The $250,000,000 Mission to Preserve Black History: Lonnie Bunch and the Nation's Most Powerful Business Leaders Are Creating the Largest African American Museum in the U.S. Their Efforts Serve as a Model for Other Nonprofits, Large and Small

By Dingle, Derek T. | Black Enterprise, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The $250,000,000 Mission to Preserve Black History: Lonnie Bunch and the Nation's Most Powerful Business Leaders Are Creating the Largest African American Museum in the U.S. Their Efforts Serve as a Model for Other Nonprofits, Large and Small


Dingle, Derek T., Black Enterprise


LONNIE G. BUNCH III IS EXPERIENCING a watershed moment. On an unseasonably mild February day in the nation's capital, he stands at the podium in a stadium-size tent on the National Mall addressing an audience of 600 business and political leaders, a group that includes the president of the United States and the first lady.

Bunch delivers his speech amid the momentous groundbreaking of the Smithsonian Institution's $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture--which has been six years in the making. "Today, we begin to make manifest on this Mall, on this sacred space, the dreams of many generations who fought for and believe there should be a site in the nation's capital that will help all Americans remember and honor African American history and culture," the 59-year-old founding director states. "But equally important to this vision was the need to make better all who visit the National Museum, by using African American culture as a lens to more clearly understand what it means to be an American."

The NMAAHC is arguably the largest philanthropic effort in history driven by African Americans, complete with a five-star advisory council that includes former Citigroup Chairman Richard D. Parsons, American Express CEO Kenneth I. Chenault, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, billionaire dealmaker Robert L Johnson, and former Secretary of State Colin L Powell. Bunch's mission includes raising $250 million in donations from corporations, foundations, and individuals--which the NMAAHC is already closing in on--and mining the world for artifacts that will represent the "wide arc of history--slavery, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migrations to the North and West, segregation, the civil rights movement and beyond, including issues of the 21st century." When the five-acre institution adjacent to the Washington Monument opens in 2015, it will exhibit a varied collection spanning 400 years of African American history. Items collected for display include slave shackles, tintypes of black Union Army soldiers, lunch counters from civil rights sit-ins, and the mother ship of the legendary rink band Parliament-Funkadelic. To accomplish this audacious goal, Bunch has undergone a transformation from noted scholar and historian to hard-charging entrepreneur with organizational dexterity and salesman chops.

Whether large or small, organizations need managers like Bunch to run campaigns in an environment in which philanthropic dollars are spandex tight. It's true that charitable donations have started to rebound after the Great Recession: A 2011 Giving USA report revealed that contributions to the arts declined 1.8% between 2008 and 2009, but rose an estimated 5.7% in 2010. But competition remains fierce. Susan Taylor Batten, president and CEO of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, says nonprofits must flawlessly execute their strategic plan and connect with donors. She says, "Cultivation is the key. Fundraising lesson 101 is that people like to give money to people they know. You have to help people see that causes that look as if they're very focused on black communities are ultimately contributing to the common good. And foundations like to invest in large efforts that have scale, so it's important to reveal your partnerships and strategic connections."

The NMAAHC offers an inventive model for nonprofits to follow. After Rep. John Lewis, the legendary activist that represents Atlanta's 5th District, lobbied more than 12 years to secure its authorization, President George W. Bush signed legislation in 2003 to establish the 19th museum within the Smithsonian complex. Congress committed $250 million over 10 years, so Bunch must make regular trips to Capitol Hill to sway legislators to provide funding for the institution's annual budget. The NMAAHC team has had to raise the other $250 million through private donations.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Here's how Bunch developed the museum. …

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