A Profile in Leadership: things are only impossible until they are NOT.

Today’s blog post is from Jennifer Sampson, CEO and President of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas (UWMD), the largest non-governmental funder of programs to improve education, income and health in North Texas.

We’re honored to have Jennifer as a client and to call her our friend. We think Jennifer’s recent journey as a leader of her organization is a pretty special story. We’re delighted she agreed to share a few highlights.

Jennifer Sampson, President and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas

The Year of Wearing Many Jerseys

I’d like to describe a leadership journey that was strategically planned and brilliantly implemented. It would make a great story, but it wouldn’t be true. I’d always hoped to lead a nonprofit organization someday, but I never expected it would happen like it did.

Last spring I began my 10th year with UWMD. I was comfortable in my role as Chief Operating Officer and was hitting my stride, and starting to find good life/work balance.

On the professional front, I’d been involved in an intense two-and-a-half year Strategic Planning project with our Board and Senior Team. We’d wrapped up our first successful fundraising campaign under a new business model, and exceeded our targets in the first year of a five-year diversified revenue plan. We were in the final stages of executing a brand new, wide open and highly competitive grants process.

On the personal front, I’d made a long list of New Year’s resolutions. I was beginning to carve out time for myself, reading fiction again, practicing more yoga and fulfilling my promise to invest more time with family and friends.

Jennifer and her family.

Soon after planning this new chapter of professional discovery and personal growth, our Chief Development Officer decided to take a new job in Utah. My plan began to change very quickly when our CEO asked me to serve as Interim Chief Development Officer.

Here’s what I thought:

“Hmm…fundraising? I’m a CPA who graduated with an accounting degree. I have no formal training in development or fundraising…”

But here’s what I said:

“Put me IN, coach!”

It sounded like an interesting new challenge and I was excited to start a new learning journey, so I put on a new jersey, Team Fund Development.

I didn’t expect what happened next…

About two months later our CEO, who hired me as Chief Financial Officer in 2001, retired after a 30-year career with United Way, and almost 13 years with UWMD in Dallas.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with our Board Chair shortly thereafter. She said: “The Board is exercising the emergency succession plan and effective immediately, you are the Interim President and CEO of UWMD.”

Here’s what I thought:

“Hmmm… I was just named interim CDO. And I’m still the COO. Does this mean I am now the COO, the CDO and the CEO?”

“Hmmm…I’m a CPA who graduated with an accounting degree. I have no formal training in being a CEO…”

But, here’s what I said:

“Put me IN, coach!”

This opportunity sounded like a fascinating new learning journey — and quite possibly the beginning of the next chapter of my professional career. So I jumped in, again, and added a new jersey to my wardrobe, Team CEO. “Put me in coach” was my mantra – TWO times. And, I ended up wearing three different jerseys (all at the same time) for the UWMD team during most of last year.

Ultimately the Board of Directors named me permanent President and CEO, the first female in UWMD’s history. And even though I felt unprepared, I knew this was a unique moment in time. I knew I needed to embrace discomfort in order to embrace the possible. And, as this new door opened, I had to enter with faith and confidence.

This past year has not been easy. It’s oftentimes been a bumpy ride, and we’ve been thrown into situations we’ve never experienced before. It’s why I feel so fortunate to work with an outstanding Senior Team whose members know how to embrace discomfort and adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Together, we continue to learn how to best leverage our skills and competencies. It feels good to wear just one jersey again. And, although many think I am fairly imposing at 5 feet 12 inches, I still like to wear my CEO jersey with high heels.

The Year of Taking Risks

We continue to embrace discomfort in order to embrace the possible because our organization is still in a period of significant change and transition.

Since 1924, United Way has been in the business of improving people’s lives. But our biggest challenge in this last decade has been measuring our results: demonstrating that our investments in education, income and health are making the biggest possible impact — changing lives forever.

In order to overcome this challenge, UWMD had to evolve beyond the community chest model of only raising and distributing money annually to a stable set of excellent local nonprofit organizations. To know that every dollar, every hour given would make a measurable, lasting impact in people’s lives — we had to make big changes to address the root causes of significant issues:

  • We had to commit ourselves to making decisions based on outcomes, results and measurement.
  • We had to diversify our revenue streams and develop innovative impact strategies in order to expand our capacity to affect lasting change.
  • We had to build partnerships and strategic alliances to address the underlying root causes of big issues.
  • And, we had to modify and open our grants process so that greater competition could drive even greater results.

Our Healthy Zone School program, with program advisory co-chairs Dr. Kenneth Cooper and Troy Aikman

This kind of transformation involved a significant amount of risk. Some of our long-term investments will not yield outcomes overnight, but we’re confident external evaluation will measure annual results and help us chart our course over the next 10 years. In the meantime, we’re delighted that in the face of numerous challenges, we’ve delivered some extraordinary results in North Texas:

  • In the face of national trends of declining revenue for nonprofits, UWMD is growing. Our revenue increased 11% — from more diverse sources this past year.
  • After decades of declines in the number of United Way donors, over the last two years, the number of UWMD donors increased by 6%.
  • The number of United Way volunteers increased 11% year over year.
  • And, for the first time in the history of UWMD, we’ve recruited four Fortune 500 CEOs to chair the UWMD campaign:
    • Randall Stephenson, AT&T
    • Rich Templeton, Texas Instruments
    • Tom Falk, Kimberly Clark Corporation
    • Tom Greco, Frito Lay North Texas

Do we still have work to do? Absolutely! But the revenue and engagement proof points demonstrate that the new UWMD message is resonating, and the North Texas community is supporting our continued transformation.

What I’ve Learned

Drawing from what I’ve learned this past year — and from what UWMD has learned these last couple of years — I believe in two important KEYS to transformation:

  • Taking risks
  • Building strong relationships

Taking risks involves experiencing inevitable surprises and setbacks, but great challenges often evoke valuable and unexpected learning experiences. I’ve learned to embrace discomfort because when we move past it, we discover that it’s a precondition to service. And, I’ve learned to embrace frustration because when we get really frustrated, it’s a precondition to conviction, true originality and innovation.

I’ve also learned that true value comes from the quality of our relationships, and we must never take them for granted. We are richly blessed when our organizations are successful, and our personal journeys are made possible, because of the powerful networks of people behind us: committed volunteers, investors and partners, caring colleagues and associates, wise mentors and advisors and loving family and friends. When we’re trying to transform — ourselves or our organizations — doesn’t it feel wonderful to be part of a group? Succeed or fail, it is much more fun and much more satisfying to move forward with other people.

Sometimes I still feel like an accidental CEO in the second year of a big new job with an organization still going through a significant amount of change. When discomfort starts to settle in, I’m reminded of one of the most important truths I’ve learned from my leadership journey, and the evolving transformation of UWMD: things are only impossible until they are NOT.

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