As McDermott-Templeton President and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, Jennifer Sampson knows the value of building communities. The over 90-year-old agency is the largest non-governmental funder of programs to improve education, income and health in Dallas. Sampson describes it as a complex community. “It is one of the nation’s wealthiest and most generous cities, but thirty-eight percent of our children live in poverty; only a third of our high school students gradate college-ready; three-quarters of a million people in our service area do not have health insurance.” Sampson has brought together corporate, foundation, and nonprofit forces to drive change. During her 6-year tenure as CEO, the United Way team has seen a record-breaking 30% revenue growth and the number of volunteer hours has more than tripled.
Community-building is a key component in long-term success for business and for the business of philanthropy. During her time at United Way Dallas, she has built a list of necessary actions, what she calls “Sampson’s Seven” for building healthy modern-day community.
- We before me.
“That’s a principle most of us learn in kindergarten when our teachers are trying to get us to think beyond a typical child’s selfishness,” Sampson says. “But it applies at the organizational level. When we work in silos we waste resources, create redundancies, and trip over one another.” It is also true for community partnerships, which amplify resources and solutions when it’s ‘we before me.’
Sampson describes a 2008 plan for major changes to United Way Dallas’s work and organization. “We identified long-term measurable community impact goals. Our volunteers created the need for uncomfortable change within the organization and beyond. ‘We before me’ made those changes not just necessary, but exhilarating. Planning and priorities set by “we” superseded those set by “me.” Of course that also means that when things go wrong, “I” tend to take a little more share of the blame… and a little less share of the credit when things go right.”
- Change the way things are.
“A community is a living organism,” Sampson argues. “It’s either declining or improving; there’s no steady-state in a community.” Leaders must understand that in a world of rapid change, those who don’t take action risk failure or irrelevancy. Small changes are great but sometimes it is necessary to rattle the foundations, or awaken sleeping giants.
“Just be prepared to show the giants your plan and path and invite them along on a new journey,” she warns. “United Way had to make big changes to big things because we had trend lines moving the wrong direction. Our goals have now become expectations–and they’re big and bold. We want to prepare at least 60 percent of all students to graduate and have success in college and careers. We are building pathways out of poverty PERMANENTLY for 250,000 individuals. And we’re paving the way to better health through programs that empower people.”
United Way Dallas is changing the way they do this, investing in social enterprise; using digital tools and technology; experimenting with unique and unexpected new events, platforms and campaigns; and thinking like the biggest fundraising organizations.
- Fail fast; fail forward.
Social problems can seem unsolvable, as the solutions are often complex and multi-faceted. Sampson argues, “There is no silver bullet for any societal problem facing our world today. So we need to try lots of solutions, and some will fail. Fail in the direction of more information. Fail in the direction of informing the community. Fail fast enough to re-group, adjust and try something different because you’re measuring and evaluating and sharing results with each other. Fail with all the players in the room to hammer out the next solution. And own the mistake. Own what went wrong so that the conversation about failure and adjusting is normalized.”
- Embrace discomfort. The impossible is possible.
Sampson expects her team to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. “Upsetting colleagues and community groups is uncomfortable,” she acknowledges. “We live in a world of winners and losers. A lot of people keep score, and when powerful groups lose (funding, for example), forward progress feels impossible.” But building community means throwing out that kind of scorecard and doing the impossible–that is, convincing unhappy constituents that you have their interests at heart, that there is a better way, and sticking with it.
For example, Sampson points out many United Way chapters don’t work with donor advised funds. “But one of our most faithful supporters and donors, Troy Aikman, asked us to consider working with him to establish a donor advised fund. Making that possible put us in a position to build a relationship with Troy and leverage his incredibly influential voice for our cause. But, it also made some of our peer organizations uncomfortable.”
- “To thine own self be true.”
What does Hamlet have to do with community-building? Sampson explains: “We are all complex, multi-layered, and part of something bigger. I am a CEO, but I am also a wife, mother, and celebrator. I try to show up with my authentic self. Because when I don’t let my values and my roles and my responses truly reflect me, my internal team knows it, and the larger community sees the inconsistency. I’m a hugger, not a hand-shaker, so I hug.
At our office, we dress not for our corporate donors but for the communities we serve. We join them in the opening of neighborhood clinics. We bring babies to the office. We leave for school plays. We build community by being in the community.”
- Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
“You’ve heard this one,” she laughs, “Lucky breaks happen when people come together, identify problems together, posit solutions together–and work like crazy to be ready for the opportunity that may come. It works for individuals. It works for communities. When Toyota announced the move of the corporate headquarters and a significant part of its manufacturing to the Dallas area, we were ready to support their transition to their new home. We provided comprehensive information about community needs and resources. As a result, we’ve formed a partnership to launch their inaugural One Million Dollar Impact Grant in 2017.”
- Embrace a larger purpose.
Sampson has found this last point the most important in personal and professional life. “It’s also the one that is at the heart of defining a 21st century community,” she insists. “You read in the news about some of the world’s superrich buying remote islands and equipping their planes for flight from the apocalypse. I just laugh. That’s a failed community on the largest scale. But it’s also the possible end game of decades of indifference to the child who reached adulthood unable to read, or the elderly woman who hasn’t enough to eat two blocks from a grocery store, or the family who cannot hand off to its next generation a better life than the one they have. I don’t want to live in the world with those warning signs as societal markers. So my larger purpose–and the effective 21st community–looks to a larger purpose–and makes it happen.”
About Jennifer Sampson
Jennifer Sampson is chief executive officer and president of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, the largest non-governmental funder of programs to improve education, income and health in Dallas, Collin, Rockwall and southern Denton counties. Jennifer received her BBA from Baylor University and is a Certified Public Accountant in the State of Texas. She has completed executive education courses through the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She started her professional career at Arthur Andersen in 1991 and ten years later joined United Way as senior vice president and chief financial officer. In 2004, she was promoted to chief operating officer.
Since being appointed as CEO and president in September 2011, Jennifer has built community confidence in the United Way’s mission and impact priorities, and achieved unprecedented results in resource development. These results were accomplished through revenue diversification, new and more innovative investment tools and strategies, and broader forms of collective community impact than the United Way has ever considered before.
Jennifer is a founding member of the United Way’s Women of Tocqueville Society and serves on the United Way Worldwide National Professional Council, Fortune 500 Task Force and Select Cities. She is a sustaining member of the Junior League of Dallas, and was a member of the Cattle Baron’s Ball Committee from 2001 to 2008. She has been a member of the Crystal Charity Ball Committee since 2009 and has served on the Baylor University Alumni Association Board of Directors and Executive Committee. She is a member of the International Women’s Forum, the Business and Community Advisory Council of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank Board, and the Dallas Assembly. She was named the Women’s Council of Dallas County’s 2012 Woman of the Year, and in 2013 was recognized as one of the youngest recipients of the Baylor Distinguished Alumni Award.
Jennifer and her husband, Edward, have one son, Hilton.