Donors Help Progressive Nonprofits Protect Themselves From Growing Security Threats

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Threats against foundations and nonprofits supporting immigrant rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other progressive causes are on the rise, prompting some donors to pour more money into helping organizations and leaders stay safe. The dangers include threats to bomb offices, kill movement leaders, and release personal information about staff members.

Rajasvini Bhansali, executive director of the Solidaire Network, said her organization has been hearing greater anxiety from grantees about their physical safety as well as cyberthreats. Before creating its own dedicated pool of security funding, Solidaire sought to direct grantees to foundations that provide security-related grants, “but there wasn’t much out there,” Bhansali said.

So Solidaire, a network of about 200 wealthy donors and foundations, started its own security fund last month with $1 million, using money from a $20 million contribution that the David and Lucile Packard Foundation had made to Solidaire’s Black Liberation Pooled Fund.

It quickly became clear that amount wouldn’t be enough to last through the end of the year, Bhansali said, so Solidaire went back to its network of donors and plans raise an additional $1 million. The group provides security-related grants ranging from $2,000 to $100,000. Grant recipients are using the money to beef up computer virus protection and provide security guards for highly visible movement leaders who have been the victims of physical threats or actual violence, Bhansali said.

Thirty-five grant applications flowed in from across the country within three weeks. “The need and the demand for this kind of protection is immense,” she said.

The need is so acute and so sensitive that the organization uses an encrypted application system to prevent hackers from learning the identity of applicants, she said. Solidaire has kept the application process simple — it takes about five minutes, Bhansali said, and decisions are made within two days after the request is made.

Bhansali said that she and her organization also have been the target of threats by white supremacists and others who have tried to obtain and spread personal information about Solidaire’s staff.

Threats on the Rise

Daranee Petsod, president of Grantmakers Concerned With Immigrants and Refugees, said threats to immigration-related nonprofits and other groups have been on the rise since the 2016 election cycle, and concerns have grown more acute in recent months.

“It’s really scary,” she said.

For example, one wealthy donor’s giving to immigrant-rights efforts sparked death threats against the donor’s entire family, Petsod said. As a result, the family keeps its giving secret and declines to talk about immigration issues publicly.

Activists have long faced problems with security threats. A decade ago, for example, a man who shot four California Highway Patrol officers in Oakland told authorities he was on his way to gun down workers at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tides Foundation, an environmental organization. However, Petsod and others interviewed for this article said the volume of threats in recent years has been on the rise, thanks largely to the rhetoric of President Trump.

“People feel emboldened to say hateful things and take hateful actions because of the tone set at the top,” Petsod said.

Responding to the Threats

Other signs of worry among donors, foundations, and grantees include:

  • The Four Freedoms Fund, a group of foundations that support immigrant-rights groups, is holding a planning session on October 26 for its grantees that will cover, among other things, “how to prepare for potential crisis situations in which your organization’s reputation and personal safety may be impacted.”
  • The RoadMap consulting group has created a “Weathering the Storms” project to help social-justice organizations protect themselves against “right-wing media attacks, fraudulent video exposés, and legal challenges that are increasingly common in the current political environment.”

Petsod said it would be difficult to determine how the Election Day outcome might affect the threat level posed by hate groups, but she’s not optimistic about any of the scenarios.
“Even if it goes underground, it’s not going to go away,” she said. “It’s going to simmer.”

Training Needs

Shireen Zaman, program director of the RISE Together Fund, which is supported by the Proteus Fund, said her organization has provided about $500,000 during the past four years to help grantees protect themselves from physical threats and cyberthreats.

RISE Together funds have been used for things like security cameras, door locks, and extra security at public events.

The group also trains grantees in how to implement smart security protocols, like what to do when someone you don’t know knocks on your office door.

It also helps organizations protect against threats to expose the personal information of employees. One example: Two years ago Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel raided a meat-packing plant in Tennessee. The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition leaped in to help immigrants cope with the aftermath of the raid. Soon, staff members were getting harassing emails.

Pratik Dash, civic engagement manager at the coalition, said the threats were often indirect, but the intent was clear, with harassers saying things like, “This organization is a threat to our country, and we should take ‘em out, get rid of them.”

With support from RISE Together and assistance from cybersecurity experts, the coalition, which had already begun beefing up its cybersecurity months earlier, scrubbed staff members’ names and addresses from the internet, Dash said. “That was something beyond our capability,” he said.

The group also beefed up its physical security, establishing protocols for locking doors and entering and exiting the building, Dash said. The staff was also trained in dealing with active shooters. “Fight or flight, that whole thing,” Dash said. “We knew that was something that was important.”

Zaman of RISE Together says she hopes more donors and foundations will start providing funds for security. She also noted that security spending is probably much larger than what is publicly known because many nonprofits are using general operating funds for security.

“We are a donor funding activism, so we have to protect activists,” she said

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