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Black History Museum: Philanthropy's Future

The newest Smithsonian museum's young ambassadors represent the next generation of African-American giving.

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In a still-tough economy that's even harder on the black community, who exactly are these professionals pulling out their checkbooks to support the museum's mission? "I would say the common denominator is that they've all achieved some success and recognize the success they're experiencing is directly related to what their African-American predecessors accomplished, and they're excited about telling that story to the world, " Limerick says.

"It's a financial commitment, and it's not a small one by any stretch, " says Bola Oyedijo, a 38-year-old executive with a Fortune 500 company and another of the early ambassadors. "But I think it's an important one, for a mission as critical as this."  

The events that the ambassadors hold to spread that message to their peers aren't as flashy as the yearlong series of star-studded events -- like a recent concert featuring George Clinton and Meshell Ndegeocello -- celebrating the museum's groundbreaking.  Limerick, for example, recently hosted a small reception at D.C.'s Georgetown Club with about 25 guests, curators and museum staff.

But interested would-be philanthropists don't seem to need bells and whistles to want to get involved. "Nonviolence, fortitude, love, struggle ... the museum is about all that stuff. Most of my friends get excited about the idea of having our ancestors' story told. It's an easy sell," Limerick says.

Oyedijo, who also organized a recent gathering that yielded a handful of new ambassadors, says that when it comes to the idea of embarking on a black-focused philanthropic journey, "the interest is absolutely there." Her explanation for her peers' enthusiasm: "Our generation didn't go through the trials and tribulations of the civil rights movement and those game-changing history-making moments. So this is really us buying into and paying for our legacy, and making sure our story is told."

For many of the ambassadors, Coleman says, signing on is a first foray into philanthropic leadership on a national level. These participants, from her perspective, are "people who want to be a part, who want to give and who just need a platform." And while the "ambassador" title comes with an undeniably high price tag, she says that the museum made it a point to allow contributions to be made on monthly payment plans, making the commitment as manageable as possible. A $5,000 pledge paid over five years comes out to just $83.34 a month -- "about the price of a nice dinner out," she says.

Valaida Fullwood, author of the book Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African-American Philanthropists, says she's not surprised to hear of the program's success. "Astonishing generosity fueled by an acute awareness of the cost of inaction has characterized our legacy of giving for centuries," she told The Root. "I predict America will soon note a marked increase in the number of black Americans who are staking their claim in philanthropy by asserting their presence and exerting their influence."

Once the $250 million is raised, the plan is to encourage the ambassadors to remain involved, focusing on museum programming. But Duckens also sees a role for them outside of the NMAAHC. The vision, she explains, "is that we can get this group into the habit of philanthropy, as well as providing them with the benefit of being recognized in some really prestigious communities."

For Limerick, that's already happening. "By being a co-founder of the program, I'm developing skills and a mindset to be involved in a powerful way for the rest of my life," he says.

To Oyedijo, the ambassadors' growing roster of up-and-comers -- corporate types, entrepreneurs, attorneys and the like, who are committed to giving on behalf of the black community through 2015 and beyond -- represents "a really good slice of the young leaders of tomorrow" who, like the museum itself, tell a story about "what being African American really is."