What America’s First Slavery Museum Teaches Nonprofits

John Cummings - lessons for nonprofits

John Cummings (right) sits in the Baptist church on the grounds of the Whitney Plantation. Photo credit: Mark Peckmezian

A wealthy white man has opened America’s first slavery museum.

The New York Times published a fascinating account of how 77-year-old John Cummings turned The Whitney Plantation, based 35 miles west of New Orleans, into a museum, plantation tour, and art gallery hybrid intended to highlight America’s painful relationship with slavery.

Cummings has spent more than $8 million of his own money and 15 years to create the museum, the first of its kind in the United States. While slavery is memorialized in American museums, the subject is often tossed within a larger African-American historical narrative. Cummings’ creation points a spotlight specifically on slavery — and its impact on both the slaves and America in a broader context.

“I’ve been asked all the questions,” Cumming says. “About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important? Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it, so I figured I might as well get started.”

The parallels between Cummings, a wealthy white man seeking to share the authentic story of a historically disadvantaged population and nonprofit leaders (often white) who seek to alleviate and rectify unfair treatment experienced by traditionally marginalized populations (people of color, women, low-income communities) offer valuable implications for the nonprofit sector.

Whitney Plantation - Nonprofit Lessons

The path stretches to the “Big House” at The Whitney Plantation. Photo credit: Mark Peckmezian

The Whitney Plantation opened December 7, 2014 and nearly three months later attracts large crowds mixed with a fairly equal amount of white and black faces. On the surface Cummings isn’t the natural leader for such a monument of America’s history. Yet, he’s created a success due to several factors that nonprofits should emulate.

Acknowledge the uncomfortable

The article declares, “talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education.”

Another quote, this time directly from Cummings:

“I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world – wealth that has benefited me – was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Both passages illustrate an important takeaway for nonprofits, particularly ones that work with traditionally marginalized nonprofits. When nonprofits have staff who overwhelmingly are different from the population they serve, there is potential for awkwardness. But instead of pretending that dynamic doesn’t exist, nonprofits can use that as an opportunity for dialogue, and ideally, a deeper connection. In practice, this can look like working with the community to establish community ambassadors who communicate needs and issues that may not be apparent from the nonprofit’s perspective. It can also mean holding public polls or an open forum that invites the service population to share their voice.

Involve and embrace

Cummings deserves the lion’s share of credit for transforming The Whitney Plantation into a unique museum that opens America’s dialogue about slavery. But other voices have left significant contributions too. Ibrahima Seck, 54, is a Senegalase scholar who met Cummings in 2000. The two met each summer since, with Seck helping Cummings clarify his mission for The Whitney. In 2012, Seck became the Director of Research at The Whitney.

Cummings also is currently interviewing influential African-American academics to serve on The Whitney’s Board of Directors. The display shows Cummings isn’t looking to control the story of slavery in America, he’s looking for those most affected by slavery’s long-lasting impacts to contribute to its present and future narrative.

While this may not seem novel, reports from The Nonprofit Quarterly and Stanford Social Innovation Review highlight a significant lack of diversity within the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits should embrace a wide range of perspectives, including the populations they aim to serve. Traditionally marginalized groups in particular report often feeling like they’re being directed how to solve their problems, but not recognized as collaborators. By viewing the service population as joint members in solving an issue, more trust is built between nonprofits and the communities they serve.


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Innovative Tools for Nonprofits to Collect Data

Nonprofits face the task of collecting data and analyzing what that information actually means. Fortunately, new tools are available that help.

Online Surveys


  1. Gather quanitative and qualitative information in a cost-effective way from a diverse population.


  • SurveyMonkey – Free and premium models exist that allow you to create basic (and advanced) surveys. SurveyMonkey is probably the most used online survey tool. The free version gives you 10 questions, 100 respondents, 15 question types, and some ability to customize your theme. The paid version allows you to export your data and increases the number of respondents, questions, and theme customization ability.
  • Typeform – Also carries a free and paid model. The free version offers unlimited questions and answers, and data exportation. Aesthetically Typeform is probably the most appealing.
  • SurveyGizmo – Several payment tiers. The most expensive version, at $199 per month, offers full integration with Salesforce, MailChimp, and third party software tools.
  • Google Forms – Google, it seems, offers everything. This free tool is very basic. That’s mostly a plus, especially for under-budgeted nonprofits. It’s very simple to setup and see feedback without some of the fancier bells and whistles other online survey platforms offer.
  • Key Survey – Contains a free version but its non-free version delivers the most goods. But it’s expensive, running between $1,950 to $5,950 per year. For nonprofits with large, sustainable budgets, this option might be attraction. Key Survey ranks among the upper echelon of online survey tools.

Mobile Devices


  1. Reaches audiences than can be hard to reach like those who with low-income, teenagers, and the homeless population.
  2. Collects data quickly.
  3. Field staff can acquire data from target populations.


Most mobile data collection apps will be used for either event participants or nonprofit staffers.

  • Event Check-in – allows nonprofit staff to take attendance of their event participants by allowing them to sign-in registrants or scan QR codes.


  • SmartConnect – event attendees can make event schedules, share notes with other event attendees, and check in at the event.
  • Constant Contact’s Event Check-in – staff can keep track of event registrants.
  • Custom-made mobile apps are also an option. The downside is the financial investment to create one can range from the low $1,000’s to more than $10,000. The benefit is having an app that is customized to track all the data points your nonprofit organization wants. The issue is whether or not someone on your staff has the ability to create one or if you have the financial capital to hire a developer.



  1. Can collect mass amounts of information quickly.
  2. Allows people to donate to a nonprofit’s cause or organization.
  3. Great way for nonprofits to send reminders to their service population.


  • TextIt – a great platform for nonprofits to use that offers use without any monthly fees. There’s a sliding pricing scale depending on how many “credits” a nonprofit wants to use.
  • Mobile Commons – this is a mobile & text messaging platform that helps organizations reach more users, drive mobile engagement, & improve conversion rates.
  • Echo Mobile – this is actually an app, but it collects data using surveys in text messages that show the results in real time. This is great when nonprofits need to collect information on something within a specific (usually immediate) window.
  • Celly – a favorite of education-based nonprofits, Celly have a discounted rate for teachers.


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Is Ending Segregation the Key to Ending Poverty?

Innovation is tricky, especially for nonprofits. Fail to evolve and you might fall behind but deviate too far from proven best practices and you could potentially alienate funders while steering your organization on a dysfunctional path.

A recent Atlantic article highlighted a successful example of innovation within the nonprofit sector. The piece titled “Is Ending Segregation the Key to Ending Poverty?” recalls the successful initiative led by the Chicago Housing Authority to relocate low-income African-American residents to economically-secure suburbs in the 1970’s. The article acknowledges that while the program showed significant results, only a few similar efforts exist today.

The Baltimore Mobility Program, which has given more than 2,500 vouchers for families to relocate since 2003, happens to be one of those few. And their success reflects a truism about innovation – innovation is not the holy grail.

So what should nonprofits seeking to be more innovative consider?

1. Don’t innovate just for its own sake. Look to genuinely determine where innovation can help add more value. Innovation that exists to validate an organization as “smart and cutting-edge” doesn’t further the mission.

2. Look to the past for clues. Innovation isn’t just about creating something new. It’s also about taking ideas, behaviors, and materials that exist and using them in new combinations and purposes. Like the Baltimore Mobility Program, consider how you can tailor proven examples of success for your unique situation and service population.

3. Cultivate a culture that supports innovation. Taking a page from technology companies known for innovation such as Apple Inc. and Google, create an atmosphere where innovation is expected and encouraged. Often many nonprofit employees, particularly in non decision-making roles, have unique insights into opportunities for the organization to succeed. But their viewpoint isn’t always encouraged at the table where decisions are made. Creating a culture of innovation means expressing a call for ways to think differently and then publicly rewarding those who follow the call.


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