Pipeline protesters are familiar with the principle of following the money. The divestment movement continues to work to starve out fossil fuel development by pressuring banks to withdraw loan funding. When it comes to their own books, however, protesters are less open to showing how they have used the millions of dollars of donations they have received. Today, more than a year after the protest started, and months after the camps were finally closed, Freshet Collective, a group collecting donations for protesters’ legal defense, is continuing to collect donations, despite offering little clarity as to how previous monies were spent.
When the group first started accepting money, it was little more than a Fundrazr site and a PO Box. Since then, the Freshet Collective has become more technologically sophisticated, though not more transparent.
On its expanded website, the group defends this decision as a necessary safety protocol.
“For security reasons, we kept a very low profile for months, and our work was focused on jail support,” the Freshet Collective says of its founding, before acknowledging that this created confusion among arrestees about the source of their legal defense. The group admitted that it needed a “more public presence, and a central place for arrestees to get information and communicate with us” and so created a website.
Nowhere on this website are the founders mentioned by name.
The cloak of anonymity extends over the group’s donors in addition to its founders. The Freshet Collective is an incorporated non-profit under Minnesota state law. The group says that it is in the process of applying for formal federal tax exempt status as a 501(c)4 group. Under these designations, donations to the group are not tax deductible. At the same time, this means that they are not required to disclose their donors.
Despite this, the Freshet Collective is sitting on a large sum of cash. According to their crowdfunding account on Fundrazr, they have raised $3,014,581 by the beginning of July, 2017. Since the group also accepts donations through PayPal, it likely has an even larger pool of funds to draw on. Although donations have slowed, gifts of small amounts continue to trickle in. These funds are to be used solely for protester bail money, legal defense, and travel expenses related to attending trial hearings. They are separate from donations used to support the Standing Rock tribe’s legal fight against the pipeline and from funds set up for specific protesters.
According to its most recent update, as of January 2017, the group had spent about $654,000 of the donated money. Most of this, or $472,601, went towards bail or bond payments for arrested protesters. The group also spent about $80,000 on lawyers, $50,000 on impounded vehicles, and smaller amounts on administrative costs, travel and lodging for arrestees, and change of venue surveys.
The Freshet Collective expects trials to continue on into 2018, given the current backlog in North Dakota courts. The bulk of the donated funds remain unaccounted for, however.
Although by mid-June, 221 cases related to the protests had been resolved, it isn’t clear how many of these involved the Freshet Collective, nor how many lawyers are volunteering their services to the group. Another 600 cases remain to be tried.
Some of the money may be going to increased administrative costs. According to its website, the group is looking to hire people with backgrounds in finance, media and communications, legal work, and business, as well as organizers. Despite being incorporated under Minnesota law, the Freshet Collective continues to operate in Mandan, N.D. alongside the Water Protector Legal Collective, which has offices in Bismarck. According to the post, the new positions would join a team of about ten people and earn $2400/month with an additional stipend for lodging and food.
The group has already expanded its mission to include education and has partnered with other groups to sponsor training on legal rights and grassroots movements.
What this means for the more than $2 million still unaccounted for is, like so much else about the group, unknown. When it comes to the Freshet Collective, following the money comes up dry.
The Freshet Collective did not respond to a request for comment on the use of donations or its founders.