The Power of [Traditional] Philanthropy

by Ebonie Johnson Cooper

Highlights from the National Museum of African American History & Culture Ambassadors Reception

My peer mentor and friend, Mike Muse said to the audience at our New York installment of Defining Young Black Philanthropy in 2012 (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Giving your money is power.” Mike used the example of college support to demonstrate his point. He shared that we [young black folks] go on and on about our beloved HBCUs but we don’t give a dime to support them. Meanwhile, Ivy Leagues remain lucrative because of their alumni support. The children of these alum reap the benefits of their parents’ financial giving with preferential treatment while in college. Is it is fair? Fairness is relative. Money talks. Period. From that moment on I vowed to turn my love for my beloved A&T into real support. I wrote my first check to A&T in 2013. There will be another every year from now on.

The entire premise of money equals power resonated with me that night in a way it never did before. I’ve fundraised hundreds of thousands of dollars as a board member, I tithe regularly, I invest my money as member of two giving circles and I financially support two arts institutions at the young professional level. Not to mention the countless small donations I make throughout the year. But asking someone else to give their money and making donations at $25 or $250 doesn’t quite scream power in the grand scheme of things. It shows influence and potential, but it does not compare to the real power of making a contribution at the level of the National Museum of African American History & Culture Ambassadors.

We all know the Smithsonian is set to open the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) next year. If you live in DC, you’ve seen what looks to be a huge ‘hole in the ground’ at the corner of 15th St. NW & Constitution. If you’re like me you probably ask yourself, “when will that thing be done?” Oh, it will be done in time; to the tune of $500 million. Yes, that is what I said. $250 million of the cost to build the museum has been given by the government. The rest, well the rest is up to the museum itself to raise. The museum has already raised over $100 million of the remaining $250 million. However, when you’re talking funding in the millions the number of individuals with that kind of capacity narrows greatly. And yes, the Oprahs, Bill and Melinda Gates and all of those in between have already donated. So who’s next to ask? Us. Young black professionals!

Enter the National Museum of African American History & Culture Ambassador Program.

It may sound crazy that we are being solicited to support a $250 million dollar goal but it makes 100% sense that we should support. It will be our generation, our children and our children’s children alive to enjoy the museum. It goes without saying the museum is about US, blacks in America. It will tell the American story through OUR eyes. We complain that there is “nothing for us” and “no institution tells our story,” well now there is- there will be.

As I sat on Saturday night and listed to curator, Mary Elliot tell the story of a number of featured exhibits and treasures that will be showcased at the museum, I felt an energy I’d never felt before. For the first time, I saw pieces of my ancestry coming to life. I went in thinking I would become an Ambassador but after Mary’s presentation, I thought, “how could I not make a commitment to ensure the story of my people be told?” It was a no brainer. Yes, there are awesome perks to being an NMAAHC Ambassador- I may even get to meet Oprah!- but for me its deeper than that. It’s about preparing a legacy that my community and future family will benefit from. In order to do that, it takes more than a commitment to volunteer as a docent, it takes money – real money. Without my money or the other monies of the Ambassadors and donors, there will be no museum to be able to volunteer in. This my friends is where the rubber met the road between traditional philanthropy and the new, modernized definition of philanthropy. One cannot co-exist without the other. We need traditional philanthropy to fund the institutions and programs where we want to volunteer but we also need volunteers and board leaders to keep the institutions running.

As other young black professionals made their commitments to become an Ambassador from the floor, I sat back in awe of who and what we are becoming. I couldn’t help but think, “Now this is real philanthropy!” But later as I walked back to my car, I caught myself. I may have enjoyed the powerful feeling of investing such a significant amount into the museum, but nothing can replace the intrinsic value of spending time with my little girls at the Boys & Girls Club or taking one of my mentees out on a Saturday. I need too both aspects of giving to co-exist in order to be a well-rounded philanthropist.

I’m blessed to be able to give my time AND my money, which is the beauty of being a modern-day philanthropist. I didn’t come from wealth but as I build wealth for my future, I will make sure the power that comes with it opens doors for others to be able to one day do the same.

Visit the webiste of the NMAAHC and stay up to date with the museum. If you’d like to learn more about the Ambassador program, click here.

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