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$5. $10. College students may not have a lot of money but they’re donating whatever they can to make change happen

CNBC’s “College Voices 2020” is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They’re finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company’s values to Gen Z job seekers?

College students face a lot of uncertainty, from the classroom to the job market and social situations. But one thing has been pretty consistent since the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day: Young people are committed to social change.

They’re outraged over the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black Americans. They’re flooding the streets in protest and, even though many are saddled with student-loan debt and an uncertain financial future, they are also donating money to Black Lives Matter and other racial justice organizations.

Protesters gathered at Barclays Center for a march in the streets of Brooklyn, July 31, 2020

Erik McGregor | LightRocket | Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly taken a toll on charitable giving: Nearly half of charities in the U.S. are expecting a drop in donations in 2020 and beyond, according to a recent survey from the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Yet from large national organizations to small community groups, racial justice organizations have been inundated with donations. On Blackout Tuesday, a day where people went dark on social media to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, ActBlue, the fundraising platform used by Black Lives Matter and other organizations, noted $41 million in donations in just 24 hours. And the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a small community bail project, raised $35 million in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which overwhelmed the small organization.

A ‘huge flood’ of small donations

The Richmond Community Bail Fund, a charitable bail fund in Richmond, Virginia, had previously posted over 60 bails in the central Virginia area. But after the death of George Floyd, the small organization was swimming in donations.

“We have raised far more money than we have ever handled before,” Matthew Perry, co-founder of the Richmond Community Bail Fund, said. “But it hasn’t been just a handful of really large donations — It’s been a huge flood of smaller increments.”

Although the organization doesn’t track the demographic data of its donors, Perry suggests that social media and young people have contributed to this impact.

A lot of celebrities, including Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Seth Rogen and Drake, have been vocal on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms about the money they have pledged for organizations that have helped bail out protesters. That has inspired many young people and others to donate as well — even if it’s only a small amount.

The K-pop band BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter right after George Floyd’s death and its army of fans mobilized, getting the hashtag #MatchAMillion trending internationally. They wound up matching that $1 million donation … in one day. Then, American wrestler and actor John Cena saw the fan campaign and matched it with his own $1 million donation.

“We have at least seen that the broader public awareness of the bail fund has increased with young people a lot more recently. I think because of how bail funds have become a bit of a meme on social media, and social media skews younger, so we feel like we kind of made some inroads with younger people,” he explained.

The Bail Project, a large national nonprofit organization that pays bail for people in need, had more than 200,000 new online donors in the month of June alone.

“Donations online tend to be smaller, but I hate to say smaller, because I don’t want it to sound diminished. It’s super important,” said Robin Steinberg, CEO and co-founder of The Bail Project. “But there certainly are people donating online to us, ranging from donors who give $15 to donors who give $5,000 dollars. It’s been incredibly inspiring and it certainly will help us replenish our National Revolving Bail Fund.”

The Bail Project, which has already paid out $26 million in bail for 11,000 people nationwide over the past two and a half years, raised $15 million in donations in the weeks after George Floyd was killed. Amplification and contributions from high profile donors undoubtedly contributed to this upswing. Steinberg confirmed that celebrities including John Legend, Chrissy Teigen, Ariana Grande, Lil Baby, and Ilana Glazer have all supported The Bail Project in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Perry said the flood of donations has fundamentally changed what his organization is capable of doing. 

“Before, someone might call us and say, you know, my brother’s in on a $10,000 bond, can you help them? And we would have to say, no, we don’t have that much money,” Perry explained.  “Now, we will never have to do that … again. We can say yes to every single bond that we get, which is going to mean that we can help a lot more people.”

A ‘ton of people’ were posting about it

Student activists have been the backbone of the racial justice movement, with social media serving as a key platform for organization. But as the recent increase in individual donations suggests, activists are not the only contributors to the Black Lives Matter movement. From community leaders to students who were unfamiliar with the term redlining (racial discrimination by banks in mortgage lending) until a few weeks ago, students nationwide are donating in huge numbers. Whether the majority of these donations will be one-time donations or not remains to be seen.

Carley Richardson, an incoming sophomore and nursing student at the University of Cincinnati, spent her quarantine nannying and working in an eldercare facility. Richardson, who is from Louisville, Kentucky, began donating to racial justice organizations a few weeks prior to George Floyd’s murder. “I donated to something for Breonna Taylor,” Richardson said. “It was just around $5.” She heard the outcry through social media. “There were a ton of people from Louisville posting about it,” she explained. “And then it was also on some news, but I mostly found out from Instagram stories.”

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Richardson has tried to raise awareness through social media. She’s reposted racial justice content and news stories, and donated once again when protests began, to the Louisville Black Lives Matter. Richardson’s contribution was, again, around $5: “I haven’t made any large contributions. It’s probably been about $15 in total.”

Katherine, a third-year student at the University of California, Berkeley who requested her last name not be included for privacy, barely spent any money before this summer. She lived with her mother for the first two months of quarantine, and was focusing on saving as much as possible. Katherine previously would not have considered herself particularly active when it comes to social justice. Although she had supported the Black Lives Matter movement, she had not contributed directly to racial justice organizations. Through friends and social media, however, Katherine has found herself being more engaged and motivated to donate.

I feel ‘guilty for not donating my entire paycheck’

Katherine donated around $35 to a bail fund in Oakland, identifying the non-profit through a link tree posted to social media. Katherine expressed embarrassment over the quantity she had donated: “I still do feel a little bit guilty for not donating my entire paycheck every time it comes. But then I know that there are people who have so much more money and are not donating anything, and I definitely think people around me aren’t very wealthy and are donating, too.”

Venus Okwuka is an incoming senior at Loyola University in Maryland who serves as the director of diversity and inclusion in Loyola’s student government. Her finances took a major hit when coronavirus began to spread globally; she was studying abroad in the U.K. at the time and was forced to end her program prematurely. Although she is not spending on gas and leisure activities like she normally would, she has been impacted by price hikes for groceries and medicine. And Okwuka, who is pre-med, could not work in a hospital as she had originally intended.

Okwuka has noticed a change in community organization since the spread of coronavirus and murder of George Floyd. “As an African-American, [organizing] looks a lot more different than I would say for other people, given that a lot of racial justice work used to be showcasing the trauma of minorities and people of color. I think right now the tide has shifted to more of an accountability and an active awareness,” she said. After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, she has been working on fomenting long-term change in the local school systems in Baltimore and Connecticut. But she also has been donating regularly, to one or two organizations per month — she schedules the donations to be automatically transferred from her bank account each month, just like you might automate your personal savings.

“I’ve been telling people, ‘Yes, it’s important to give money now, but maybe pick one or two organizations, and see if you can give to them $10 over the next 10 months instead of giving $100 right now, because these organizations need to stay open,'” Okwuka said.

She posits that students, as a generation accustomed to instant gratification, may not know to donate regularly: “Your one donation isn’t going to make racism disappear … It has to be this active whole thing that you’re doing over a period of time, because just how these disparities started over time, they’re going to take time to actually be alleviated.”

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