Over the last two years, nonprofits have seen digital marketing and fundraising accelerate at lightning speed. In this season of Groupthinkers, we’re dedicating each episode to discussing digital advancement with some of the industry’s leading experts.
On this episode, we sit down with two of RKD’s own: Amanda Wasson, Executive Vice President of Donor Experience and Innovation, and Charles Lehosit, Vice President of Digital Technology. Tune in as we talk about:
- How nonprofits can determine their digital maturity level
- The role measurement plays in digital acceleration
- Tips for assessing your digital tech stack
Meet our guests
Executive Vice President of Donor Experience and Innovation, RKD Group
“And I think that's the beauty of digital … that it's accessible to all, right? And it's just a matter of like, where do you start? … First of all, make sure that your website is user friendly …That means, can people find out about you in a simple way. And can they make an easy donation? People are used to easy, and they are used to good user experience. So can they do that, fundamentally, before you start really trying to drive more traffic, to get more people to engage with you as an organization?”
Vice President of Digital Technology, RKD Group
“If you aren't expanding into new territory, new ground, you really want to assess your current tools. Many, many organizations are not quite using their tools to the maximum capability to get to the full opportunity that they have available. And so, I would recommend that you bring in an expert to do an assessment and audit.”
Justin McCord: Welcome to this episode of Groupthinkers. I'm your host, Justin McCord. With me, as always, is Mardi Gras’ own Ronnie Richard. I say that because we were just talking about Mardi Gras and Ronnie's role in Mardi Gras.
OK, Ronnie. So, here's the thing—we would not be sitting here doing this if it weren't for the two people who are joining us. And so, what you may or may not know is that the seed, the idea and the initial push around RKD having a podcast came, separately, from these two, our two guests today.
So I remember sitting in New Orleans, actually, with Charles, the VP of Technology, sitting with him at a restaurant in New Orleans and talking about what we do and how, you know, not only are we this marketing and fundraising agency or services firm, but how we feel this burden to bring innovation and thinking into the space and help guide clients. And you know, he said, ‘Justin, what you should really do is you should get a podcast going for us.’ And so that was probably 2016, 2017, somewhere in that time frame.
And Amanda Wasson, Executive Vice President of Donor Experience and Innovation for RKD Group, has long since been … she's actually one of the OG podcast listeners. And so, she helped create this vehicle and helped us get support and resources towards us even being here.
So, Ronnie, you're in the presence of, like, the eternals of Groupthinkers today.
Ronnie Richard: They're like the Titans.
Justin: Yeah, yeah. So, so welcome. On each and every episode. We have someone who is doing something new and innovative, that's thinking differently. And for my money, I could not pick two people that I've been able to spend the better part of the last 10 years with that do things differently and think differently and push us out in the space. So welcome Charles and welcome Amanda to the show.
Amanda Wasson: Thank you.
Justin: So today is going to be fun. So, we are using this conversation to launch a season's worth of content and episodes that's around digital advancement. And so, one of the first things that we're going to have to do is unpack what the heck that means, because it can get awfully buzzy. And so, we want to help understand and make sense of that for our nonprofit marketer audience. So that's really where we're going to spend a lot of our time today as a part of this episode.
At the beginning, though, you know, I love having everyone explain their journey and talk about how they got to today. And I know both of your paths, but I want our audience to get to share in those, so Charles, if you would, give us a snapshot of your path into nonprofit marketing.
Charles: It's definitely a twisted road. I got started in technology in 2001, joining a technology startup and took some twists and turns, as I think everyone does in their career. I have a lot of commercial agency experience and went out on my own and eventually met the folks that have become RKD Group and, you know, am having a ton of fun here. I've been at RKD Group since 2013, and I've been … I still learn something every day.
It also helps being in this space, in digital, it means that you are always learning and always, you know, having to rise to the new challenges.
Justin: Yeah, that's … and I remember, I remember the day you came in. We have learned a lot of things since 2013 along the way. Amanda, same thing for you. If you would … share with us your background, your journey and how you've got to today.
Amanda: So, it was a long journey as well. Started with just wanting to be in an agency, just an agency environment. I think I've always really liked fast paced—what’s happening next—and that seemed like the place to go. Got in direct response just because that was what was available, right? And I was like, oh sure, that sounds great.
Started and spent quite a few years on the offline side, learning about envelopes, learning about production and everything that was happening there. So, I really started at the ground up, setting up letters, doing all those things and then decided after that, you know, it was a time when everybody was moving into the digital space. And I was like, ‘That I want to do, I want to go do that.’ It was at the time we were all actually leaving to do startups. And that seemed like a great idea. Everybody loves to do a startup, right? So did that. That did not work out for me.
But, but there was a great learning experience, like right off the bat, learning about startups and technology and what was happening next. So from there, really came back into the agency space, but this time from a digital perspective. Started right at the time where digital was taking off as a channel. And it was literally a channel. It was like, you had a website, and you had some email, and it was like, how did you make sense of that?
From there, really moved into media and just kind of what I love about the space and serving nonprofits, which I've been doing for many, many years. The idea is that it's always changing. It's never the same. We're always trying to figure out how best to augment and do things differently. And the exciting part about it is just raising money for those organizations and the mission that they have.
So, I've had, like, a lot of opportunities to work with amazing organizations and from there really just expand out and innovate from there. So, that's the short version.
Justin: I also remember the day that we met and, and you know, it's clear Amanda and Charles, for both of you, it's clear from the first time that someone talks to both of you that they gather your passion for helping nonprofits and your passion for the use of digital and technology to do so. So that's why Ronnie and I felt it was so appropriate to have you two be a part of this conversation to help us lead off.
We are now approaching almost the two-year mark of the start of the pandemic. I think we're technically past when the name COVID-19 was applied to this mysterious and growing virus. And so, we're past that, but we're nearing the moment in which things kind of changed in a number of ways for nonprofits. And while digital has been growing for nonprofits over about a 20-year period, it has found another gear in the last two years.
And so, you know, all of a sudden, nonprofits have been thrust into space where they have got to focus more on digital tools and think about how to digitally connect with their existing donors and prospective donors because of that acceleration of the use of technology in all of our lives over the last 24 months.
So that's the framework for me and how I think about digital acceleration. I would love for you two to just give us a snippet of how you think about digital acceleration, Amanda and, and honestly, where, where, where a nonprofit can begin.
Amanda: Yeah, that's a good question. And it really varies, right? Digital acceleration depends on you as an organization and where you are. And one of the things that we talk a lot about is digital maturity. So where are you? Because at that point, you need to evaluate kind of foundationally where you are and how you can move to the next step. Most often, and what we often recommend, is that you're taking incremental steps. You're not going to go from A to Z overnight. So, it's about taking stock with where you are.
So, for some, that means taking advantage of some of the amazing advancements in technology to make things easier for you to really, truly understand what's happening at a baseline level. For others, it's truly just understanding your donor and saying, do I have contact information where I can communicate in other channels, whether that's a mobile phone, which is critical today or an email address that's accurate?’ And then, do I have the tools to utilize them for others that are more advanced?’ It's really taking that next step and looking at the donors individually and saying, how can I create audiences, and how do I utilize all of the amazing digital channels that I have, along with the offline channels, to really augment that overall experience for the donor?’
And that's where it gets really exciting because that's where you see it really take off and just surround sound for donors. So that's what my recommendation would be.
Justin: It's appropriate to just say, OK, let's start with where you are and figure out where you are. Charles, the pace of digital seems to be so breakneck that I find it hard even at times for us to figure out where we are in terms of, you know, that maturity scale. So, so talk to us a little bit about how you wrangle the pace based off of where you are.
Charles: That's what's fun about this industry is where you are now, digital has kept on moving and there's already something that you need to learn about or catch up on it. It’s taking a quick step back on the pandemic that kind of forced everyone to become a little bit more digital. To be, you know, just being remote, being more in tune to this, hopefully not being stuck on mute, like I was.
But, you know, being involved in the digital space, you know, means that you are looking at measurement and the changes to that, the changes to data privacy, which as we've seen, you know, can be almost an everyday pace, at least in 2022. If you're looking at, you know, what's going on with EU and GDPR or in Google Analytics, what's going on with iOS updates and how they're impacting Facebook and how you learn about how they're impacting Facebook's valuation, their business model. And then you learn that, you know, Google and Android are doing a very similar update on April 1st of this year. And so how to keep up with it?
You know, as a technologist, I, I look at it as my role is to kind of just embrace the hurricane that is change. But for everyone, they have their passion point, right? Some people love emails, some people love digital media, and some people love digital analytics. And so, you're going to find those pockets within your organization of folks that are able to keep up with their niche space within digital, within their channel within digital.
And then there's the experts that you need to identify with and identify and follow through podcasts like this, through blog posts, through Twitter, et cetera. However you consume content, there's experts out there that are providing you with materials and updates every day on SEO, on data privacy, et cetera. And so, I think that's where, you're in digital if you have a love for learning because it's what you knew from 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, is very, very different today. And so, you know, to really do it well you're not always, you're not trying to be in a place where you're reacting to it, right? You are really trying to see, look enough far enough ahead to say, OK, that's where things are going. Here's how we get ready for it. And yeah, some things you're going to react to. But it's really trying to make sure that you can see the big, the big changes coming up, like cookie lists, et cetera, that we need to be prepared for.
Justin: So, it sounds like, so based off of what I'm gathering from the combination of your comments is that it's important to establish and know where you are right now and then don't try to get way ahead of yourself. In other words, just take one step. Like digital advancement is as simple as taking a single step forward. And then another step and then another step. You don't have to jump from the foundational to automated machine learning with personalized content and Web3. You don't have to make that sort of leap, right?
Charles: That's right. That's right. Baby steps, crawl, walk, run, what works for your organization. Rarely, what works is changing everything at once. And so, advancement and transformation every day, there's smaller steps you'll probably find more success in.
Justin: And it's, you know, maybe as a part of organizations going through their annual planning process. Whenever it comes to digital, they should take time to watch and revisit What about Bob and the book Baby Steps, right? So, baby steps, baby steps forward and email marketing, you know, baby steps, baby steps forward and web personalization, baby steps around data privacy or data collection. Those things.
You know, the other thing that we talked about when we were thinking through this conversation was that it is, you know, it's like the couch to 5k, right? So, if you're not a runner, you don't … generally, you don't get up and run a 5K or half marathon or marathon on your first go about your neighborhood. You know, there are some outliers, but you build on it and you build on it and you build on it and you build on it and you constantly change or evolve and take a step forward.
And so, Charles, talk a little bit about how you measure that incremental gain and its importance to understanding your program and your donors.
Charles: That's right. So, the incremental gain is as—if we can continue baby steps for just a second—it's not all or nothing, right? And it rarely will be. So that incremental gain will be setting yourself some milestones and goals so you can see, are we making the right progress? Are we getting there? With cookie lists, have we inventoried our first party data? Do we have a plan, right? Communicate internally with your stakeholders. Start with a plan. Make sure that you're communicating with your partners, make sure you learn their plan, and so that that's how you would first start out.
And then, how are you going to execute? As you mentioned, the genesis of this podcast, Groupthinkers, ideas are fun. They're also cheap. The execution is what matters. And so that's where you need to be able to ensure that someone is accountable for that execution, someone … that you have owners within your organization or at your partners that will ensure that, hey, we've hit these milestones, we're moving on to the next one and that we are ready for change.
Justin: And it's not just identifying what those, you know, those reporting metrics are, but it's also understanding that those metrics should be, I don't know what, Amanda, tools? They've got to be something that you can use and make sense of and build on, right?
Amanda: Yeah, I think that honestly is one of the biggest challenges, or opportunities, and I like to look at them as an opportunity, because there's so much data that you can gather now. And from advanced analytics that we have through Google to, and Charles is always telling us about a new metric that we should pay attention to, and so, which is really exciting because we are looking across the very detailed metadata all the way to your basic factors.
And the reality is, it's not about those, it's about making sure that you're looking at it combined and a combined view and then developing strategies. Why the data? What are you going to do with it? Because otherwise … and also there's such an opportunity now to look deeper into the data, not to just understand superficial facts, but identifying which one of those facts is important, which one should you home in on. And it's different for every client, too.
And then from there, what's the strategy that you're developing that's going to help you move forward? Data for data's sake is really just kind of noise, and that's what I think is super important is kind of nailing it down and determining the priorities.
Charles: I love that. Measurement is one way where you can search, being centered on measurement and a measurement framework and plan is one way to help organizations be prepared for change, right? The data, the KPIs, that's important to your programs, to your, your donors, your communication. If that data is at risk, if that data is changing, we're like, who moved my cheese? So, you're more likely to keep up to date with changes that impact your data, whether it's direct mail, digital, the omnichannel. And so, that's a really great place to start.
Ronnie: Amanda, you kind of mentioned, you know, it's about starting where you are and assessing your digital maturity. A lot of the things we're talking about are things I like to think of as maybe a larger organization, you know, things that they're looking at. What about a smaller, like a regional or a local organization that has a limited footprint and is also maybe not quite there yet? What, what advice would you give them, like, where should they be? Where should they be getting started on this process?
Amanda: Yeah, no, that's a great question. And I think that's the beauty of digital is that it's accessible to all, right? And it's just a matter of, like, where do you start? And so, like, to tie it into the metrics, it's like beginning to say, where are you? You know, first of all, make sure that your website is user friendly. That it is … that doesn't mean complicated or a lot of information, that means, can people find out about you in a simple way and can they make an easy donation? People are used to easy, and they are used to good user experience. So can they do that? Fundamentally, before you start really trying to drive more traffic, to get more people to engage with you as an organization, your front door is website.
So I would say initially, make sure you're doing the foundational elements well, make sure that you're able to capture basic information for your visitors and your donors alike. Make sure that you add a baseline or getting an email address … you have appropriate tracking setup on your website so that you can know, is what I'm putting out here valuable? Is anyone listening? Am I making an impact? Am I making progress?
So it's like starting with those very baseline things that's going to make you successful, putting into place the metrics so that you can understand what's happening. I think to tie-in also is that, the metrics are going to tell you when it's time to move on to that next incremental step, right? Do you have your baseline technology? You know, like, for most people, it's looking at their website and saying, do I have an open source tool that I can get people that are easily around me to be able to make an impact, right? Do I have an email tool that I'm able to understand that somebody even opened it? You know, is it deliverable? You know, some baseline starting there is, I think, important.
And then from there, you can utilize those metrics to determine, hey, I need to develop more content; I need, I need to map out my communications through multiple channels. I'm at a place where I can add mobile and texting into the conversation to specifically those people that are drawing nearer to the organization. So it's really starting where you are, making sure the foundations are in place and then from there moving forward.
Ronnie: So, so you mentioned tech stacks and you mentioned expanding on channels and expanding on content. Charles, like, where do they start when it comes to tech stacks? I mean, should they be looking like, again, going back to a smaller nonprofit, should they be looking at, hey, we should be getting some new tools that are more effective, or should they be looking at what they have now? What do you think?
Charles: Here's, here's a couple tips then for those organizations. Should you be looking at new tools? A really easy answer there would be … a really easy question to ask after that would be, is this for a new channel? Right? So let's say you have an email program, you have a website, you've got a fundraising, online fundraising, platform. Do you have a method or tool to communicate with your donors via WhatsApp or Instagram or these other social communication channels, these other social apps? Maybe you don't yet. And so that's a really good indicator. That's an easy way to determine, do I need a new tool for this?
If you aren't expanding into new territory, new ground, you really want to assess your current tools. Many, many organizations are not quite using their tools to the maximum capability to get to the full opportunity that they have available. If you're a small organization and you're using Pardot, chances are you're not using the Pardot scoring or the Pardot tagging or the Pardot journeys to their fullest. And so, I would recommend that you bring in an expert to assess and audit like, yes, full audits are very, very helpful and valuable, but maybe, you know, just assessing a single channel, a single tool will also be helpful to allow you to understand, is it time to move to the next tool, right? There are not very many people in this industry that all they do is buy software. Right?
So that's a challenge for many individuals that we work with, buying software. What's the right software that I should have? Why should I replace tool a with tool b? Or when should I replace tool a with tool b, right? And so having an expert help you assess and audit that tool and help you determine, what are your requirements? OK, if this tool actually is limiting your program, your donor experience, then yes, we absolutely want to replace it. But what do we need of our new tool beyond a new feature, beyond, you know, something new, in addition to like, hey, my program has these requirements? So really having an expert that can help translate your requirements so that you can check all of the boxes of your new tool.
You know, too often we are invited into a meeting where someone wants to hear about … say, ‘I'd like to talk to you about tool xyz,’ and we go into this meeting, and we're like, hey, we just signed up for tool xyz. What can you tell us about it, right? Oh, OK, so why did you sign up for this tool? What was the reason for maybe moving to it? Says, yeh, really, do you need a new tool? Is it, are you going into new territory? Are you going into a new channel within digital or your program? That's a really easy way. You can't go wrong, really, right? Because as you're learning that new channel, you can, you're really determining what your requirements are. And so that may not be your new tool for very long, but that's where you're really determining: what does your organization need from that tool in the future?
Ronnie: So certainly an educational and training element, you would say, is involved, like making sure you understand what you're getting from that tool.
Charles: Absolutely, absolutely. I don't think the frontline team members are really involved enough. We understand why, but the people that actually use the tool would recommend that you consult with them and hear how they use the tool. What you often learn is that people have their own human workarounds. Oh, this tool has always been broken, I just kind of do my own thing over here.
Well, that's … let's make sure the next tool does not require that same workaround. People are more resilient than tools. So, hey, this tool had a blocker, this tool was broken, I just created my own process, and I spend hours every day working around this thing.
So, you know, that discovery, you know, is often the kind of hidden debt in the tools that we have today. And so, while you may not want your frontline team members, the teams that are building an email, to decide on, you know, is it Salesforce Marketing Cloud or is it Adobe Marketing Cloud or is it Pardot or is it Mailchimp, you want to know what their requirements are, how they work with your current tool, what are their limitations within the current tool so that we're not breaking something that works really well. So that we're actually solving some of their problems today with the new features of our new tool.
Amanda: You know, Charles, I think that that's so important what you talk about, technical debt, because I think most of the time when we go in and we're talking with organizations, they have invested in the latest, coolest tool, right? They've invested in what they thought was the latest, coolest tool. And unfortunately, they sit in little siloed places, most of the time with different people working on them, it’s their project and their toolset. And what happens is it's so important that all of these, as you bring on new tools, that you integrate them holistically with all of your other tools to make sure that you are looking at all of the information you have about your donors, your constituents, your visitors, whatever it might be. And that's an often-overlooked kind of aspect of tools.
Justin: The, you know, the thing that strikes me, and hearing both of you share this idea of incremental improvement, constant evaluation and accountability to just moving things forward, maybe the hidden thing is the value of outside perspective. And so, this isn't, by the way, a commercial for outsourcing or an agency partner. You could easily take it that way, and you know, obviously, we all think that's a good idea, but that's not why we're here to talk about that, right? But there's a reason why if you're ill, you go to a doctor. You don't just continue to live in your illness or ailment, right? And there's value in having that outside perspective at times or that expertise from a third party to just weigh in and help evaluate, and give you some thoughts and ideas that can either help you get the most out of your existing tech stack, right, so that then you can focus on what are those metrics and how can I take a step forward, or help you uncover where you may have some gaps in your tech stack that may be inhibiting your ability to advance as rapidly as you could.
Charles: I love that thought. So, you know, for RKD team members, and many of our nonprofit partners, you know, we're talking about conferences, right, and our peers, asking our peers what they are using, going to conferences and learning. Now, can you attend every session at a conference, you know, dare to dream that you can do that. But I would really challenge the listeners and our nonprofit partners to, yes, attend nonprofit conferences, but branch out, branch out. Don't, don't just stay within our bubble. Look at conferences like the Marketing Analytics Summit. Look at the AWS Summit for Nonprofits. Look at what Twilio is doing. Look at what some of our commercial cousins are doing around marketing technology, around analytics, around customer experience. The customer experience often translates to a donor experience really well.
And while we do want to know what works and doesn't work for our peers, let's hit the easy button and, you know, learn from their mistakes and avoid what doesn't work. But let's also realize their data may be different, the rest of their texts that may be different, and some of the things that maybe were not successful for them may have been also, you know, hey, that tool didn't have an owner, and so that tool was implemented by someone that had 12 other jobs. And so, you know, we have a lot to learn from our own industry. But taking a look outside of our industry and seeing what others are doing in the commercial space gives us a peek at what's coming for digital in the nonprofit industry as well as, we often, the nonprofit industry often kind of lags behind a little bit. What is happening in the commercial space?
Amanda: Yeah, I love that. That's great advice, Charles, because I think that, seeing what else is out there, looking at it from a customer experience, I mean, I know Justin, you and I talk a lot about customer experience and what that means and how that translates, but there is definite, there's definite correlation, and I think that's great advice.
Justin: It really is. It's also one of the reasons why, you know, Ronnie, I'm excited for this season as we advance the amount that we're talking about digital advancement and some of the guests that we have planned for the season who are doing things in the social media space that's different, who are doing things with crypto, in terms of crypto for nonprofits, and who are not necessarily on the bleeding edge, but maybe two steps in front of us.
And so, I think that Charles, to your point, there's a value and a benefit of seeing what others may be doing that are just ahead as well as those that are a lap ahead. And so, we're committed to this season bringing that variation of thinkers to the show, so, we're excited about that.
As we wrap up our time today, you know, we always want to make our guest accessible to the listening audience. If they have conversations that they want to have outside of this, if they've got questions, if they just want to network with either or both of you. And so how, Charles and then Amanda, how can people contact you? Where can they find you? Where can they get in touch with you?
Charles: Well, do I have to give the address to my cave?
Justin: Yes, Hemingway, yes you do.
Charles: So, you know what, I … you can find me on Twitter. I'm not active on Twitter anymore. I am active on LinkedIn. And actually, I have my own experts that I follow on LinkedIn, and I find that very, very convenient for me. And so when I've spoken at conferences in the past, every now and then I'll have someone reach out via LinkedIn message and connect with me and say, hey, that was great, thanks for sharing. And they would maybe share some of their current challenges or what they have going on. And so, I would point you to my LinkedIn as maybe a convenient social place to find me.
If you're ever in Kansas, please let me know, and would love to have a cup of coffee with you. And I'm not sure if we're giving out email address.
Justin: No, that's fine.
Amanda: Just your home address? I think you just left off your home address specifically, but other than that.
Justin: You can do longitude and latitude, if that's an easier way for you to point to where in Kansas you are.
Amanda: He does do a mean tour of his place there, so I would recommend that, I highly recommend that. Definitely easiest place to reach me is through LinkedIn. I think there is makes everything accessible and easy, so that's the best place.
Justin: Awesome, well, you know, you two are two of our favorites, and we are supposed to say that to everyone, but we don't have to say it.
Amanda: I was going to say, I think I've heard you say that before.
Justin: We don't have to mean it every time. So, we appreciate first your ideas because, you know, like I said, we wouldn't be here doing this if it weren't for the two of you and also just your commitment to helping everyone, ourselves included, take a step forward every day. So, thank you both for being on the show. Thanks to everyone for checking out this episode of Groupthinkers. And Ronnie, is there anything else we're supposed to say?
Ronnie: I don't think so, I think we say bye, unless you want me to order a full-scale audit of all of RKD’s processes and tech stacks, because that's what I've learned, you need to bring someone else from the outside in.
Amanda: Yeah, I think you're supposed to say share with a friend. Please rate and review?
Justin: Yeah, review and subscribe. I thought you were going to say laissez les bon temps rouler. I thought that, I thought ….
Ronnie: Laissez les bon temps rouler, there you go.
Justin: Alright, very good, that's, that's all. Alright. And then on that note. Alright. Thanks, y’all.
Groupthinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, visit rkdgroup.com/podcast. Special thanks to our production team, including the talented Ryan Mellinger, for his work on mixing every episode. Also, a shout out to the content team that helps pull together research and guests, puts the marketing efforts behind Groupthinkers. Suzanne, Ronnie and others for their work on this and every episode of Groupthinkers.
Groupthinkers is the podcast for RKD Group. This is a must-listen experience of thought-provoking content that inspires insight on the industry and strategic decisions. Groupthinkers brings together innovators and curators in nonprofit marketing, branding and direct response to tackle the major issues facing nonprofits today. Be sure to tune in for the rest of Season 8 as we drop new episodes throughout the coming months.