How United Way Of Metropolitan Dallas Is Ushering In A New Wave Of Philanthropy


By Trevor Neilson

You've probably heard of United Way. In fact, most people in the U.S. are aware of United Way's work. Maybe you heard about them in your office or school, or maybe you heard about one of their events. But one way or another, you probably know their name.

And when you think of them, "cutting edge" may not be the first phrase that comes to mind. There's often a misperception about established non-profit organizations -- that they are large, bureaucratic and haven't evolved with the times. That they are an old-fashioned charity -- they've been around a long time and do good work, but they're not the kind of organization that would attract both grandmothers who have given to United Way for decades, and their iPhone-toting Millennial grandchildren.

I've had the pleasure of working with a few United Way chapters recently (as well as some of the "hippest" non-profit organizations around), and I'd like to wholeheartedly dispel that myth. This was never more apparent than this past weekend at the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas' 90th Anniversary Unite Forever Gala.

While the AT&T stadium in Dallas is usually filled with rowdy Cowboys fans, last Friday it was packed with 20,000 United Way supporters. In and of itself, this is pretty remarkable -- that 20,000 people care enough about the challenges in their community to show up on a Friday night. But part of what really made this event extraordinary was the breadth of people involved -- everybody from everyday supporters who have donated to United Way for decades, to Fortune 500 CEOs, to first and second graders from local classrooms, to two former First Ladies, to the Dallas Cowboys, to countless 20-somethings, all singing their hearts out to Blake Shelton and Usher. The juxtaposition of these two radically different performers -- country star Blake Shelton and hip-hop icon Usher -- reflected the event's juxtaposition of a 90-year-old organization successfully navigating the 21st century.

This shift wasn't just apparent the night of the event. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas has been hosting events all year to rally the entire community around education, financial stability and health. They hosted a series of nine volunteer events leading up to Friday night's event, connecting local supporters -- from every corner of the region -- to the projects that are changing lives -- programs like meal deliveries, after school programs and job trainings. At a happy hour event last fall, United Way supporters in Dallas brought school supplies to donate in exchange for free beer at a local bar (Which makes me wonder, how many more young people would get involved in local causes if it involved free beer...?).

In addition to their efforts to engage the next generation, United Way of Dallas is working hard to re-engineer their approach to grantmaking. In 2011, theytransformed their entire process -- rather than giving to the same grantees each year, they created a competitive application process to ensure that they continue to give to the highest-impact organizations. As logical as this may sound to most people in business, it's a fairly radical approach for many in the non-profit sector. But when you're investing $44M in the community each year, it's the smart thing to do.

This is in huge credit to their fearless leader, CEO and President Jennifer Sampson, who has challenged and pushed the organization and built an incredible team that has enabled the organization to serve as a leader both in Dallas, and among other United Ways throughout the country. You may think that you know what United Way is about but then you get in a room with this woman and she'll give you a run for your money. This is largely rooted in who she is and her innate tenacity, but also in her background. Before joining United Way, Jennifer worked in business and she brings that framework to her work at United Way. This has translated into a greater emphasis on return on investment, and a pivot to experimenting with new and innovative marketing tactics that get United Way's message into the community.

As someone who's been involved in the philanthropic sector for a long time, I find it exciting to see an organization as trusted and effective as United Way evolving and adapting in this way. United Way has had a tremendous impact in the Dallas community and I'm excited about what's to come. And if it continues to involve live music and fireworks, I'll be there.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post