African American museum’s fundraising touches deep history among donors

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture sits near the Washington Monument. The building is set to open to the public in September. (Photo credit by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

By Peggy McGlone,
They wanted more than you’d find in a typical Sunday collection plate.

Officials from the National Museum of African American History and Culture approached the leaders of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria with a surprising request: Would the African American congregation pledge $1 million to become a founding donor to the $540 million museum, opening Sept. 24 next to the Washington Monument on the Mall?

The gift would be historic, museum officials said, representing the largest donation by a faith-based organization. It would be groundbreaking for the congregation, too, which had never given that much to another institution.

Pastor Howard-John Wesley met with the church’s leaders, and they agreed to ask the congregation for support and to make up the difference from the church’s reserves. The church’s members gave a standing ovation the November day the check was presented to Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, Wesley said.

“This is a proud moment for us, and praise be to God we had the resources,” Wesley said. “Black stories matter [and] there’s a need for claiming and proclaiming our own history and heritage.”

The request highlights the bold thinking of the museum’s fundraisers, who tapped into Alfred Street’s tradition of service and its pride in its 200-year history in making their appeal. Such creativity has been a successful hallmark from the start. Private donors — including Shonda Rhimes, the TV producer behind “Scandal” who pledged $10 million — have contributed $245 million to the capital campaign. Combine that with $270 million from the federal government, and the museum is $25 million shy of its $540 million goal.

The museum has received donations for other purposes, too, including education and endowment. In all, private contributions total $265 million.

“This is a staggering amount of generosity,” said Emmett Carson, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and an authority on African American giving. “It’s a symbol that black . . . philanthropy is not an oxymoron.”

Since 2006, museum officials have sought out the usual suspects, including national foundations and corporations and stalwart Smithsonian donors, who are predominantly white. But they also appealed to wealthy African Americans and their corporate, civic and religious institutions. They discovered families who weren’t on commonly shared donor lists and asked for bigger gifts from those with a history of philanthropy.

The diversity of the supporters is also remarkable. African Americans represent 74 percent of the individuals who each gave $1 million or more, officials said, a figure almost double their early expectations. And African American organizations represent 28 percent of institutional support for the museum, including black sororities, fraternities and civic groups.


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