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Cultural translation with Dr. Marcus Collins

Dr. Marcus Collins is the author of “For the Culture” and an award-winning marketer and cultural translator. Marcus has held roles as the chief of strategy at Wieden+ Kennedy, head of digital strategy for Beyoncé, has been inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Achievement and is currently a professor at the University of Michigan.


In this episode of the RKD Group: Thinkers podcast, Marcus discusses the importance of understanding culture and its influence on behavior. Marcus shares:

  • What a cultural translator is and why he considers himself one
  • The importance of engaging communities and fostering belief when building brands
  • Culture and its role in philanthropy

Show chapters

  • 2:55 What a cultural translator is
  • 5:10 His evolution from engineering to music to advertising
  • 18:14 His experience working with Beyoncé and the Brooklyn Nets
  • 30:13 The role of culture in philanthropy
  • 37:33 The importance of having a belief and an ideology

Meet our guest

Dr. Marcus Collins - 1200x627


Justin McCord

Welcome to the RKD Group: Thinkers podcast, the podcast for nonprofit marketers. It's a show about the people who influence nonprofit marketing and fundraising. And unlike other shows that talk about the craft of fundraising, we focus on the people, the pioneers, the thinkers, the influencers, in this case, the cultural curators, diving into inspirations and motivations behind the brightest minds that influence the nonprofit sector. So, we love our listeners. We truly love connecting with folks, including hearing from you all. If you like this episode, give us a review on whatever platform it is that you're tuning in. We would certainly appreciate that. Ronnie, I don't know how you're going to set this one up, man. You’ve got your hands full.

Ronnie Richard

Yeah, I'm just like, I'm literally gonna just read through all of his background because it's just impressive to see the list.

So, our guest today is Dr. Marcus Collins. He's an award-winning marketer and, as he calls himself, he's a cultural translator. And like, we jump into that right out of the gate of what that means, but a little bit on his background. He is the former chief strategy officer at Wieden+Kennedy―which, if you're not familiar with them, they're the ones behind Nike's Just Do It ads―former head of digital strategy for Beyoncé. He's currently a marketing professor at the University of Michigan. He's already been inducted into the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Achievement. And he helped launch the Brooklyn Nets when they moved from New Jersey.

And now he is the author of a bestselling book called, “For the Culture: The power behind what we buy what we do and who we want to be.”

And so that was, that was a long list, but it honestly pales in comparison to just, like, the knowledge and the passion that you'll hear when we talk to him here; he just, he has so much to share.

Justin McCord

Marcus is truly an influencer of, like, the most positive sense of society. And I hope that that doesn't oversell. There's no way. And so, here's the thing. Here's what I'll say as we get to this episode. Just buckle up. Buckle up and get ready to think about your work in the nonprofit space in a different way because that's what you're walking into.

So here is Dr. Marcus Collins on the RKD Group: Thinkers podcast.

 Justin McCord

Alright, Dr. Marcus Collins. What's a, what is a “cultural translator”?

Marcus Collins

I like to think of it as someone who was able to identify the cultural characteristics of one party and articulate those conventions and expectations to another party in such a way that they can understand it and also operationalize it. They can do something about it.

And the idea, as a practitioner in marketing, is oftentimes, companies are trying to talk to groups of people … and there is a language barrier. They want to say who they are and why there are, there's relevant, they're relevant for these people, but they can't talk in a way that the group people understand and vice versa. So my role in many ways as a marketing practitioner has been about taking what is true about this entity and what they want to say and communicating in ways that another entity can understand it.

And what I realized is that skill set doesn't just sit in the world of marketing communications but also happens in the classroom, it happens on stages, it happens in text, and in more and more spaces I'm learning to realize. So in that, I feel like the idea of a cultural translator continues to evolve because the spaces and places in which that skill set is necessary continue to evolve.

 Justin McCord

Where were you a couple of decades ago when I was in school and needed that? And honestly, here's the thing for our listening audience, Marcus joined Ronnie and I and members of the RKD team at an event that we put on in D.C. in the fall of 2023. And at the end of a 15-minute session, I saw some 85 to 100 nonprofit professionals eager to go back to school under the tutelage of you, Marcus. Like, what?

Marcus Collins

Well, you know, I suffered too. You know, I, as a student, I think that some of the, the obligation I feel as an academic, as an instructor in the classroom, is to provide an environment in which many people can learn, right? And we all learn differently, right? We, some of us are, require, visual stimulation. Some of us require space to reflect.

Some of us require space to do. Some of us require sort of oratory communication for us to get it. Some of us require a combination of all those things. And, therefore, the classroom should be just as dynamic as the many ways in which we learn. I found myself, as an engineering student, feeling like I was dumb, feeling like I didn't belong in those classrooms because I didn't get it. And I thought that that ... deficiency of quote unquote “getting it” was a demonstration of my intellect.

The truth of the matter is that the classroom just wasn't established for my learning style. So as an instructor today, I do everything I can to try to hit all the many ways by which we learn so that people like me, Marcus back in the day, who are in my classrooms today, can feel seen and also can learn.

Justin McCord

So, you mentioned that idea of like, okay, so you started as an engineering student. Rewind to like, little Marcus. What prompted little Marcus to want to go into engineering? And then what was the transition from engineering into, I mean, a pretty solid resume of experiences on the marketing side that we're gonna get into. Like, tie those things together for us.

Marcus Collins

Yeah, I think the irony of it, or maybe a coincidence of it all, is that I got into engineering because of the cultural forces telling me that that's what was normal for people like me. If you did well in math and science in the nineties, and especially if you were black, you're going to be an engineer, full stop. Right? So, that's what I went into because those were the societal expectations of me, and those social forces being pushed against me came from my family―particularly my parents―came from the institutions in which I was learning from school, came from my peer set.

They were also experiencing the same social pressures. So though in my heart of hearts, I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be the fifth member of Voice to Men, in my heart of hearts, engineering was the logical thing. So that's what I did. It's like, you know, you're going to an amazing institution of higher learning, the University of Michigan, then it's time to get serious, to take advantage of your advantage.

So, when I came to school here, I was like, I'm going to do engineering. And I studied materials engineering because I used to spend every summer at a college, a summer engineering academy. And I remember there was a career fair where there were many different engineers, they’re professionals that were showcasing their form of engineering. And there were the electrical engineers over here. There were the, the industrial operations folks over there. There were the civil engineers over there, who were building, constructing things. And then I saw this guy who had a piece of a spaceship, a space shuttle. And on one side of it, he had a blowtorch, and he fired up the blowtorch, and it got, like, red hot. Literally. Like you saw it was red. And then he said, touch the other side. I was like, no way I'm doing that. He's like, touch the other side. I'm like, fam, not happening. And then he touched it, and he's like, touch it. So, you know, with, with much hesitation, I touched it and it was cool. And I was like, that's amazing. ‘Cause it's only, like, that much material, right? It says, you know, maybe an inch and a half of materials, not a whole lot there. And he's like, that's what I do for a living. And I go, I want to do that. That's dope.

So I was like, materials engineering. That's what I'll do, right? Polymers. That's what I'm going to focus on. Polymers. So I came to Michigan to study that, and I realized pretty early on in my college tenure, cause that's what it felt like, that I wasn't meant to be an engineer, at least not in the prototypical form of what an engineer was. My early classes, man, I was just, school was kicking my butt. And I was like, man, maybe this isn't for me.

Ronnie Richard

I find that super interesting because if I reflect on my own path, it's very similar. Good at math and science, family pressure, started in engineering when I went to college. I got into civil engineering and then realized after the third semester, it wasn't for me. So I switched into communications and journalism. I'm curious when you made your switch. So you graduate from Michigan, you then went back to Michigan, correct? And got your ... master's degree, but it was in an MBA. So what was the, kind of, the light bulb moment of, okay, I think I know what I want to do now that I know I don't want to do that, but this is what I want to do?

Marcus Collins

Yeah. It was pretty shortly after my first semester on campus. I was like, I don't think I want to be an engineer. I mean, I remember this vividly that my GPA was then, I got like a 2.85. I worked really hard for that 2.85. Like, I bust my butt for 2.85, and I never saw a grade, grades, that low ever in my life. Like, I remember in my parents' house, there's a plaque, my parents' house where I was, where I was recognized as being of the top 5% of students coming out of the city of Detroit. And you fast forward a semester later, I'm getting a 2.85. Like, this is not the math … ain't mathin'. And I remember after my freshman year that summer, I said, “You know, mom and dad, I don’t think I wanna do engineering.” And my mother goes, “Wait till you get into your major, you’ll love it.” My mother's an academic, so you know, she knows, I trust her.

So I went back to school, my sophomore year, and I was like, Oh, this definitely ain't for me. I'm, my major, I'm like, this ain't, this ain't for me. And I ended up taking some music theory courses just to offset my terrible GPA. And I fell in love with major seven. So I go, this is the thing. This is the thing. This is the thing. It felt familiar, but I knew at the same time as my first time feeling as a college student, excited about learning. Like, I was excited about going to class. I was reading proactively. I was very, very, very invested.

And after my sophomore year, I came home and said, “Mom and dad, I know what I want to do for a living.” They go, “Out with it.” “So, I want to be a songwriter.” They go, “Oh, no, you don't. That is not true. You do not want to be a songwriter.” And I go, “Oh yeah, I do.” And they go, “Well, first of all, you don't. And secondly, you ain't.” So I finished my engineering degree at Michigan, but I spent all of my, my access time and time I was supposed to be in class, honestly, in the recording studio. That took all my electives, in the school of music, learning how to write and produce music.

So when I graduated, I graduated right after 9/11; the market was terrible. And there were students, my classmates, who were killing it in school, and their jobs either got pushed back or rescinded altogether. And I go, if these guys can't get a job, I'm definitely not getting a job. So I might as well pursue the thing I really wanted to do, which was music.

So I went into the music business. I worked at Universal Music Group as an intern. That didn't feel like the right part of the business to be on because I wanted to create things, not to be on the business side. So I moved. I lived in Ann Arbor, and I ran a recording studio for one of my professors in the School of Music. And I just, essentially, just recorded my own stuff. When the paid sessions were over, I was writing and producing my own stuff.

And I ended up partnering with another Michigan engineer who didn't want to do engineering. And we started a company together. He did all the business side. I did all the creation side, and we were writing and producing music, had a couple remixes placed, but we really kind of hit our stride. We're doing partner marketing. I know that's what it was, but we were helping brands who wanted to, like, dip their toe in music but not spend a lot of money. We were kind of brokering those deals for them. And then once the music industry, like, really hit the iceberg, if you will, I ... our little business went out of business or started to unwind very quickly. So we figured one of us should probably figure out this whole thing called business because neither of us were business people. So I went to business school, and he went to go work for this junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who had the ambition and audacity to run for president of United States.

Ronnie Richard

It's incredible.

Justin McCord

Man, these are like, honestly, first of all, that wasn't in the book. Like, none of that part's in the book. And so, we're learning new things. Marcus's book, “For the Culture,” by the way, has been something that has sent shockwaves in all the good way through RKD and via RKD into other aspects of the nonprofit marketing and fundraising circle. So you ... you then take this career in music that you're pursuing in an economic environment and just―a social environment that is trying to realign itself post 9/-11―and then you find your way into advertising.

Marcus Collins

Yeah. So, I go into the, I go to business school to study strategic brand management. ‘Cause to me, that felt like the most creative part of business. And I wanted to understand this disruption that was happening in the music industry. And I wanted to stay in music, no doubt. And in my mind, I only wanted to work for one company, and that was Apple. ‘Cause at the time, Apple, they were the music industry. They were the disruptor in the music industry. So I felt like if I was going to understand it, I need to work with people who’re actually doing the disruption.

So thankfully I got a gig, doing partner marketing at iTunes, and it was great. I'm, like, learning the ins and outs of all these things that are happening from this behemoth organization that I just loved dearly. I mean, working Apple was a dream job for me. I did an internship there during my MBA program. And at the end of the summer, typically for an MBA, you'll get an offer to come back at the end of your second year, right? To end off your program, but ...

I was at Apple during the recession, right before the recession of 2008. So my boss goes, “Man, you crushed it this summer, and typically we'll give you an offer right now. However, we're on a hiring freeze. So I can't give you an offer for the future.” And I go, “That is a bummer. Like, that's the worst.” And he goes, “But, but since technically you are an employee, I can hire you now.” And I go, “I guess I still have a whole, you know, year of school to finish.” And he goes, “Just work remotely.” And I go, “Done. Count me in.”

So my last year of the MBA program, I was working full time at Apple, which was pretty awesome. So by the time I graduated, I didn't do any recruitment because I had a job, and I called my, my, my boss shortly before graduation and said, “Hey, I'm done in May. I want to do a little traveling, you know, before I get out to Cupertino. So what time do you want? When do you want me on campus?” And he goes, “I'm glad you called because we had some little shifting, some rejiggering. And unfortunately, you know, you're going to be moved over to MobileMe.” And if you don't know, MobileMe is, it doesn't exist anymore. It is now iCloud. The MobileMe was not a good look for, for, for Apple. And he's like, “That's all we have in the organization. So it's either that or nothing.” And I go, “I guess it's nothing for your boy in the middle of a recession.”

And my parents go ... “We have raised an idiot. We raised the dumbest kid there is.”

Justin McCord

It's timing. Right now, what we know in the path of Marcus is, timing is questionable.

Marcus Collins

Yes, anytime I'm in school, don't go to school because it's going to be bad news bears. And so, you know, I had 116 grand of debt around my neck from the MBA program in the middle of a recession―no leads, no job opportunities. And I just moved to New York, packed two bags, my Nike's on my feet. I moved to New York, got a room that was subletting off Craig's list, which we now know is a super-dangerous thing. Didn't know it then. I moved to New York to sort of figure it out, to kind of beat the bushes. And in doing that, I mean, I'm meeting almost everybody you could think of in the music industry, like, you know, really like, prominent names, like Lior Cohen, Russell Simmons, Kadar Massenberg, like, all these major, major, major people―Kevin Lyles in the music industry. And there are always these really close calls, like, so close, and offers coming and then just falls apart.

And I go, maybe this ... maybe this isn't for me because this doesn't seem to be working. And to my surprise, I get introduced to this gentleman named Matthew Knowles, who has a daughter named Beyoncé Knowles. And as I come to find out, he goes, “Let me get this straight: You're an engineer. You started a music company. You have an MBA. You worked at Apple, and you're black fam. You're a unicorn. You don't exist. You're not real.” I go, “No, I am real.” He says, “You should run digital strategy for Beyoncé.” And I go, “Yeah, I should totally do that.”

So, I end up running digital strategy for Beyoncé during the “I Am … Sasha Fierce” days, which is, like, an amazing time to be in the Beyoncé business. It's never a bad time to be in the Beyoncé business. This is a particularly good time to be in the Beyoncé business. And for me, this is sort of the apex of my career in music. I'm working with one of the biggest artists on the planet. But what I'm realizing, running digital in 2009―at this point, 2009, 2010―what I realize is that ... the music industry is just so far behind with regards to these new technologies. And the industry is actually using the tech well and breaking new artists better than the record labels were advertisers. I mean, think about, like, iTunes ads in those days―or really, they were iPod ads in those days―like Matt and Kim, Feist, they were, like, breaking artists. And I go, that's where I need to be, on the advertising side.

They know the technology better than the music industry does. And they're actually making greater contributions to music discovery, to new artists, new artists’ development than rec labels were. So I was like, advertising is where I want to be. So that's where I, kind of, set my sights.

Ronnie Richard

So you're working for Beyoncé. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Like, what was some of the strategy you were employing? Because this is about the time of the rise of social media, right? Like, early days of Facebook. What did you put into play? Like, what were some of the things you came up with? And maybe some lessons learned that you could share with us.

Marcus Collins

Yeah, that's right. Oh yeah. So by and large, a major part of my gig was about, kind of, setting an ecosystem for Beyoncé―that whatever door you went into, you bumped into other things. So if you came in because you love the music, you bump into her acting obsession, Cadillac records, Dreamgirls. If you came in through the movie door, which is probably odd, but let's just say you do, you stumble into her relationships with, like, L'Oreal, and Vizio, and Walmart and Nintendo. The idea is that these things became sort of what we call now “flywheel”―that they all sort of touch each other and propel each other forward.

And a large part of this was, how do we engage her fans online? And at this time, to your point, you got Facebook, you got Twitter, Foursquare, if you guys remember Foursquare. These are all the things that are at our disposal to help engage her fans. And I go, oh man, this might be easy as pie. Like, it’s Beyoncé. You just say, you just do the thing. You say, hey, we’re doing a thing, and people will show up. But what I realized is that this is not the case. You know, we were trying to engage fans and build a community around fans. But the biggest learning I found was that you don't build community, you facilitate it. And you facilitate it by finding people who already believe what you believe.

You know, we were trying to build this thing, who later we'll call the, the Beyon-tourage, right? Her fan club. … But what the team will later find out is that there were a group of people off in the recesses of the internet who had a set of beliefs, had a set of ideologies that were already congruent with that of Beyoncé.

And the team ultimately―this is after I'd left―decided to say, let's cut bait on this Beyoncé-rage nonsense, and let's engage those folks. In fact, let's make those folks the official fan club of Beyoncé, which became the Beehive. And the learning for me from afar is that, is that, dude, you don't create communities, you facilitate and foster them. You find the people who already believe, and you use your resources to bring them together. And we see this play out today with the Beehive.

You see this play out today with Taylor Swift and the Swifties, right? It's a game plan, or it's a strategy that I wish, you know, in hindsight, I had enough wherewithal to leverage. But now I know, and that's sort of the gospel that I preach today.

Justin McCord

I feel like the experience that you just outlined with working on Beyoncé, you almost had the reciprocal experience in helping launch the Brooklyn Nets as a brand because that was all about engaging a literal community here, like a geographic space around a set of values. And so, parallel those two projects and those two ... chapters of your life for us.

Marcus Collins

So, the Brooklyn Nets, to your point, you know, this is … fans, they're fans, they're, they're fans who are fans of the team. And what the Brooklyn Nets, fans of the New Jersey Nets rather, what Brooklyn Nets wanted, they wanted the Brooklyn Nets to be to Brooklyn what the Knicks were to New York, New York City, Manhattan in particular.

And you go, whew, that is a really tall feat. ‘Cause you have an export from New Jersey to New York, which is not very welcome, right? Like, outside of like, Billy Joel and Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen, like, New York doesn't love a lot of New Jersey export, right? Keep it true.

Not only that, launching the team meant the building of an arena, the Barclays Center, that was gonna upseat a lot of local residents and a lot of local businesses, which wasn't welcomed, right? In fact, there were protests, there were documentaries about the protest. And on top of that, the team wasn't good. Like, no shade, but the team was not good. Yes, that's right. No championships, nothing, right? Nothing. Not a good value proposition if you're trying to sell a thing. So I thought about, like, my experiences. It's like, okay, let's not think about fans, forget fans for a moment. Like, who should we focus on? Let's focus on community, people.

Justin McCord

They were miserable. They were really bad.

Marcus Collins

Well, so the people we want to move are Brooklynites. But what do we know about Brooklynites? Well, Brooklynites are a proud bunch. Very, very proud. Right? So maybe we can ignite the stoke, the pride that exists in Brooklynites, in such a way, in a manner that Brooklynites will adopt this team as a receipt of their identity of being Brooklynites. Right? So, it's not about the team; it's not about the value proposition. It's not about the gameplay. It's about what this brand represents, what it means, which is what brands are, the vessels of meaning.

So, okay, great. So how do we do that? Well, we're able to borrow some, from some, some theory. And thankfully, you know, there are people who are a million times smarter than me that provide really good inspiration. One of those, those persons is a gentleman by the name of Edward Bernays, the godfather of propaganda and the second nephew of Sigmund Freud, actually.

And he has one of these provocations. He says that you can unite a people by declaring an enemy of the state. And thankfully for us, with Brooklyn, there is an inherent enemy of the state: Manhattan. So the entire strategy was like, let's stoke the rivalry. By stoking the rivalry, we'll be stoking the pride at Brooklyn, and Brooklyn will adopt the Brooklyn Nets as a way to say that they are Brooklynites―just learning from my folly, learning from experiences that you use your resources to facilitate community as opposed to trying to create something anew.

Ronnie Richard

So through these experiences with Beyoncé, with the Brooklyn Nets, is this about when you ... I'm trying to understand, like, when did the idea about culture and community and that identity that you bring with it, is it starting to form around this time? Is it kind of somewhere in the back, and you haven't quite brought it forward yet?

Marcus Collins

I would say I was a bit of a word steward at that time. You know, I started reading the social sciences. I was working in an agency called Translation, who were without this point of view that they existed to help ambitious brands thrive in contemporary culture. And I would say it all the time. We help ambitious brands thrive in contemporary culture. But if you ask me to define culture at the moment, at that time, I didn't have a good answer for you. Like gibberish.

I think it was like, you know, it’s essentially sort of a shortcut for popularity. What's popular, what's hip, what's hot, what's cool. And that was sort of the way in which, you know, at least me as representative for the agency would present itself that, like, we, we got to, we have a, we have the pulse of culture. We have, you know, our finger on the pulse. So we know what's happening, so we can then help you be cool brand who knows nothing about coolness.

And that was sort of how I thought about culture, but the more I started to study the behavioral sciences, the more I started to study the physics of human behavior, the underlying physics of humanity, my frames on what culture was began to shift. And I started to, kind of, question a lot of things I was saying. I started to ask myself, what do you mean when you say that? Because you said this, but that's not what that actually means. And this interrogation is what started getting me closer and closer and closer to the scholarship. And the closer I got to the scholarship, the more excited I got about the practice. And the more I studied the behavioral science, the better the practice became. The more I practiced, the more curious I became about behavioral science.

Justin McCord

Dadgummit, you created your own flywheel. Like, you didn't even know that you were doing it, right? Okay, so I've got, I guess, two things that are going through my mind as you're talking through this, Marcus. One is there is so much of your story that I love―the combination of how intentional you are at pursuing something that you're passionate about, and how you're making your own luck and finding yourself into ...

Marcus Collins

Yeah, in a lot of ways. Yeah. Yeah.

Justin McCord

... spaces that you step into. And it's like, it's this really interesting push and pull. I'm curious who, as you reflect on it now, who are the people that were mentoring and guiding you, that part. And then, second, having spent time with members of RKD and the, you know, the nonprofit leaders that we spent time around together back in the fall, et cetera. How do you think about this practice of culture as it relates to philanthropy and an individual's connection to causes?

Marcus Collins

Yeah. So, interestingly, and maybe this is a sobering moment, is that I didn't have a lot of direct mentors. There were people who saw something in me that gave me opportunities. I won't say they necessarily mentored me, but they gave me opportunities. I think about my first job at Apple, I shouldn't have gotten that job. There was nothing on my resume that said I was ready for that gig. Right? But ... my manager, Iz Swajnajar, the head of the group I was in, partner marketing guy named Matt Fisher, they saw something in me that other people didn't see, and they gave me a shot.

Working for Beyoncé, I had no business having that job. No business at all. But Matthew Knowles saw something in me that other people didn't see, and he gave me a chance to swing. At Translation, good night, I had no business in those rooms, but Steve Stout saw something in me that somebody else didn't see and gave me a swing, right? And it was these kind of series of people seeing my potential and giving me the chance that really opened up the doors for me. And there are people along the way who poured in, poured into me. I think like, John Bond when I was at Big Fuel, the first agency I worked at, he saw something in me and would kind of give me, like, pointers.

And on the academic side, the German name, Professor John Branch here, who was my professor in the business school that really became, you know, my, my conduit into, into academia, you know, they keep, he treat, he treated me like a peer, even though he really, it was definitely like a, a, a Obi-Wan/Luke relationship for sure. But along the way, there wasn't a lot of people who were like, oh, I'm going to, like, really make sure this guy is good. Right? They gave me opportunities. And I feel like my biggest mentors were, were, were the scholars.

Like, Dan Ariely, who I know now, like, we're not close friends, but like, Dan Ariely changed my life, literally changed my life. One of the biggest inflection points in my life was Dan Ariely's “Predictably Irrational,” right? And my grandfather used to always say this―he was a minister―he used to always say this: that like, reading is like brain surfing. You get to surf the brains of people you don't know, just by investing yourself in their reading. And that's what I did.

Like, you know, my heart was broken yesterday when, Daniel Kahneman passed because I've read Kahneman's work like mad. I’ve studied his work like mad. You know, people like, like Grant McCracken, people like Rob Cosnett, people like Doug Holt, like, these people, I've befriended them now, but they were sort of a guiding light for me. And I would look at, sort of, the work that they did to get a sense of what I ought to do. Like, those are my mentors in the world of practice.

And spending time with the leaders in philanthropy when we were back in D.C. What I thought was interesting to me is that they're all motivated by something beyond the value propositions. They believe in something. They do the work they do not because it's a huge moneymaker for them. They do it because they believe in everything we know about culture. Everything that the scholars have been telling us about culture is that culture is anchored in identity and belief, full stop. Who we are and what we believe. I think it was Nathan who was one of the speakers, you know, he says that like, if, there you go, yeah, exactly, he said that if nonprofits would think like ...

Justin McCord

Nathan Chappell, yeah. Yeah.

Marcus Collins

... of nonprofits to start thinking like nonprofits and not like commercial entities, it would be rocket fuel in what they do. And what he meant by that, at least the way I interpreted it, is that I try to teach for-profit entities to think like nonprofits. What do you believe? How do you see the world? Not what you sell, but what do you believe? What's your ideology? Like, what's your worldview? What's your conviction? What's the thing that you're willing to stand for? What's the thing that you're willing to stand for, even if you're the only one? What's the thing that you're willing reduce market share, to empty the bank because you believe this thing. That's what you go preach. That's what you spend your time focused on, not what you sell. And the inverse, however, is that nonprofits are like, what can I learn from Nike? What can I learn from this for-profit brand? I'm like, they're learning from you. Look in the mirror. And that is at the crux of the work that I do.

I study culture and its influence on behavior, from consumption to organizations to society. And what we know about culture is that culture is anchored in identity and beliefs. And I'm sitting here with some of the most powerful nonprofits in the world. Like, some of the household name brands that we know. Powerful brands that have great cognitive real estate in people's minds, great distinctiveness, and they don't know who they are as they looked at me the whole time. I was … there was like, y 'all look in the mirror. Look who you are. Like, say it with your chest, right? And, and if we start with what we believe in, the belief you have is so rich, so, so unbelievably powerful. If you start with the soul, then in with the cell, what you do as an entity will increase in magnitude what comes back to you.

Justin McCord

Do you just want to keep going, man? Like, do you just like, can't you keep, you're just this, you're this shy of ranting, and we're like, yes, yes, yes, keep … keep it going. Yes. I mean, dude, this is, it's one of those ‘louder for those in the back’ kind of moments. And ...

Marcus Collins

Thank you.

And the thing is that, like, we know it. And this is why, again, why I feel obligated to be an instructor. Because we know these things intuitively. But the minute that we go into, like, business mode, we take off our human hat and put on our I'm-a-business-person hat. So let's think about fiduciary responsibilities. Let's think about increasing shareholder value. And that's what for-profits companies do.

But what's the shareholder value for a nonprofit? Like, what's the fiduciary responsibility for a nonprofit? It's to serve the belief. And the belief is in service of people. And I say to myself that, like, then focus on that. Focus on that; go preach that. And the people who believe those people will move.

Now the question becomes―and I actually had an MBA student ask me this yesterday, it was great, and I don't know why I never articulated like this before, but I was on with me. I was … I was like … I was like, really going. Like, I was like feeling myself. I was feeling myself. That was so, like, into what we were talking about. And you know, I was like, you gotta have a belief; you gotta have an ideology. Like, that's what you stand on, and that's what you preach. And he raised his hand sort of, you know, it wasn't even sheepish. He was like, “Oh, I got a question for you.” And he goes, “You know, but if you lead with what you believe, aren't you going to repel people? Aren't people going to say, ‘Well, I don't believe that. So no, thank you.’” And I go, “Of course.” And he looked at me sort of incredulously like, well, what do you mean then? Why are you telling me to repel people if I have a fiduciary responsibility to drive shareholder value up?

And I asked him, I said, “Let's talk marketing for a moment. Can you target everyone?” And he goes, “No, it's ridiculous.” Like, you can't, you can't convert everybody, right? And he goes, “Yeah, exactly.” And I was like, “Why say, ‘cause you don't have resources to it and your product isn't for everybody?”

And he runs down the list like a very, you know, a very learned MBA ought to. And I go, “Great. So if you know that truth, if you know that truth, then why are you afraid of repelling people? If you know that you're inherently going to repel people.” And he goes, “You're right.” And I was like, “I know I'm right.” And that's the idea here is that you know your belief, you know that your product, whatever your product is, isn't for everybody.

So let's focus on the people for whom it is for. And those people are the people who see the world the way we do. So go preach the gospel to them. But there's this inherent fear, this loss aversion. Again, back to recalling Daniel Kahneman, this loss aversion that, like, oh, I don't want to, I want to leave this a little bit open for, for like, just for those people, maybe, maybe for those people, to leave a little bit open. I don’t want to make it too tight. Make it just a little bit, a little bit looser. Maybe I can appeal to more people.

And you go, will you shoot yourself in the foot, friend? Start with the people who are most likely to move, the collective of the willing. And those are the people who see the world the way you do.

Justin McCord


And you know, this is where this aligns so much with the way that we think as an entity in service of the nonprofits that we work with, because, you know, it's in understanding who you are as an organization and in understanding the people who believe in you. You can't understand that through the lens of purely a transaction. Like, that is that is in no way, shape or form the best way to understand a person and to better align yourself with the person. That's one of the reasons why this year, one of our four big things is the idea of ‘being you.’ Like’ lean into who you are because you're the best at being you as an organization. So lean into that, and you'll find a new level of authenticity that connects with people and, to your point, repels others, and that's okay.

Marcus Collins

And that's the scary part though. That's the scary part. That is the scary part. And I get it. I mean, I empathize. I get it, right? I felt like it took me 40 years to be brave enough to be myself. You know, it's a scary thing, you know? But I guess, like, it dawned on me that, like, I'd rather be rejected for who I am than rejected for someone I was trying to be.

You know, you imagine, you know, you're on a first date and like, you're trying to be this kind of funny. You're trying to be this kind of thing. And the person goes like, ah, she didn't feel it. Like, I'm looking for someone that's more like that. And I'm like, I'm actually that, wait a minute, I'm actually that thing you wanted. I can, that's me. Like, can we do this again? Let me try it again. I can actually be myself, you know? And it's like, we, again, back to the behavioral sciences, like, like, we … we … we try to mimic what we think people want of us so that we can be liked.

And it's deep in our humanity to want to be liked, to want to belong. That is, we're social animals by nature, right? But we can't belong to everybody. We're meant to be in tribes. We're meant to be in small, tight-knit networks. So the idea is, find your tribe, find your network, the people who see the world the way you do. Preach the gospel to them, and they'll go, “Yes.” And here's the beautiful part, it stimulates a network effect where they go find other people on your behalf. Not because of what you are, but because of who they are. And, good Lord, that's more powerful than anything you could spend your money trying to do.

Justin McCord

Absolutely. For our listeners as we wrap up, here's the thing, if you're not following Marcus Collins on LinkedIn, that is step one, because you hear him getting fired up here, and you can see it, and it's something to behold. And man, we appreciate you so much and appreciate the things that you preach. And “For The Culture,” is, like I said, it's available on Amazon. Folks can and should go out and get it. It's required reading for anyone that listens to this episode. There will be a quiz at some point. And it is something that has transformed the way that we think inside our company and the way that we think about the work that we do. And so, we can't thank you enough for your passion and your point of view. And then we just ... we want you to continue to do it.

Marcus Collins

Oh man, I'm super grateful, and I feel like we’re in the same network here. We’re after the same things. And so, anytime I get a chance to contribute to the great work that you all do, I consider it an honor and a privilege indeed.

Justin McCord

You're a good one, Dr. Marcus Collins, you're a good one. Man, we can't wait to catch up again down the road.

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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