Black History Museum: Philanthropy’s Future

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

Philanthropists at the first ambassadors reception on June 20, 2012. (Michael Barnes/Smithsonian)
Philanthropists at the first ambassadors reception on June 20, 2012. (Michael Barnes/Smithsonian)

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 Organized by Coleman and co-founded by 39-year-old tech entrepreneur Joel Limerick — among the first of the eager young professionals who emerged from the museum’s Washington, D.C., backyard — the ambassadors program was formalized in short order. The requirements to join are threefold: Make a personal donation between $5,000 and $24,999, recruit other ambassadors and spread the word about the vision of the museum, promoting membership at all levels.

Those requirements aren’t even posted on the website just yet, but thanks to word of mouth and an initial summer recruiting event at the “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” exhibit at the National Museum of American History, the museum now has a list of about 20 members who have made financial commitments, plus steady interest from their respective networks.

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.