When Jennifer Sampson was in elementary school, she spent summers in Arkansas at the Siloam Springs Baptist Church Camp where her grandfather, Dr. Lawson Hatfield, was camp director for decades. Sampson watched Hatfield, a Southern Baptist minister, as he inspired campers to financially support Baptist mission work and programs.
During those early years of her life, Sampson’s parents and grandparents instilled in her the importance of servant leadership. Hatfield in particular was an exemplar of the “golden rule” message found in Luke 6:31: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Sampson took that to heart. As student body president at Arlington High School, she had a hand in the student council’s fundraising and volunteer activities. At Baylor University, she held leadership positions in her sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, and was connected to nonprofits in Waco. In addition, she learned about corporate philanthropy and social responsibility as a student in the Hankamer School of Business.
“But I really got more engaged personally after I graduated from college,” she says.
So engaged, that she turned philanthropy into profession. Now, as chief executive officer and self-proclaimed chief encouragement officer of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, Sampson relies on her background in business to improve the income, health and education of North Texans.
For Sampson, who’s lived in Preston Hollow for eight years with her husband, Edward, and son, Hilton, philanthropy and finance are fundamentally related.
Prior to joining United Way in 2001, she worked as a CPA and manager in the audit and business advisory practice at the Dallas office of accounting firm Arthur Andersen. It was at Andersen where she first learned about United Way and became involved with it as a donor and volunteer.
“When I was at Andersen, United Way was a part of the culture, the DNA of our firm,” she says.
Her experience in the business world is apparent in the language she employs to define philanthropy.
“Sometimes that [philanthropy] requires financial investment. Sometimes it requires volunteerism. Sometimes it requires a random act of kindness,” she says. “But to me, philanthropy is investing, whether it’s any of those things, in activities that help drive impact.”
Before becoming United Way’s first female CEO, Sampson was the organization’s CFO and COO. Though each of these roles included different responsibilities, her goals remained similar.
“I wanted United Way to be an organization that could deliver social return on investment, not just sprinkle goodness all over the community to great organizations that needed resources. I wanted to be able to prove that our investments actually drove measurable outcome that we identified in our three areas of focus,” Sampson says.
Last year, United Way announced its Aspire United 2030 goals. In terms of improving education, the organization has selected one challenge to tackle: 50% of North Texans do not read on grade level. The plan is that in the next 10 years, 50% more students in our region will be reading on grade level by third grade. And, United Way wants to double the achievement rate for Black and Latinx students.
“In our work, we believe that everyone should have the same opportunity to reach their full potential,” Sampson says.
To achieve this, United Way begins addressing educational issues in children even before they enter school. Its home visits and parent education support program, which transitioned to virtual interaction, serves almost 15,000 parents of young children. Another program, which was funded by Atmos Energy, provides free subscriptions to Vooks, a storybook streaming app. This helps parents and teachers build language and literacy skills for children up to age 6.
United Way also provides assistance to children in school. When the pandemic started, the organization ensured that students had internet access and equipment so they could continue learning at home.
But education isn’t just for kids. United Way is helping young adults land and keep living-wage jobs through Pathways to Work, a program that focuses on developing new skills and gaining credentials.
“When I think about my future, I want to ensure that we not only meet but we exceed these goals that we’ve set for the community,” Sampson says.
She has come a long way since her summers at the Siloam Springs Baptist Church Camp. Rather than spending days watching her grandfather inspire campers and churchgoers to give to charitable causes, Sampson’s days are usually dedicated to back-to-back Zoom calls with investors and others, starting around 7 a.m. and ending no sooner than 6 p.m.
Just as her philanthropic journey began during childhood, she encourages the next generation to be “just as generous, just as resilient as the generations before them.”
Her message to the next cohort of philanthropists is, “You’re never too young to get involved, to give back, to serve, to advocate, to invest.”
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