Shaun King is very good at raising money in support of black lives and—one of those lives might be his own.
King, one of the most visible faces of the Black Lives Matter movement and no stranger to controversy, is now beating back accusations that he has misappropriated or mismanaged charitable funds.
King collected millions of dollars for everyone from Haitian orphans to the families of black men and children killed by police across America. Some of that money went to survivors or victims’ families, but much of the largess either went into failed projects, King’s own pockets, or is unaccounted for.
“It’s just bullshit,” King told The Daily Beast on Tuesday after allegations were lobbed against him by members of his own movement. “People need to understand that failure is not fraud.”
The former mega-church pastor-turned-citizen journalist has leveraged heavy doses of charisma into 218,000 Twitter followers and a column at the New York Daily News to chronicle instances of suspected injustices carried out by police in predominantly non-white communities. King counts a flurry of A-list celebrities and largely left-leaning politicians among his most ardent fans. They follow his Twitter timeline for the latest news—whether it’s a video of a cop shooting an unarmed black boy or a school resource officer accused of brutalizing a teenager.
Like so many others, I “know” King only through the lens of social media. I have watched him grow in prominence and struggle to balance that newfound fame. There is nothing enviable about the white-hot glare of those who are devoted to your personal destruction on a daily basis. His focus on race and inequality has earned him the wrath of conservative bloggers and former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly. I have, at times, defended him against some of the most vicious assaults and, at others, pulled his “coattail” when I thought some counsel could help.
To be honest, I have long been aware of the suspicions some harbor about how he manages charitable donations. I have groused privately about the veracity of some of his reporting and whether his body of writing met the publishing standards that so many in this business work under. I heard the whispers, the backroom talk from people who did not want to be seen as “racist” or acting like “crabs in the barrel” for criticizing King.
“What do you think about Shaun King…” the conversation almost invariably opens. “I want to be fair,” I generally respond. “People haven’t always been fair to me.”
Certainly, King is sometimes the first to break a story nationally and a mention in his timeline all but guarantees that a cable news producer will see it. All too often, he is the only voice in the discourse that refuses to let go when the news cameras have packed up and gone home, and no one else is left to care but a grieving family and its lawyers. His dogged approach to following the minutiae of any given case has netted him a reputation for being vigilant, even if the early facts—as he spells them out—later fall apart.
Then too, even though King has not been among the thousands of protesters who organized and participated in public demonstrations across the country or lobbied policymakers in recent years, he is widely regarded by media outlets as a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. For better or worse, it is that unofficial position that keeps him in the spotlight and has drawn the ire of several frontline black activists who often place themselves in harm’s way.
Notwithstanding the racially charged attacks that come almost hourly and malicious accusations about his ethnicity, King’s track record as a fundraiser continues to fan the flames of scrutiny. Several right-leaning news sites, including Breitbart and The Daily Caller, have openly interrogated that record and there has been some reporting in national publications, such as the The Washington Post. However, fueled in part by a public spat Sunday night with other Black Lives Matter activists, those embers are now alight again.
Documentation and actual figures are difficult to pin down, but the husband and father of five claims to have raised nearly $500,000 on behalf of families “affected by police violence or systemic racism.” But an examination of public records, published articles, and public statements by King and others associated with his work leaves more questions than answers.
Chief among them are: How much money was definitely raised and how much of it was actually received by its stated and intended beneficiaries? Did King use his growing prominence as a fundraiser for social causes to enrich himself?
King started his professional career by feeding young minds and saving souls. Before he became a nationally known social justice columnist, before he amassed throngs of social media fans, he was a schoolteacher in Atlanta. After a brief stint in the classroom teaching civics, King entered the ministry—becoming a staff preacher at Total Grace Christian Center in an easterly suburb before founding his own church in 2008. As the congregation at Courageous Church grew, so then did King’s public personae. His name took flight, at least locally, as the “Facebook Pastor” for the way he used social media to engage prospective visitors and shore up its membership.
By his own account, the charismatic public speaker is a consummate fundraiser. “I have raised millions of dollars for causes around the world. I have sometimes been a first, and early, responder,” King said.
In 2009, the Morehouse College graduate and Oprah Winfrey Scholar said he raised $1 million and “organized 10,000 volunteers” for flood relief in Atlanta. Months later, in 2010, after a whirlwind of positive media coverage, King says he put his passions and prowess to work again after a devastating series of earthquakes in Haiti killed more than 200,000 people and left a million more homeless.
TwitChange—a Web auction house founded by King—raised “over $1 million” in support of “A Home in Haiti,” according to Forbes. Some of the reported intake estimates stretched to $2 million. The relief fund, which was never incorporated or registered as an independent nonprofit, brought in over $100,000 in its first 24 hours, according to King. With actress Eva Longoria serving as its chief spokesperson, aHomeinHaiti.org said they were collecting funds to build an orphanage in Bonneau, Haiti.
The Miriam Center is a part of a Christian mission that serves children with special needs in the Caribbean nation. It reported that only $540,000 was actually raised—far short of the $1 million that King publicly proclaimed—and said that it ultimately only received a grant of $200,000. The donations were received and disbursed by Courageous Church, where King was still lead pastor, via PayPal. The church also sent tents to be used as temporary shelter to the island nation.
TwitChange was later sold to a group of investors, King told Rebel magazine. King resigned from his church in March 2011, citing “personal stress and disillusionment” but by then, his reputation as a “socialpreneur”—someone who creates enterprises to deliver social change—was securely minted. Even so, charges that King had not been a good steward with charitable contributions and was less than transparent about his dealings had begun to mount.
While the finances surrounding the Haitian relief project remained in question, its veneer of success and King’s social media prowess became the basis for crowdfunding site HopeMob. Seed funding for the venture came from nearly 1,000 “backers” on Kickstarter who pledged almost $130,000.
Similar to his relief efforts for Haitian children, HopeMob’s finances were murky at best.
According to its only Internal Revenue Service filing, the company took in $419,000 in 2013. That same year, the company paid out about $198,000 in grants to some 136 recipients. King’s cash compensation, not including expense reimbursements, was almost as much as the grants: $160,000, or nearly 40 percent of total revenue. Several people who launched campaigns on HopeMob complained that payouts were delayed and that the company failed to respond to repeated inquiries. Losing money, and under an onslaught of criticism from would-be beneficiaries, the digital platform was sold and later shuttered altogether. Using his HopeMob platform, King raised over $11,000 to support a gun control lobbying effort in honor of the Sandy Hook victims. However, King is not a registered lobbyist and I could find little or no evidence that he paid an individual or entity to formally lobby government entities.
By late 2014, after Michael Brown was killed, King had turned the page again. This time, he was a full-time blogger and social media denizen. Not more than a month after the protests became international news, King was hired by Daily Kos as a full-time contributor, writing about race and inequality. His rapid-fire tweets, detailing high-profile shootings of black people by police, and ability to harness social media tools to drive engagement, made him a “must-click” for those who follow social justice. King parlayed that prominence into a new fundraising juggernaut in the name of victims’ families and other social justice advocates.
“I have been an active fundraiser for 12 or 13 years,” he said. “Raising money is hard. Asking people for money is uncomfortable. But when I care about something, I am willing to get past my discomfort.”
Since late 2014, King has raised funds on behalf of, among others, the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice families. He opened a bail fund for Bree Newsome, the young woman who scaled a pole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse to remove the Confederate flag.
Not all of them appear to have been aware of King’s efforts on their behalf and at least one didn’t know him by name.
Cleveland attorney Timothy Kucharski said he was surprised when he discovered money flowing into a crowdfunding account on YouCaring.com. Neither he nor his client had ever heard of King, and Samaria Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir, had no idea that a fundraiser had been launched in her son’s name. The Rice family attorney petitioned a local judge, who ordered the proceeds, about $60,000, seized. A trustee was appointed to manage the money and the judge must now approve any withdrawals.
When Tamir’s mother could no longer emotionally deal with living in the home where she once resided with her son, she wanted to move. However, the court would not allow money to be allocated for living expenses. The Rice family could not access the money directly and were homeless for a time, due to legal complications with how the funds were solicited and the specific purpose for which the funds were raised.
The Rice family fired Kucharski and their new attorney, Ben Crump, urged King to create a new fund. Those dollars were used to help the Rice family settle into a new home. King says he always had the family’s permission and never launched any effort without explicit approval.
“I never had possession of a penny,” King said. “All [fundraising efforts] were connected to a families’ bank account or something an attorney set up separately.”
Crump, who now represents the Rice family, tweeted, “All funds raised by activist @ShaunKing for the family of Tamir Rice were received & transferred to the Estate of Tamir Rice. Thanks Shaun!”
King and his supporters have since launched a website called ShaunKingTruth.com, where he addresses some of the controversy. Still, the reputation for mismanaging charitable funds remains.
Despite the open questions, I welcomed King’s announcement that he would be launching a nationwide organization called Justice Together. He was able to recruit a high-profile board that included people like activist-journalist Glenn Greenwald, director Regina King, and actress Gabrielle Union. It was the presence of people I have long respected and admired (like King and Union) that convinced me to check my fears. For the first time, I thought, King was creating something tangible that would usher in lasting change for the communities that needed it the most.
Late one evening a few weeks ago, along the walk home from work, several Twitter users began sending me messages about a new hashtag: #ShaunKingLetMeDown. Although I did not engage in any significant way, I did take the time to review what was being posted.
And then there were the messages from people inside my professional and social circles, who claimed they had given money to King over the years—some to Justice Together—and were now frustrated and disillusioned. Several members of its board, including Deray McKesson, resigned and some of them signed an open letter addressed to King. State directors and volunteers expended thousands of “man-hours” to help build an organization that never came to growth. King, in a published statement, said every dollar had been refunded to those who contributed online.
I wanted to feel something for him. After all, I have used crowdfunding sites to raise money for a documentary that is not yet complete. Fulfilling “awards” for pledges has been more grueling than anything I had accounted for and my subject matter is more complex than I initially estimated. I know what it’s like to deal with intemperate, sometimes angry strangers who gave you money because they believed in you.
In King’s case, however, I held on to the hope that the real problem with his financial dealings was not a dishonest heart but simply naiveté and lack of preparation. After all, navigating federal tax law and the other rigors of managing a nonprofit aren’t for the faint of heart. However, in case after case, time after time the most compelling and recurring theme is transparency.
King, who says he can handle “legitimate criticisms,” said, “I will own it. People may not like how I do it, but I will own it. For some folk that’s good enough and for some others it never will be.”
It must be said that no criminal or civil charges have ever been filed against King in connection with any of his fundraising. However, the very nature of the causes in question demands a more rigorous and thorough response than he had offered to date. When a family is fighting for answers surrounding the death of a child at the hands of police, the last thing anyone needs is more questions surrounding donations meant to support them.
McKesson, who King suggested was more interested in being photographed with celebrities than the real work of social justice, tweeted that he was not satisfied with the former pastor’s response to questions about the organization’s finances. King also accused McKesson, best known for his ubiquitous blue vest, of speaking disparagingly about women in the movement.
Public warring, like the kind touched off between King, McKesson, and fellow Campaign Zero organizer Johnetta “Netta” Elzie on Twitter Sunday night, serves no one. Movements are, by definition, messy affairs. One need only review the historical relationships between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Huey Newton, and others of the day. That said, what unfolded over the weekend doesn’t serve a movement struggling to survive beyond its infancy. It doesn’t serve the families fighting to survive, cope, and make it under the structures of wealth, race, and gender.
What is necessary now is a laying out of the books. King can and must open his records, stretching back to his disaster relief efforts for Atlanta and Haiti, for independent inspection. And, when it’s over, he should publish that report online.
It’s time to clear the record. Unless and until he does, King’s credibility as a social justice leader of any note hangs in the balance.
—with additional reporting by Ben Collins.