By Cheryl Hall
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the powerhouse woman behind the fundraising efforts of the United Way in Dallas. No task is too small for Jennifer Sampson who is knocking the ball out of the park in raising funds for the organization.
The Dallas Morning News
Jennifer Sampson is on a roll.
Since taking over the helm in 2011, the 47-year-old CEO of United Way Metropolitan Dallas has turned a troubled nonprofit into a philanthropic powerhouse.
She’s helped bring in more than $400 million in donations, enlisted a series of global CEOs to head the annual fund drive, secured the high-profile support of Cowboys great Troy Aikman and launched a bold $100 million endowment campaign.
But she keeps her family at the top of her priority list.
That means days that typically start at 4:45 a.m. and end after midnight.
Last week, in the midst of meetings with potential major donors, strategic planning sessions with staff, a luncheon with key supporters and a trip to Orlando to give a presentation, Sampson ran carpool for her fourth-grade son, Hilton, attended his baseball and basketball games, went to his daytime choir and piano performances and had morning coffee with other moms to talk about what to expect when their sons move from lower to middle school at St. Mark’s School of Texas.
She also managed to squeeze in an early morning session with her personal trainer and attend two evening events.
Her crowning achievement was making guacamole and quesadillas for Hilton’s Spanish class festival with the help of her trial attorney husband, Ed,
A world-class juggler would have been impressed.
On Tuesday, Sampson and United Way announced that another two prominent Dallas families had kicked in a million bucks apiece to the recently created nonprofit’s endowment.
The combined gifts from Margot and H. Ross Perot Sr. and Sally and Forrest Hoglund are another milestone for the Unite Forever campaign, which has pulled in $43 million in less than two years.
“Jennifer’s got every good trait of a leader and no bad traits,” says Ruth Sharp Altshuler, one of Dallas’ grande dames of philanthropy. “She’s an idea-a-second girl, not just one a minute, and they’re all big. She never loses that enthusiasm.”
When I talk about United Way, I’m talking about the regional organization that includes Dallas, Collin, Rockwall and southern Denton counties.
This latest good news was shared with 170 of the United Way’s most devoted supporters who’d gathered for its Tocqueville Society’s monthly second-Tuesday luncheon at the Mansion on Turtle Creek.
What Sampson didn’t say from the stage is that the endowment campaign will cross the halfway mark of its $100 million goal by this summer.
That means she must have another $7 million up her sleeve.
“It’s safe to say that,” she says.
Asked if his $1 million was just bait for more money to come, Forrest Hoglund responds, “Probably, knowing Jennifer.”
Hard to miss
The striking 6-foot blonde who adds inches to her height with her high heels is hard to miss in a crowd.
Growing up, she was taller than the boys and always on the back row for photos.
“I was more self-conscious about it when I was younger,” she says of her height. “I love it now.”
At Arlington High School, Jennifer Hilton played volleyball, ran track and was a high-jumper, served as president of the student body and choir, and was an A student. Under her breath, she adds that she was homecoming queen.
She doesn’t mention that she was also Miss AHS and the outstanding senior girl.
“I really enjoy people and love connecting them with what they care about,” she says. “That’s a big part of this job.”
Sampson’s official title is the McDermott-Templeton president and chief executive officer thanks to two million-dollar “naming rights gifts” in 2015 from Margaret McDermott, widow of TI co-founder Eugene McDermott, and Texas Instruments CEO Rich Templeton and his wife, Mary.
In 2011, United Way was in a bad way.
Sampson, a former CPA with Arthur Andersen, was the agency’s chief operating officer and was leading a task force about why donors were bailing in droves and fundraising was on a steady decline.
But before the task force could come up with answers, United Way’s board of directors came up with its own.
The incoming chairwoman took Sampson to dinner and told her the board was exercising its “emergency succession plan” and that she was the interim CEO, effective with her next bite of salmon.
Three months later, Sampson was permanently in place, but not before stirring up a hornet’s nest.
She’d gone full-throttle into a new strategy that gave grants only to initiatives focused on education, financial stability and health initiatives and that could prove that they were meeting measurable goals.
Blindsided former grant recipients and their supporters were outraged.
The strategy has proved spot-on. A recent report card from the University of Texas at Dallas, which is monitoring United Way’s effectiveness, shows improvement in North Texas college readiness, poverty levels and health standards.
But the original backlash taught her that she needed to better manage relationships, something she excels at now.
Randall Stephenson, AT&T president and CEO and chairman of United Way’s annual drive in 2011, has mentored Sampson since her early missteps.
“Working with Randall that first year was wonderful,” Sampson says. “He provided resources when I needed them. He put his senior leadership team on our board and our different committees.
“We worked through that year together. He was tough but fair. He had high expectations, very high.”
She’s been worth the effort, Stephenson says.
“Nonprofit leaders who have an incredible level of energy, great leadership, great business acumen, and great presence in front of people and audience is such a hard combination to find,” Stephenson says. “I’ll just tell you, Jennifer is the full package. She’s made United Way the leading nonprofit in this community, not just in terms of how much money it raises but in the impact it’s making in the community.”
Lining up CEOs
Enlisting the biggest corporate names in town got easier after that.
“If Randall Stephenson could do it, it was really difficult for others to say that they didn’t have the time,” Sampson says.
Rich Templeton at Texas Instruments stepped to the plate next, followed by Tom Falk at Kimberly-Clark, Tom Greco, then CEO of Frito-Lay North America, and David Seaton at Fluor.
Each set a record for the annual fund and helped re-establish United Way’s cachet in the business community.
The 2016-17 chair, Mark Rohr, CEO of Celanese, is closing in on another record goal of $70 million-plus.
She’s also able to take a little of the starch out of these titans of commerce.
Sampson videoed Falk singing with Blake Shelton and Usher at United Way’s 90th anniversary fete at Jerry’s World in 2015.
The video made it into the hands of the person doing the introduction at a recent Kimberly-Clark meeting in Nashville.
Falk says a young employee came up to him afterward and said, ” ‘Your cool factor went way up.’ I had to admit that my cool factor started out at a very low level.”
The upcoming annual campaign has a global icon of a different sort: Troy Aikman, who has steadily increased his involvement with United Way under Sampson’s leadership.
His 2017-18 campaign officially begins July 1, but Aikman kicked it off early with a star-studded reunion of the Cowboys’ 1990s championship teams of Super Bowls XXVII, XXVIII and XXX. It was patterned after United Way’s anniversary celebration, which Aikman co-chaired with Cowboys executive vice president Charlotte Jones Anderson two years ago.
“Jennifer’s great,” says Aikman. “I admire her commitment to United Way and her tenacity. She gets things done, and she’s in it for the right reasons.