate rhetoric, death threats.

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COMBS: Orozco's co-director, Elizer Darris, focuses on criminal bail bonds. He says the Minnesota Freedom Fund once served as a Band-Aid for a systemic issue. But its new mission is to put itself out of business by ending cash bail in Minnesota. To that end, this once tiny group recently launched a new organization to lobby at the state capitol.

ELIZER DARRIS: We have to have policy pass at the state legislature, at the county level. And we have to have cooperation at the local municipal level where these policy decisions are being made.

COMBS: The Minnesota Freedom Fund's story is exceptional. While other Black-led and social justice nonprofits received generous donations and grants, many of those organizations say the financial commitments are quickly drying up. Trista Harris is the former executive director of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. She says it's not just individual donors who have lost interest. Foundations are backing off, too.

TRISTA HARRIS: Because foundations sort of threw dollars in a lot of different directions and then didn't see transformative change, they blamed it on nonprofits. And they said, well, we tried. We thought that you were going to do big things with these dollars, and you didn't.

COMBS: Most social justice nonprofits simply do not have the capacity to take on huge projects without building out their organizations first, says Harris. That takes time and sustained giving.

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HARRIS: There's just not a lot of support for Black-led nonprofits and their infrastructure. So in the short term, when people need those organizations to set up, they're consistently surprised that they're not just ready to jump in. And it's because those resources haven't existed previously.

COMBS: According to the philanthropy research site Candid, local foundations across the nation increased their annual giving to Black communities from $78 million in 2019 to $125 million in 2020. That's a 60% increase in just one year. But still, it's just 2% of total foundation giving. Harris says philanthropic organizations need to take a hard look at that 2% number when it comes to their own funding. Until then, small nonprofits will continue to struggle to be anything more than a Band-Aid on deep systemic wounds.

For NPR News, I'm Marianne Combs in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Marianne Combs