See more of the story

– Holly Sampson is leaving the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation $75 million richer than when she found it.

After 30 years at the helm of the foundation, Sampson decided to go out on a high note and step down as president, a job she calls the "best in the city," this summer.

"We're really positioned for some growth," she said. "This seems like the right time."

The community foundation, which supports scholarships, economic development, arts, human services and more, has grown its endowment from $5 million to nearly $80 million under Sampson's leadership. It also established a civility project, Speak your Peace, now found in communities around the world.

Sampson, 65, said that her successor will take the reins just as the foundation is blowing past its recent goals and setting new plans for the future.

"Hopefully I've left everything in good shape," Sampson said.

The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation was formed in 1983 amid a swiftly declining population and a tanking economy. A $750,000 startup grant from the Bush Foundation was secured as a way to improve on that outlook.

"There were a lot of people heading south and leaving the community, and a fair amount of pessimism about what we were facing as a community and what our economic future might be," Sampson said.

In the years since, the city's population stabilized — it has remained around 86,000 for three decades now — and health care, tourism and new manufacturers have revitalized the economy.

"We are in a very different place today," Sampson said. "Do we have the workforce we need for the job openings we have?"

The foundation, which has distributed $59 million in grants since its founding, has made attracting and retaining a workforce one of its key goals. Sampson said that initiative has been largely successful, though even as the economy has improved, it has left many behind.

"For lower-income people it's not working as well as we'd like it to work," she said. "The incredible thing is many of our assets are unrestricted — the board will be able to have the flexibility to address needs as they arise."

As a board member for the Minnesota Council on Foundations, Sampson helped set guiding principles for grantmakers. That leaves a lasting impact on charitable giving in the state, said the council's president, Susie Brown.

"She's been a very important leader in Minnesota's philanthropic community," Brown said. "She's an engaging, smart, energetic person. I wish I would have had a longer chance to work with her."

Sampson will be giving a keynote speech at the council's annual conference in February; her last day with the community foundation will be June 30.

Then she'll be looking abroad for her next challenge. International service, she said: "I'll be a volunteer going forward."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496