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.