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Chris Pritcher thinks about his path to becoming a leader in nonprofit marketing

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In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, our focus is on leadership. Throughout each episode, we’ll chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today. 

On this episode, we sit down with RKD’s new CEO Chris Pritcher to discuss: 

  • How Chris’ upbringing as a military kid impacted his social skills and views on leadership (5:22) 
  • His path into the commercial marketing space at Capital One (10:21) 
  • Why he switched to higher education and his journey into leadership roles (16:07) 
  • How curiosity and trust have driven his career path and professional development (26:01) 
  • The mentors that have guided him along the way (30:11)  

Meet our guest 

CHRIS PRITCHER 2023 Headshot with Tie

Chris Pritcher 

CEO, RKD Group 


“From my perspective, what I get really excited about … and the reason I thought RKD was the right step for me … is that I want to have a bigger mission when I’m working on something. I can get excited about the problem-solving aspect in any market. But ultimately, and fundamentally, I need the mission side of it in order to maintain that passion and desire to make it better over time.” 

Podcast transcript 

Justin McCord: So, we're back into our rhythm, Ronnie. And it’s funny; it's a new year. And so, there's all this newness, and we have a new guest, and we're going to talk about new things and all that kind of stuff. And it's so interesting just, like, at the start of the year, to really take and pause for a second and think about the new things to do. Um, I don't know, how much time do you spend thinking about that as you go into a new year?  

Ronnie Richard: I used to spend a lot more time, I would actually set a resolution and try and stick to it. But then, you know, like everyone, mid-February rolls around, and that resolution kind of went out the window. So, I have stopped trying to do that.  

I do kind of think of, like, you know, what's some new things I could focus on this year, both in work or in personal life, but no hard resolutions. What about you?  

Justin: Yeah, I'm not a resolution guy. I'm a word guy. I like to think about words to focus on as I get into a new year and that actually shaped the 2023 blog that we put up that I helped put together. So yeah, it's interesting. So, we'll have to chat with our guest about his take.  

So, welcome to Group Thinkers, I'm your host, Justin McCord. With me, as always, is Ronnie Richard. And we're excited about the newness of today and the conversation that we're going to have.  

So, Group Thinkers is the podcast by RKD Group. On each episode, we have someone from the nonprofit space who can bring a unique perspective, help shine a light on something in a different way, so that we're constantly challenging ourselves and being curious about how we connect people and nonprofits. 

And so, as we get into this year, this is really a new season for us on Group Thinkers, where our focus is on leadership. Our goal for you, our listening audiences, is for you to hear from people and to learn from their experiences and understand how they think about leadership as we look into the market. There are still clouds of uncertainty. And so, we believed that doing the work for yourself on being a better leader is a great way to help walk through that uncertainty.  

So, with that preamble, I want to welcome our guest, the new CEO of RKD Group, Mr. Chris Pritcher. 

Chris Pritcher: Thanks, Justin. Thanks, Ronnie. I appreciate the opportunity to join you guys today.  

Justin: Chris, what, what's your take on resolutions and New Year and words, and how do you approach that?  

Chris: Yeah, I'm kind of somewhere in between you guys. I'm a little bit of a resolution person, but I'm also very cognizant of the fact that I can't be … I didn't work out at all last year, and now I'm working out six hours a day, every day. Right?  

So, we've also started doing a little bit of it with our kids, right? Because we wanted to get them thinking about self-improvement and those types of things. They are relatively young, and so, you know, some of those things are kind of funny as resolutions. I should probably keep them for the future.  

I do have a little bit of that, but I’m somewhere in between, Justin, where it's a little higher level, a little more general. So, for example, as a family, we came up with a resolution that said, we want to be more efficient. We want to have less material stuff. Like, we just, we've gotten overwhelmed with that. Right? And it's not like a specific target as much as it is, we want to, like, you know, be less impactful and consumer oriented. With the young kids, you end getting a lot of stuff that goes over landfill real fast, and so we just wanted to do that last. But it’s something more general than it is, like, something really specific, like, I'm going to exercise more right now.  

Justin: But I think it's, I mean, like, it's funny that many times we wait until January 2 to do those things versus the constant work of reflection and application, and so on.  

On a normal episode, we kind of walk through, and we start by, you know, talking with our guests about someone's path and, and honestly, Chris, today is all about your path and your path to your new role as CEO of RKD Group.  

But really, just the things that you've learned along the way, and how those things shape who you are coming into this role. So, you know, I want you to, I want you to go back and start at the beginning. I know that you are a military kid. And I want you to share a little bit of that aspect of your upbringing and maybe some of the things that even shaped you from that time.  

Chris: Yeah, that's a good question. There's a couple things that I think go along with being a military kid, at least, that went along with me being a military kid. There's one aspect that's really around just the way your life works. And then there's the other aspect around the people that you see as role models and the people that you get to engage with every day.  

So, the first one, around the way your life works, is most military kids move around a lot, right? You don’t have the opportunity to, some do, but you don’t have the opportunity to spend your formative years in one environment, in one location. I think before I turned 18, I lived in 10 or 11 different places depending upon … and went through a couple strings where I moved every year for four or five years in a row.  

And so, I think one of the things that teaches you as a kid, well, I took two things away from it. First is you had to learn to be able to engage with new people, new groups, new social dynamics really quickly. Or if you are not good at that, you kind of go into your own shell. But for myself, I was a little more outgoing. I was a little more able to kind of learn from that. I was a big nerd, but at least I was able to learn from that how to engage and how to do that.  

And then I also think it allows you to honestly feel like you can refresh yourself and improve. I think sometimes if you grow up in the same place for 18 years, you develop your role and personality and reputation in, like, kindergarten, right? You were, like, crack up kid in kindergarten, so you're expected to be funny forever. Or you were the studious kid in kindergarten, and you're expected to be studious your whole life. And so, in some ways, it also allows you to say you can constantly improve because nobody knows you when you're walking in the door. But also, I remember at a pretty young age reflecting and saying, kind of, is there anything I want to do differently?  

So that was one piece. So, it allowed me as an adult and as a leader to feel pretty comfortable in most rooms, right? Feel pretty comfortable and getting used to understanding the culture in the room and sort of reacting to that as well. And to be really observant of other people because you had to learn that quickly at a young age.  

The second piece, I think, is the idea of most of the adults that you're engaging with, in particular when you live, say, on a base, which I did a few times. And part of it is that growing up, I didn't even have when I was younger a concept of a job outside the military other than, maybe, doctor or teacher. It was just, sort of, all moms and dads were in the military. 

Justin: It’s all connected in one space. That’s your bubble in that sense.  

Chris: That's it. That's your room. And I think what's interesting with that, when you think about it that way, you also saw a lot of people who had made the decision to dedicate their lives to service. Right? A different type of service than, say, a nonprofit mission, obviously. But these are people who not only dedicate their lives to service but are also willing to put their lives on the line to protect ideals they believe in.  

And I think it's really interesting to grow up as a kid in that environment. Where all of those adults have brought a sense of responsibility to their career choice, to their jobs, to their sort of lives. And the families themselves also commit to that. You move around, you live in very different places that aren't part of your choice. So, I think it also instills a sense of responsibility and accountability in a lot of kids as long as they embrace it. Some, you know, sometimes that's hard. But for myself, personally, I think that also always set up my desire to look for a larger meaning in the work that I'm doing.  

Ronnie: Chris, did you see yourself going into the military? At some point or pretty early on?  

Chris: I sort of did. I just assumed that I would I guess would be the way say it. Until I got a little older. Some realities hit me on that front that I wouldn't necessarily be well suited from, for a couple of physical reasons, but from my perspective. That's what I just assumed I would do because that's just what every grown up I knew did. So why not?  

It took until really probably high school that I started thinking beyond the idea of that and sort of the obvious career path of every grown up you run into.  

Justin: So, then you head to UVA. And so, from UVA into the commercial marketing space. Really with Capital One. What drew you to Capital One as you were coming out of school? What were you thinking about? What were you interested in?  

Chris: Yeah so, it's interesting. I'd love to tell you a story that I grew up as a little boy wanting to be in marketing and thinking about how I would drive marketing and analytics. The real answer to that story is I was a system engineering major at UVA. About two or three years into being in the engineering school, I realized I did not want to be an engineer. But the system engineering really was training people to be consultants, is the way to think about it. They did a lot of work on that … like I did my practicum at Lockheed Martin, those kinds of places.  

I would have been happy to go into that as a senior in college. I graduated at a time that was an economic bubble, and then all of those consulting jobs just went away. And so, I essentially started having to look around and say, well, what else would I like to do? And the skills that I had developed there, or at least I think I developed, were sort of analytic problem solving. And Capital One, along with others was, is and was, extremely great at that, right? They, and especially at the time, really unlocked the credit card industry by saying, “We are going to be better at predicting people's financial behavior than the FICO score is, than the general market is.”  

I would again, I was attracted to that. To be honest, I was attracted by the fact that they gave a college kid a signing bonus. And it was the closest job that I got to my now wife, who was going, who was my girlfriend at the time and getting her five-year masters. So, I would like to say that I had this really strategic approach to it. The reality is that I was no longer broke. Money while I was a senior in high school, and my wife was going to be about 50 minutes away instead of three hours away, which was the next closest job.  

So, I think that was, were, really the primary decision factors. And then it sounded like a pretty cool job anyways. Honestly, I got hired there as an analyst. I did not know I was going to be in the marketing group. I just knew that I was going to be an analyst. And that sounded pretty good.  

Justin: Ronnie, did you get a signing bonus whenever you went into the newspaper?  

Ronnie: You might be shocked by this, but no. But it's fascinating because I also started in engineering in college and about two years in, decided that wasn't for me either. I took the journalism path, but it was similar.  

Chris: I stuck it out because I figured I had already gone through so many calculus classes that it wasn’t worth backtracking on that. 

Ronnie: See, I did backtrack. 

Chris: Like, I made it through the slog. I might as well finish the climb of the hill. Yeah, no, my wife was a teacher. She didn't get the signing bonus either, and she’s still bitter about that. 

Justin: And, you know I started in broadcast and found my way into, you know, communications and marketing. I guess the equivalent of the signing bonus whenever you go into minor league baseball, which is where I started my career, was that, you know, we had access to hot dogs on game days.  

Chris: Yeah, there you go. 

Justin: I mean there’s a benefit … 

Chris: I don't want you picturing some like Wall Street huge signing bonus here. So, we're talking, it was attractive to a college student, which means I get to, you know, like you said, eat better than hot dogs once a week. That's about my sort of minimum threshold. So yeah. 

Ronnie: There was all that pizza on election night in the newsroom.  

Chris: There you go, that’s perfect. 

Justin: I've heard you say that at Capital One, though, it exposed you to direct marketing in a way that you were not familiar with.  

Chris: Yeah, no. And I didn’t walk in being familiar with the idea of even direct marketing. I mean, obviously, I was exposed to it as a consumer, as a person, but to me, what I found really interesting about it, and that's what kind of got me about the idea of marketing in general, was just measurability, like, I can have an idea, I can run a test, and I can tell yes or no, in hard terms, was this better or worse? 

And that kind of appealed, the, I guess, the engineering nature of it. But … just to say, I want to know if my idea is working. I want to know if our teams’ thinking is working. And so, it … and it's a very measurable form. And again, Capital One, especially at the time that I was there, but still today, but especially at the time that I was there, it was very much on the forefront of using analytics and direct marketing to drive business value, right?  

And so, while it wasn't the sort of place where I wanted to be in the long run as it relates to the industry, etc., it was very much like a great training ground for a few years in terms of learning this space, learning how to do it. I mean, we, I sort of joke about it, but I mean, by the time I left there, I was accountable for their choice, the package choice and direct marketing for 5 billion pieces a year. So that talk about an early training ground, right? We were sending weekly mailings of tens of millions of … and that's just mine, the section that I was accountable for. And so there was a lot of opportunity to test and learn and understand how all the statistics behind direct marketing work.  

Ronnie: So, from there, Chris, you make your way over to Royal & Company. Tell us a little bit about the switch to that. And then also, like, I mean, you kind of moved up pretty quickly there. You know, I would love to hear about, like, what inspired you? Who kind of help you out along the way and what you learned?  

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. So, I would say, well … so the switch to Royal & Company, Royal & Company is now part of something called EAB but mostly still exists in that form or capacity. They are focused on direct marketing on higher education. And so, that was what was really interesting to me is saying, OK, I like the direct marketing component. I wasn't loving the financial services component as the main focus. And so, the idea, huh, they do direct marketing in higher ed? That was a) surprising to me that that was a business, a thing, but b) it just was appealing to say, I can take these skills and put them towards helping institutions of higher ed.  

When I got there, I really timed it at a really good spot. So, they were great at the direct marketing side of creative and storytelling, etc. They were burgeoning into the direct marketing side of analytics. And so, I would say at the time that I got there, their definition of analytics was reporting. And from my perspective, I had the opportunity to see what Capital One had done, to learn those types of approaches and to say, oh, well, we can apply that here. We can apply discipline testing. We can apply predictive modeling, et cetera.  

Also for me, one of the pieces that really helped me out early in my career was they were in need of someone who could do the analysis and explain it to clients. And we had some really talented people there, some great people that I'm still in touch with there. But that wasn't something they had been asked to do before, or that wasn't something that they saw as much of their skill set. And so for me, I was good at that. I was good at telling stories. I was good at understanding what components of the analysis to bring out. And so, I had the opportunity very early to not only cover the clients that I was accountable for, but I got pulled into new business.  

So, I was flying around the country with Bill Royal, who was the founder, president, CEO of the agency at a very early age in my career, and I was his analyst person on all new business pitches. And the way that he described that, I asked him one day. You've got you, your chief strategy officer, your head of new business and me. And not only do they have lofty titles, there was about a 30-year experience difference between me and any of them or a 20-year experience between me and any of them.  

And I asked him one day, why do you bring me? And he said, you know, a lot of clients just need to hear from me, innovation, and ideas and how we will care about them. But about a third of them need to see the proof. You're here to show them the proof. Not always. There'll be some days where you're just kind of sitting quietly in your suit and we don't need you. But there's other days where they need your type of thinking. And he was honest and said, that’s not where I come from, right? That is not how I think.  

It was also really hard to do those new business pitches with Bill because he was the most intuitive communicator that I've ever been around, and I've been around a lot of great people who communicate in a room. He could tell within 5 or 10 minutes if the prospect, if the person he was talking to, if the client needed to see the numbers or needed to hear his story, and he would completely switch the meeting in the middle of the discussion. And we had times where we built beautiful presentations or 50 pages of great details, and we never opened the laptop.  

We'd have other times where Bill, we think Bill’s leading the meeting, and he would turn to me in five minutes and say, “And Chris is going to take you through the rest of this.” You're like, OK. So, you had to learn to pivot off of that. And it wasn’t because he was being, you know, wild or harsh, he just got a feeling. And he was really good at that feel. He started off in the political arena. He was a chief of staff for a Virginia governor. So, he just had a really good feel for what people needed to hear from the communications style and, really, how people wanted to be engaged. And so, I learned a lot from observing him. I am not as level at that still to this day, but it was great to see and observe someone who was so good at understanding and understanding how people needed to communicate.  

Justin: You also, in that time, as you talk about your ascent through the company and the growth of the company in general, you became … on the forefront of talking to the many different clients. Right? In terms of their size. So, you know, thinking about what you shared relative to growing up on a base and then walking into different environments and trying to make yourself immediately comfortable, I have to think that there's some application from that that led into walking into various boardrooms and dealing with people on the leadership teams of higher Ed that started to connect together some of your experience that led into your career style.  

Chris: Yeah, absolutely, I agree. And I think, you know, especially when you’re talking about the types of organizations, we had a wide variety. But look, student enrollment was top of the priority list for almost every university, college, anything you can think of. And so, we were always walking into the room to talk to not only the VP of enrollment management, but oftentimes their president, potentially board members.  

Right, and so, again, I got a lot of exposure to people who are executive leaders and presidents of large universities, of small colleges. And it was really interesting to see the diversity of that group, right? It's not just kind of one mold fits them all, which makes sense. And you can see their passion for the institution. And I think that's something that I took into it as well, to say I would get excited to do great work for them and to understand where they're coming from because each …  we all went to different college and universities. You see each individual college or university has its own personality, its own kind of unique place in the world. And we all think of the, you know, top 50 kind of schools when you start thinking about college and universities. But for me, I was always excited about the institutions that we could make real change at, where people were passionate about it and really, kind of, engage.  

And again, I met some really great leaders along the way, and every institution had its own culture. And so, like, to your point, kind of figuring out what that was, and being able to see how you could fit nicely into how they think and how they make decisions, just helped me from my career perspective,  

And Ronnie, you also said, too, some of looking at my time there, sort of rapid ascent, I guess. Also, I would say I had a lot of different types of jobs there. So, I started off in analytics, was able to do that. But I had, I learned a great leadership lesson there when our managing director brought me into the room and asked me ... I was head of analytics, essentially called a director of analytics. I was on our equivalent of the executive committee, but we had a team who needed a new leader, and technically it would be a step down to take the job. Now, I ended up adding it to what I was doing, and it wasn't just and/or, it was a yes/and. And I guess I should have listened better, but ...  

I think a lot of times, you're sometimes faced, and I've been faced multiple times in my career, with choices to take lateral moves or even things that are slight steps down. And I've taken them. And I think people oftentimes think a little too linearly in their career progression. I tried to think about it more and to question, in the sense of, how can I best help the organization that I'm working with? And then, too, what's an opportunity for me to learn something, right? So, I was in analytics, I was in tons and tons of client meetings, but I was not accountable for leadership of specific clients. I was in, out, consultant. Here's what you see. Here's what you’ve got. I'll see you next year, right? And the opportunity to lead one of our client teams was really the chance to say, great you can do that, but here's 35 clients who you are accountable for their success day in and day out. And I thought that would be really valuable to me if I was going to stay in that sort of agency, partnership, marketing kind of world. I decided to take it, even though it wasn't technically, a step up, in fact, arguably it was a step backwards or an addition that was not sort of cumulatively better.  

And so, I didn't do it on purpose all that well. I was pretty young, but I would go back and say that was a good decision. It's something I picked up on after reflecting on and would say I should do that again. I should be open to that again in order to gain skill sets versus just look at hierarchical steps up.  

Justin: That's a trend that certainly continued as you left Royal and went to Merkle. That, essentially, what I've heard you say is that, yeah, it's a little bit this driving curiosity that seems interesting and seems like an area where I can bring value. Even if it’s not linear. And so, is that an accurate statement of your time at Merkle?  

Chris: Yeah, I mean, at Merkle I remain the only person to ever transition from analytics to creative. I went to Merkle, Justin, to sort of … one of the challenges that I felt, like, from my personal development perspective by being at Royal for so long wasn't anything about Royal. They were very great. It was so focused on higher Ed that I was missing some of the trends that we saw from other industries.  

And so, Merkle is and was, like, a thought leader in commercial marketing. I mean, very cutting edge. Very analytics and very digital oriented at the time. Still is. And so, I saw an opportunity there. I had friends there. I saw an opportunity there to say, let me go learn this new space. Let me go see what commercials our leading commercial folks are doing and go there and actually lead their nonprofit analytics group.  

But then very quickly, over time, I started to have the opportunity to engage with different types of clients. And so, after the first couple of years there, I had to make a decision: where am I an analyst here? And an analytics leader here? Or am I a broader kind of marketing leader?  

And from that, I kind of made that decision earlier in my career that I'm not exclusively an analytics leader. So, I made the decision ... I was leading a team of around 80 people ... and I made the decision to move over to creative with zero direct reports, right? So, most people would say in an organization that's a really bad idea. They say, I lead a team of this size, and I have this much revenue accountability, and I'm going to go start a new thing that has zero.  

But for me, it was a great opportunity. But honestly, Justin, one of the other things I've learned over time, and I'm sure all of us have run into that, is you also have to really have a trust in the person that you're working with. Right? In particular, your manager. Right? And the leader of your organization. And in this case, the move to creative. I really enjoyed the leader I was working for in analytics. We were friends. She and I are still friends, but I also really trusted the leader of creative. If it would have just been the opportunity presented to me on paper, I probably never would have gone for it.  

As opposed to him coming to me and saying, I need your help. We can do great things. Come help, right? And there was a trust there as well. And I think that that's important when you're making, when anyone’s making, career decisions is to say, can I build that trust, and can I get into positions where, even if I'm not quite sure how it adjusts my career, I trust that person that I'm working with? And I think that they have my best interests in mind? And that’s really what it was.  

So, I got to do some really interesting things. We decided to bring analytics to creative versus the other way around and really started improving the way that Merkle was doing creative through bringing strategy and analytics into it. It was just an interesting challenge. Just to say, I think I can do that. And then I got involved in a lot of our storytelling, a lot of our business pitches, all of those types of things. Again, I think it was a recurring theme, like you said, Justin, to say, you know, that arguably would have been a step back in responsibility. It was at best a parallel move, but then ultimately it offered up the opportunity for me to develop and understand and learn and kind of build something new, which was really interesting. And we were able to build and develop a great team there. And so, it was just a really fun couple of years.  

Ronnie: Chris, you mentioned that manager that you trusted really helped you make that move, because that is a big shift from more of, you know, the analytics to the creative side. Did you feel like that manager was, like, a really strong mentor for you, and were there other mentors for you along the way? Tell us a little bit about that if you will.  

Chris: Yeah, I would say there's been a couple of really strong mentors for me along the way. One, I'm not sure he would have called me a mentee, but like I mentioned earlier, Bill Royal, it was more that I'm observing someone who is so, kind of, talented. I mean, he built a business, so that ultimately when he retired from it was 300 people, from his garage. He used to joke that it was called Royal & Company because they "& Company” just made it sound more legit. It was really just him, like, working out of his house. So, I mean, and there’s stories where he had his car repossessed in the parking lot of the company, right? I mean, he was all in on this. And so, it was really interesting to work with someone like that.  

But then also there I had another mentor. His name's Larry Kirk, he was a hard-core direct marketing expert. He used … he had done fundraising. He had done student stuff. He had political campaigns. And he was a writer and an analyst at the same time, which I thought was really interesting. So, he could write, cut, copy, he could write, you know, the best fundraising letter you could think of while also analyzing and coming up with, like, numeric structures. I'm not sure if he could run a spreadsheet himself, but he could, like, read the data that he'd printed out on the wall and analyze it himself. And so, he both believed in me, which was really important, but also, even though there was a large experience gap there, he was very, very open to listening to my feedback. He was very open to recognizing that where I had come from was more advanced than Royal was from an analytic perspective and allowing us to move forward. It would have been very easy for him to be dismissive of me. And so, I thought it was really interesting.  

And to me, it also taught me the value of open communication to say I need to be willing to listen to not only folks who have similar experience or might be a direct report or a leader to me, but even the most, like, early career person, because everyone is coming with a unique perspective and smart ideas from anywhere. Right? And I think a lot of times in organizations, we hesitate to communicate up or to give back up or to disagree with someone, and I don't―and most leaders I don't think―want that. But you have to actively, as a leader, portray that openness and trust and portray that willingness to listen and portray that, like, openness to new ideas. Or people will assume it's kind of scary to bring up a change or to bring out feedback.  

And so, he was another one. And then you mentioned, yeah, the individual on the creative side. He was already a mentor to me. He was great. And he reached out to me after, actually after we lost a pitch. But they had asked me, I was at a client meeting, and they had a new business opportunity the next day. And the presentation was a mess. And so, the head of that business and this person who was the head creative, asked me to stay and help them fix it because they had heard I was good at that. And so, we stayed up all night. It was a heck of a lot better from where it started in the end. And ultimately, we lost. I mean, it was one of those great, like, business stories where I had to go to the mall and buy clothes because I had just met with the client the day before, and I didn't even pack a bag because it was day in and day out. And so, I had to, like, I'm like, I can't show up wearing this thing. Go and find something off the rack that I could put on and, like, steam it in the showers so it didn't smell like I had just bought it out of a store and all those things.  

But anyways, he reached out to me afterwards and said, hey, look, I love the way you approached that; I love how you brought folks on. And if you need anything from me, let's stay in touch. So, we had quarterly conversations. He was a good sounding board. I've encouraged most people. I've always taken the approach, although now I’ve got to think about this would be, I take the approach of finding someone to be a mentor who is not in my chain of command, right? Who has no skin in my game other than caring about me. Because a good manager should always be a good mentor. I'm not saying that, but it's the idea of, I need someone who's a neutral party to say, Jen, you have no skin in the game. You’re a good thinker. What do you think? What would you do? Or, what’s your feedback on the way I'm thinking about it. And so, I really used him as that. And then, like, a year later, he calls me, says, hey, actually I'm thinking of starting this new thing. Why don't you come join the team? He was someone that was like that, was a really strong mentor to me as well.  

I would also say one of the other people that I would think about as being not really a mentor but sort of a leadership person that I would hold up is actually the former CEO of Merkle. His name is Craig Dempster and he … it was more observing. He became the new CEO of Merkle, taking over from the founder, David Williams, about two months before COVID hit. And seeing … like, what a crazy leadership challenge. And seeing what he did, observing and not getting to make all perfect decisions, no. He would tell you shit, too. But he was so open with his communications, right? He was so open. He had weekly conversations. He knew people were hurting. He brought people to conversations. And even when we had to take, we had to reduce costs because it wasn't a very good couple of years for agencies, he had the choice between what a lot of agencies do, which is laying off, or asking people to take a pay cut. And he brought in a team, and he said, look, I'm going to ask the team to take a pay cut. I'm going to make those senior leaders take more of a pay cut. But this saves us 476 jobs or some number, I'm making that up, but like a lot. For me, we had some of the best retention we've ever had during a time where we asked people to take a pay cut, and they had to work at home. Right? It comes from his leadership. He was just very open.  

And for one thing, it’s easy to just shake your first and say, that made me take a 10% pay cut. It's very different to say, I took a 10% pay cut so I could save jobs. But that's good. And that I feel OK about that. I don't want to do that in perpetuity, and he made good by it; when we had a decent year or less bad than we anticipated, he gave people money back and all those kinds of things that he made good to. But I just thought it was a really great example of a terrible, terrible time to take over as a new leader. And by just being open and transparent about, I don't really know what to do, but we have to make really hard decisions, and here's how we're going to make them. And ultimately, Craig actually ended up stepping back from the CEO job after a while because, you know, I think it was just a really hard couple of years to be a new leader. And it was almost like he put everything he had into it, and it kind of drained him. And so, he, you know, he handed off to another very strong leader. But I just thought it was like it was almost the textbook. Not just for Craig, but for a lot of leaders. It should be something that shows up in MBA programs here soon because it's just, you know, such a unique situation that I'm not sure anyone's ever faced. And so, it was great observing their reactions. 

Justin: It's fascinating, you know, coming into this conversation, and thinking about just wanting to understand more your path and those sorts of things. But a major observation is how what you have observed throughout your career has impacted you. And now you're at the end of your first week as a new leader. And so, you know, just because, as we kind of land the plane, just, how are you feeling? Like, how are you feeling at the end of week one as you're stepping into a new role? 

Chris: That’s a good question. You know, like anyone who steps into a new role, you have, or at least I’ve always had, an imposter syndrome problem. Any new role I’ve stepped into you kind of say, OK, intellectually I can do this, at least I think I can on paper. But can I really pull this off. Obviously, on day five, I don’t know yet is the answer. But I think, you know, what was really interesting to me, and to your point, Justin, and you got to experience it firsthand, it was really a big change for me in the sense of most of the times I start a new job, I get a computer maybe day one; maybe on day four, I go through a bunch of HR videos, learn how to log in and find where the, you know, all the folders are. And then my new job here, my first day is talking to 500 of our team members, talking to clients and being interviewed, all those things. I was like, wow, that's, that's unique. Normally nobody cares that I've started a new job. So that was one piece that's been interesting.  

But I think from my perspective, what I get really excited about―and as you and I have talked about, the reason that I thought RKD was the right step for me and that I thought I could help RKD and our clients be successful―is I have found that throughout the years, I want to have a bigger mission when I'm working on something. I can get excited about the problem-solving aspect of any problem in any market. But ultimately, fundamentally, I need the mission side of it in order to feel and maintain that passion and maintain the kind of desire to continue to make it that over time. And that's part of the piece that I am already really excited about. I can see the passion of our team members, of the clients that we have the honor of partnering with and doing good in the world is helpful and is really sort of a core part of it.  

Where I also get excited is the idea of, I feel like my time at Merkle and seeing some of what some of the leading commercial entities in the world are doing on the cutting edge of data, analytics, creative, digital media, identity management, all of these kinds of things, I get really excited about bringing that to our nonprofits. Like, how do we take that and say, here's how we can do this.  

Because I do think, and we've talked about this a little bit, Justin, I do think more than ever, especially with COVID, especially with our cultural awakening, especially with the financials that are going on, the constituents that we're dealing with are rapidly, rapidly changing, and their expectations are being influenced by these commercial entities, right? Before COVID, you expected to walk through a grocery store and find things over time and look at prices and all that stuff. Now I expect to order my groceries by clicking around. I expect to drive to the parking lot; for them to know when I pulled up, right? And if they're five minutes late, you're like, come on, what's going on? And you lose context of, I just ordered groceries from my couch. Somebody else packed them up. I'm not saying everyone does that, but I mean, how much more do we do that than we used to? And I think you can see just the rising expectations. And I get excited about saying, their mission to build relationships they need to fill with constituents is going to have to sort of meet and exceed those expectations because we don't get a pass that says, oh, they're a nonprofit, but that's OK. We're just, we're used to it now.  

Now we have to recognize that even with our nonprofit, people have the expectation of being able to make the donation, sign up for the walk, learn about the organization in real time on any device and have you understand who they are while they're doing it. And that's just really different. And it's not just for the millennials or the, you know, Gen X or whatever it is.  

I mean, now, when we're talking about most people who are getting into prime giving age, they’ve spent decades working on laptops and have had an iPhone for 10 years. We’re not talking about our traditional vision of the donors sort of writing checks on their, sort of, land, on their desk, and those kinds of things. We're talking about donors who are digitally native, and how do we meet their expectations that saying we go all digital. I'm just saying how do we meet their expectations when they have very different expectations than a donor even five years ago or three years ago.  

It's scary as well, right? It's intimidating. But all nonprofit fundraisers have committed, are committed to missions. I’m be excited to say this is going to be a really interesting time to be in fundraising, time to be in marketing, over the next couple of years.  

Justin: Well, Chris, we appreciate you taking so much time out of a very busy first week to chat with us and for our listeners to get to know you better, for us to get to know you better, and obviously, we'll be watching. It's very clear Ronnie and I are going to be paying attention.  

So, if you want to track back any of our viewing and listening audience, all of our episodes are available on all the different platforms where you can stream podcasts, you can watch the videos on YouTube and check out all of our resources on Until next time, I'm Justin McCord, for Ronnie and for Chris Pritcher saying, we'll see you next time.  

Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, visit 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 to gather research and guests, both the marketing of Group Thinkers, Suzanne, Ronnie, and others for their work on this and every episode of Group Thinkers. 


RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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