(The Root) — The National Museum of African American History and Culture, created by an act of Congress in 2003 and slated to open in 2015, is still under construction. But the 19th division of the Smithsonian Institution is already making an impact on the future that transcends its history-focused primary goal: The NMAAHC 's $250 million public capital campaign is attracting, inspiring and cultivating leadership among black professionals who the museum hopes could represent the next generation of major African-American philanthropists.
At the museum's February groundbreaking, President Barack Obama delivered remarks, Phylicia Rashad was master of ceremonies and national media flocked to Washington, D.C.'s National Mall to cover the historic beginning of its construction. But Tasha Coleman, now the museum's senior manager for donor and board relations, recalls that seven years ago, there was much less fanfare and just two employees: she and famed historian, and founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III.
"I still remember when first we walked into the office … we didn't even have furniture; we were just looking at each other," Coleman, who was the museum's council liaison in 2005, told The Root.
They had their work cut out for them. While congressional legislation authorized $250 million over a period of 10 years to the museum, the NMAAHC committed to matching that amount from private donors. That effort has been called "arguably the largest philanthropic effort driven by African Americans," thanks to an advisory council that's a who's who of African-American success and influence. It's notable for big names such as Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert L. Johnson and American Express CEO Ken Chenault, as well as the even bigger, million-dollar-plus donations they've made or coordinated.
To Delphia Duckens, the museum's associate director of external affairs, that interest makes sense. "They're extremely excited about what the content of this museum is going to be, not just for African Americans but Americans in general," she told The Root.
But here's what Coleman, the NMAAHC's first employee, now 37 years old, says she didn't expect when she took on her role with the museum: an outpouring of support and interest from her own peers — younger, successful-but-not-even-close-to-Oprah-successful African Americans between the ages of 30 and 45. While the new museum was reaching out to donors across the nation, this group was reaching out to the museum, figuratively banging on its not-yet-constructed doors, its members ready to offer their time and money to support the NMAAHC.
Duckens remembers when the inquiries from these "young" black professionals — she says they're actually better described as "emerging leaders" in their respective fields — started coming in. "About a year ago, we started to get requests: 'I want to do something; I want to host a party for the museum.' It became ad hoc. We realized we wanted to harness all that energy, so we came up with the name 'ambassadors,' " she explains.
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.
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."