Interview by Mary Martin. Photos courtesy of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.
Jennifer Sampson has steered the United Way of Metropolitan as President and CEO for nearly a decade, building relationships and strategic giving pathways to meet critical needs in the Dallas area. When COVID-19 first appeared in Dallas, Jennifer joined with other philanthropy leaders to make collaboration the first priority. The result of that teamwork is North Texas Cares, a grant created for emergency response funds, and North Texas Giving Tuesday Now, a giving day that brings together North Texas Giving Day and Giving Tuesday efforts on May 5. We asked Jennifer about her thoughts on the “new normal” for nonprofits, and what kind of creative problem solving she is seeing in the community.
When COVID-19 reached North Texas, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas was quick to jump in with two feet and start funding response efforts. How did your ongoing relationships with other nonprofit leaders help create that movement?
During these unprecedented times, our greatest assets are each other.
North Texas has a history of coming together to take care of one another, overcoming many difficult situations over the years including natural disasters, man-made disasters, and economic emergencies—but nothing quite like the health and economic crisis we face today.
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is in the response and recovery business every day. It’s why we are uniquely positioned to quickly analyze immediate needs and connect resources where they will make the greatest impact. Our team—of seasoned impact professionals and experts—has a pulse on the community through deep relationships with nearly 200 service providers and impact partners.
There are a lot of ways to encourage generosity during a crisis. What makes a community-wide giving day exciting for nonprofits and their supporters?
We’re excited about linking arms and standing with each other, mobilizing our community to join us in this collective effort to address immediate and urgent needs of North Texans as well as long-term challenges that will affect education, income and health outcomes across our community.
We witness the power of unity to create change every day at United Way. Especially in times like these, North Texans always step forward together to support our communities. This crisis can be a defining moment of solidarity. Our nonprofits are on the front lines, and they need everyone’s generous support to respond to the unprecedented need created by this pandemic.
So far, the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas Response and Recovery Fund has collected more than $4 million and distributed more than $1.3 million to local nonprofits in need. We are incredibly grateful for the leadership and commitment of these donors and know their response will encourage others to contribute to the Fund.
We invite all our North Texas neighbors to invest—with gifts of any size—to grow this Fund, which will continue to address urgent needs of North Texans, as well as longer-term challenges that will affect education, income, and health outcomes across our community in the weeks, months and years to come.
What’s also exciting to me about this community-wide giving day—is that it’s about so much more than just giving. North Texas #GivingTuesdayNow is a chance to activate deeply networked grassroots generosity as a way to rebuild our communities. The one currency we all have in deep reserve is generosity. And it’s not about size: we all have something to give and every act of human consideration and kindness matters.
Even as we confront uncertainty and volatility, together we will live united to lend support and emerge stronger than ever before.
United Way in Dallas has a focus on education, income, and health. How has this pandemic affected each of those and what kind of solutions are you working toward with your team?
United Way is working with community leaders, including the Dallas County Health Department, funders, school districts, and our service providers to identify resource and service gaps and begin planning for long-term recovery. Contributions to the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas Coronavirus Response & Recovery Fund will address immediate and urgent needs of North Texans, as well as longer-term challenges that will affect education, income, and health outcomes across our community. Funds will go to community-based organizations assisting those who have been hit hardest by this pandemic.
The first two rounds of grant recipients focus on one or more of the immediate needs of vulnerable North Texas populations, such as access to food, shelter, and healthcare, and emergency financial assistance in response to job/income loss. Several also address the educational and emotional needs of children and adults across North Texas.
We continue to receive a high volume of applications via North Texas Cares, and anticipate this will continue for the foreseeable future. Our team will continue to provide funding recommendations on a weekly rolling basis to address the evolving needs of our community.
When people talk about a “new normal” for nonprofits and social good companies, what is one of the things you think will change the most?
People keep asking, ‘What can we compare this to?’ And probably the answer is, not much. There are some similarities with other crises like natural disasters or manmade disasters, or even 9/11, but the global impact and the long-term impact locally—it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
The long-term implications will affect everyone—regardless of where you are—socio-economic status or anything else. This is one of those times when saying “We’re all in this together” is not just a sound bite, it’s a critical necessity.
I’m reminded of the quote, “I find no comfort in the fact that the hole is in your side of the boat.” We’re all in the same boat, and to fix this the nonprofit sector is going to have to build upon an already strong foundation of partnership and collaboration—and work more closely together than ever before.
The independent Sector put together a report called The Financial Health of the United States Nonprofit Sector back in January, 2018. It was sponsored by Oliver Wyman and Sea Change and GuideStar, who is now Candid.
The report was written at a time when the economy was roaring along, and at that time, about 7% to 8% of nonprofits in the US were technically insolvent; 30% faced liquidity issues that could result in crisis; and 50% of nonprofits had less than one month of operating reserves.
So, with the instability of financial health of many nonprofits going into this crisis, and a growing unemployment rate, the financial stability of the nonprofit sector is at risk. Nonprofit employees across the country, and right here at home, are taking care of the most vulnerable in our society. So, while we work hard to ensure that our businesses are strong and robust, we must also focus on bolstering the resilience of our nonprofits, too.
Now is the time to mobilize resources to keep nonprofits operational. We need our sector to stay strong and sustainable for recovery and rebuilding efforts.
The uncertainties and challenges can seem daunting at times. But I never have been more optimistic and enthusiastic about our collective ability to navigate through this together—to stay disciplined and focused on assessing community needs and opportunities, solving problems and driving impact, and securing resources necessary to do this work.
We’re in this together. And together, we’ll emerge stronger. We always have.
Who or what is keeping you inspired and encouraged these days?
The COVID 19 crisis has reinforced what we already know; when you live and work alongside North Texans—people with great courage and great compassion—great things happen in communities.
I’m so proud of—and inspired by—the generosity, engagement and support of our North Texas neighbors. Every day, and in every way, hand raisers and change makers are reaching out to battle the inertia of circumstances—mobilizing individuals and institutions with the resources, the profile, the imagination, and demonstrated commitment to North Texas’ future to do the seemingly impossible.
I am also inspired by the current innovation we see in the local nonprofit sector—there are so many current examples coming through the North Texas Cares platform. This is encouraging because at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas we are committed to developing and deploying new and effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social impact and progress—not just through our social innovation accelerator—but through all United Way targeted investments and initiatives.
There is no doubt that we’re better able to respond and deliver when we work in a united way. It’s why I continue to be inspired and encouraged by the collaborative efforts in response to the immediate crisis, and the commitment from so many to be ready to serve in the recovery and re-building efforts critical to our community’s success when the crisis is behind us.
How can community supporters be strategic with their giving right now?
With the immediate and generous response of local corporations and philanthropic partners, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas has been able to rapidly provide critical funding to local nonprofit organizations expediently and efficiently.
As federal funding from the CARES Act and public resources at the city and county level begin to flow into these areas, we will shift United Way funding to support longer-term recovery efforts—and continue our focus on improvement in Education, Income, and Health outcomes. Financial support for this work will be more crucial than ever before in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
The needs of our community are growing quickly—and will continue to do so. We remain committed to ensuring that all North Texans have the opportunity and power to meet their full potential. We hope all will join us in supporting our North Texas community through a contribution to the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas Coronavirus Response & Recovery Fund.
What neighborhood restaurant is getting your take-out order this week?
It is such a challenging time for the service and hospitality industry right now. I’m heartened and encouraged by our local business owners’ determination and fortitude to stay open to continue to serve our neighborhoods and take care of their employees. It’s an honor and a great pleasure to support our local North Texas restaurants. This week my family is honoring a long-standing family tradition by ordering Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Korean dishes from Oishii—and supporting our good friend Chef Thanh Nguyen.