Popular LGBTQ Instagram account accused of mishandling donations

Tim Fitzsimons

A former volunteer has accused Queer Appalachia, a popular instagram account featuring LGBTQ people from rural areas and the South, of mishandling donations, according to an investigative report by The Washington Post this week.

The report alleged that a coat drive and several online fundraising efforts had little to show in terms of recipients of funds and goods. The former volunteer implied that the founder of Queer Appalachia may have used donated money for personal purposes, which NBC News was unable to confirm.

At the beginning of the report, the former volunteer, referred to as Leo, claimed the group's founder, known as Mamone, solicited donations by posting old images of empty cabinets — even though the cabinets were full of donated supplies at the time — and said Mamone showed up with a new truck with "every bell and whistle" shortly after Queer Appalachia was awarded a $300,000 grant

“There was no transparency on where the money to buy this brand-new truck came from,” Leo told the Post. “I just thought it was such a ‘f--- you’ to all of the people, the poor and working-class people who had given their money [to Queer Appalachia] without really understanding or knowing where it was going.”

Based on what was reported in the Washington Post article, there does not appear to be evidence that Queer Appalachia funds were used to purchase Mamone’s truck. Mamone themself reportedly posted online that they made a good living as a sound engineer.

The article also reported Mamone’s texts to Leo about the empty cabinet post: “I get the empty cupboards are not an authentic representation of where we are,” Mamone wrote, arguing that the images “ain’t too far off though looking at overall budget” and that they didn’t have the time or expertise to make unique fundraising graphics.

The Queer Appalachia Instagram account, which started in 2016 and boasts 280,000 followers, describes itself as a "celebration of queer voices and identities." Scrolling through the account, there are pro-trans and leftist memes alongside images of rural life and bodies that are not often pictured in mainstream media.

In a March NBC News article about grassroots LGBTQ groups in the Appalachian region, Mamone said the popular social account has been “in a constant state of evolution — from its beginning as an artist and zine collective to the digital rural queer community it is today.”

“We celebrate queer identities and voices in Appalachia, the South and other rural places, and are committed to exploring mutual aid, decolonization and intersectionality,” Mamone told NBC News at the time.

On Monday, the same day The Washington Post article was published, the Queer Appalachia Instagram account shared a post saying it is “evolving into a #landback program” and solicited calls from “white people and people with priviledge” to help build 10 small homes before 2025. The post ended with a call to "build a new south together."

That same day, after The Post article was published, the Queer Appalachia account posted a statement attributed to Mamone calling the article a "poorly written hit piece" and accused the reporter of being “a known harasser” who “is connected to an ex of mine.”

The Post reporter, Emma Copley Eisenberg, declined to comment.

The statement also claimed the reporter's "pointed questions" caused Queer Appalachia to lose its $300,000 grant from HepConnect, a part of Gilead Sciences, intended for harm reduction efforts.

NBC News could not independently verify this claim. Lawson Koeppel, executive director of the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, Queer Appalachia's fiscal sponsor for this grant, said in a message that the group is "preparing a response for the broader community and hope to have that complete soon."

Queer Appalachia said in a second post on Wednesday that it had hired a certified public accountant to publish an audit of its finances.

"It's going to take some time, I have no idea how long, we will get the receipts out ASAP and keep y'all informed along the way," the post read.

Because it's not an official nonprofit, Queer Appalachia said it has a fiscal sponsor, the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, which, according to the National Council of Nonprofits, is "a nonprofit organization that provides fiduciary oversight, financial management, and other administrative services to help build the capacity of charitable projects."

In a statement provided to NBC News on Wednesday, Mamone said the group is taking steps to be more transparent about its use of donations.

"Queer Appalachia has grown quickly, we haven’t taken the time to prioritize financial illiteracy and getting the books in order as it should have been done," they said. "We are working to correct this by hiring a CPA and putting out financial summaries to show our community where the money has gone. QA is also working to bring on BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] leadership and address some of the specific issues of harm caused in the coming days."

Adia Colar, a spokesperson for Candid, a clearinghouse for nonprofit information, said the best way for LGBTQ donors to ensure their donations are used as expected is to do research using various open-source tools.

Guidestar's “Five Simple Steps to Better Giving” outlines best practices, and Candid’s research tools allow potential donors to investigate how registered nonprofits spend their money.

"It’s important to do due diligence—to give with your head as well as your heart," Colar wrote in an email. "Don't just rely on a nonprofit’s name, how popular it is, or how it tugs at your heartstrings. Research the organization’s mission, results, transparency, and leadership to find out if it actually uplifts small, Black, and woman-owned LGBTQ nonprofits."

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