Stephanie Russell is RKD Group’s new Executive Vice President of Strategy & Data Science. A pioneer in fundraising and marketing strategy, Stephanie uses her expertise in research, analytics and data to guide how she thinks about audience-centric campaigns.
In this episode of the RKD Group: Thinkers podcast, Stephanie sits down to discuss the evolution of strategy in the nonprofit sector and the role of data in decision making. Stephanie highlights:
- Understanding people and their context when developing strategies
- How nonprofits can use for-profit audience-centric strategies when building campaigns
- The importance of embracing change and thinking critically for future success
- 5:25 Stephanie’s background in research, analytics and strategy
- 7:15 The evolution of strategy and the role data and people play in it
- 14:36 The importance of context in strategy
- 20:47 Bringing for-profit strategies to nonprofit organizations
- 22:48 Taking leaps forward in nonprofit marketing and fundraising
- 25:25 Influential coaches and leaders in Stephanie’s career
- 27:43 Advice for implementing strategy in nonprofit marketers as they move forward
Meet our guest
Justin McCord (00:02)
Welcome to the RKD Group: Thinkers podcast. This is a show for nonprofit marketers, and it's really about the people who influence nonprofit marketing and fundraising. And unlike shows that talk about the craft of fundraising, we focus on the people, the pioneers, the thinkers, right? And so like past episodes, today we're gonna be diving deep into the inspirations and motivations behind some of the brightest minds in and around the nonprofit industry. This is the first episode for us in 2024, and it's our 89th episode overall. I'm going to read that again because I said, “89th.“
And we're thrilled for what this year has in store for you as listeners of our podcast. Before we get into today's conversation, I wanna take the chance to introduce Kate McKinley, who is the host of RKD's newest podcast, RKD Group Chats. Kate?
Kate McKinley (01:21)
Thanks, Justin. And hey, everyone, I'm super excited for this opportunity. Y'all know that the Thinkers podcast is a long-form discussion with people focused on topics of leadership and innovation. And Group Chats is our new show, and we'll bring you short chats with people who are working at and with nonprofits. I'm super excited for this. Like I said, we wanna really peel back the layers of who they are, what they do and what daily life looks like for people who work in purpose-driven roles.
Ronnie Richard (01:55)
Yeah, Kate, we're super excited about it too. I think RKD Group: Chats is going to be a really cool way to shine light on some of the amazing individuals who are working for good and compassionate purpose are the heart of what we do in this sector. So, I'm excited to see some of these conversations. For our listeners, Chats will appear in the same feed in the weeks between the Thinkers episodes. So you don't have to look for it anywhere else or go find it. It'll, come straight to you.
Justin McCord (02:26)
Yeah, Kate's coming straight to you. We are thrilled, Kate, and know that you're gonna be able to tell some amazing stories of these wonderful people that we are fortunate to get to work with. So, speaking of, Ronnie, our episode today really has an incredible and exceptional thinker. Ronnie, tell us about our guest.
Ronnie Richard (02:53)
Yeah, in the spirit of newness, Stephanie Russell is our guest. She's RKD's new Executive Vice President of Strategy and Decision Science. She has a really amazing career arc. She's been 25 years working through research and data and analytics in various roles. And then, you know, as she got more into her career, it was applying the learnings from that into marketing strategy. So, we go into a lot of back and forth with her in this episode. And for me, one thing that stands out was how she's thinking about audiences and people differently. Something that it's moving to in the nonprofit space. And we'll get into more of that in the episode.
Justin McCord (03:40)
Yeah, very excited to have Stephanie on to kick off the year. And so, before we get there, listen, we love our listeners and are so thankful that you choose to regularly spend time with us. And so, if you liked this episode, please leave it a rating or review on the platform where you're joining us from. They help us bring you more discussions just like this. So with that, let's kick off 2024 with Stephanie Russell on RKD Group: Thinkers.
Justin McCord (04:17)
Wait, I didn't hear the automated voice. Where was the automated voice?
Ronnie Richard (04:20)
Sorry, no automated voice today.
Justin McCord (04:23)
Ronnie Richard (04:26)
New year, new tricks.
Justin McCord (04:29)
New tricks. Hi Stephanie.
Stephanie Russell (04:31)
How are you? Good morning.
Justin McCord (04:34)
We're good, we're good. It's a gloomy day here in Dallas. And I know you're headed our way, so sorry.
Stephanie Russell (04:42)
I am hopefully the rain doesn't delay my flights. It's sunny and beautiful and very snowy on the ground here in Maryland. So, nice day.
Justin McCord (04:48)
Yeah. The, uh, we had our, our one winter fit, I think, that we're going to get in the last couple of weeks. And I think we're over it now. So we're good for one, like, super massive tantrum.
Stephanie Russell (04:59)
See you next time, Sam.
Ronnie Richard (05:07)
It's usually a week. It was like four days. Yeah.
Justin McCord (05:10)
Yeah, yeah. Stephanie, we're excited to chat with you. This is our first episode of the new year. So you're number one. No pressure. But we're excited, you know, we've gotten to spend some time with you. But as happens, oftentimes, whenever you, when you start a new role, like, you dive immediately into stuff, right? Like ...
Stephanie Russell (05:20)
No pressure. Thank you.
Justin McCord (05:39)
It's into the thick of things in a lot of different ways. And so, I've been really looking forward to this conversation because I want to understand more of Stephanie Russell and figure out, like, what makes you tick, how those things got there, all of those pieces.
Stephanie Russell (05:59)
Justin McCord (06:00)
So, you have spent 25-ish years in some version of research, analytics, and strategy. And where I wanna start is, how has that changed in 25 years? How has it stayed the same and how has it changed?
Stephanie Russell (06:27)
Well, I guess it's always been very data-driven, right from the beginning. And you sort of brought it as you introduced, you mentioned research. And I was thinking, gosh, I feel like I haven't done all that much research, but my career really did start in research and a lot of kind of controlled studies and other research studies, which is sort of a good foray into some training that was very analytically oriented and sort of moving into, you know, kind of more application into marketing and fundraising use cases. So yeah, data has stayed the same the whole way through; it's, you know, they say your strengths are also your biggest, weaknesses, right? So just, kind of, being mindful very analytical person. And that has always, sort of, fueled how I approach, you know, all things: marketing strategy, fundraising. But it's also something I need to, kind of, check and make sure I surround myself with, with creativity and, and kind of, you know, outside-of the-box thinking and not get too constrained by analysis and things, which some of us can fall into that trap at times.
Justin McCord (07:30)
Yeah, I think about some of the, you know, like season three of “Mad Men,” I think, is one of the first times where I think strategy comes up in that series. And, you know, it's somewhere in the plot where Harry Crane starts the media division, and he’s the one media person. And he comes into a meeting, and there's the person that brings in the dossier of information.
Stephanie Russell (07:50)
Justin McCord (07:59)
Draper, as Draper does, kind of looks at it and tosses it. And, you know, there's data behind it. Yeah, we've come a long way. We really, really have come a long way. How do you think about strategy? Like, what does it mean? What does being strategic look like, especially in 2024?
Ronnie Richard (08:04)
We've come a long way.
Stephanie Russell (08:21)
Yeah, I mean, it's sort of a combination of that, kind of, more creative thinking and bottom-up analytical thinking, right? So again, my tendency is to lean into data and figure out where we can draw insights from data. But I think it's also really critical to just think top down and take a step back. So, what's happening in the world right now, what's happening in culture, right? What is, sort of, in people's minds and their moments and their context, right? And sort of marrying that with the nuggets that you get from data work, and it's not data work to create facts but really to try to tease out insights from those facts and, sort of, some of those aha moments. I think it's easy to get kind of stuck in a rut of, like, data and analysis just becoming reporting, which yes, that’ll feed strategy, but not in a super thoughtful way. So really kind of marrying both again, that sort of, like, top-down, bottom-up in both contexts, trying to think as insightfully as we can about it.
Ronnie Richard (09:20)
Cause everything we do in marketing is, it's data, like you're saying, but ultimately each of those data points, it's about people, and it's about the audience. Like, can you tell us a little bit about that, that connection between understanding people and then how you use that in strategy?
Stephanie Russell (09:38)
Yeah, and I think our tendency is to wanna get all the way down to one-to-one, which yes, there are elements of personalization and marketing and fundraising that allow us to do that. But it's, you know, sort of really, kind of, getting into how can I think about audiences and groups of people and sort of, again, sort of that context they're in so that my messaging will resonate, but also where can I find them? And can I find them in the context and in the headspace? Right, that what I'm trying to articulate and the call to action I'm giving is gonna resonate with them. And then, you know, sort of, how do I then think about also the combination of channels and, you know, we have a lot of conversations about, you know, the role of direct mail and whom does that resonate with and whom does it not resonate with and, you know, but also kind of thinking about long form and short form and, you know, what can you really articulate and, you know, sort of, a couple second impression from a digital perspective. But I think that combination of those things can be really powerful if you're being mindful of, you know, sort of individual and group audiences and, kind of, where they are, both, again, from a targeting and a messaging perspective.
Justin McCord (10:43)
What was the, what were the, like, the formative moments that made, that opened this space for you? Like, what, if you rewind back to, you know, high school Stephanie or even college Stephanie, what were the things that made you think, you know what, this is, this is the step that I feel like I should take?
Stephanie Russell (10:58)
Thank you. Yeah, I think I did an independent. So, in college, I was sort of that nerdy person who, you know, as an econ major, but really enjoyed econometrics and statistics. And I did an independent study, you know, sort of focused on explanatory and econometric modeling and the idea that you could compile that much data, and I sort of enjoyed the art of programming. You know, so I was once a hands-on-keys programmer way back in the day. And just the fact that, again, you could sort of shape that much information at your fingertips and, kind of, glean insight from it was really fascinating to me. And so, the ability to then apply that skillset into the world was really compelling, and that, to your point, in the beginning started with research. And then I very quickly, you know, sort of leaned into marketing and just found marketing a really fascinating application for that, you know, kind of econometric kind of mindset.
Justin McCord (12:05)
I too benefited from an independent study. I'm a huge fan of taking a chance on doing something like that because of the accessibility, typically, of the professor that you're working with and having that help form and shape, and it stands the test of time for me; it’s something that I look back on fondly. And mine was in script writing, right? So it's like, still …
Stephanie Russell (12:14)
Yeah. Yeah. Okay, I was going to see what yours was in.
Justin McCord (12:33)
Yeah, yeah. So, screenplay writing with Brian Elliott was the name of the professor, and it was myself and a guy who, he and I wrote a lot of things together. He has pursued a career in stand-up comedy. And so, we both find, like, different aspects of storytelling that came from that independent study. And so, I do think that those can be super …
Stephanie Russell (12:53)
Justin McCord (12:59)
Super informative. Okay, so I have another question. I'm sure Ronnie wants to get back to, like, modern marketing, things like that. But we just learned, prior to jumping on the air, that you were also a soccer player, a very competitive soccer player, and center-mid and center-back. And this is where Ronnie falls asleep as a part of the conversation. It's fine. Can you draw some connections for our listening audience between the role of a center-back and the role of a strategist.
Stephanie Russell (13:34)
Yeah. So, I'm glad that you chose center-back, right? Because it's, ironically, I was just talking to somebody on my team Friday because she played soccer as well. And I was like, I bet you played sweeper and center-back. And, sort of, the analogy I was using is, you're sort of able, you're able to see the whole field, right? And there's lots of different things happening. And the ability to, kind of, anticipate those next couple of moves, I think, is what really differentiates a good center-back from a great center-back.
And so, when you, sort of, think about all the different moving parts, when we're, we're sort of orchestrating an experience and strategizing an experience for a client and their, their constituents, you kind of have to see all those moving pieces, but then also, too, once you get into each activation and the production of that, there's also a lot of moving pieces in each of those, right? All the different parts need to kind of come together. And yeah, there's tons of process and things that we apply to make that go smoothly, but I think somebody who's able to understand the mechanics of all the pieces and kind of able to take a step back, to have the mindset to take a step back but also kind of see how all the orchestration is coming together―that's a really powerful thing, both in soccer and in business, ironically.
Ronnie Richard (14:51)
That was an A-plus comparison right there. I gotta say. Yeah. It was like a perfect connection. It would make me think of Justin when we had our team meeting question of which planet do you most associate with? And we all had to think on the spot about that and come up with something; some sort of explanation of why too.
Stephanie Russell (14:54)
I mean, I didn't know you were going to ask that question. It literally came up on Friday. So I got a little bit of a ...
Justin McCord (15:00)
Stephanie Russell (15:17)
Well, please don't ask me that question because you're like ...
Ronnie Richard (15:20)
I'm planting it now so that we can ask it later. It's like, you need to think about it.
Stephanie Russell (15:24)
I'm just trying to think of my little acronym so that I even know all the planets.
Justin McCord (15:27)
Right, right, right.
Ronnie Richard (15:29)
I'm curious, I want to back up a little bit when you were talking about the application of strategy, and you mentioned context being important to understanding people and where they are. Can you talk about that a little bit more, unpack that? What do you mean by context?
Stephanie Russell (15:47)
Yeah, I think there's a whole range of it, right? So, like, right now, all of us are living in this context where there's inflation, right? There's some, we were just talking in the beginning before we started recording about weather patterns kind of changing. You know, there continues to be, sort of war, right? In the world, right? Which is kind of influencing. We're about to go into an election cycle, which is sure to be, you know, taking up a lot of people's headspace and conversation. So, I think there's both this, sort of, broader context of just being mindful of what's happening in the world. And then there's an individual's context, right? So, I don't know about you guys, but I hate nothing more than being on, sort of, a personal social media site, like Instagram, or admittedly I still use Facebook, and people bring business into it, right? It just drives me nuts, right? So, it's also being mindful of, you know, as you’re trying to, you know, target a donor or a prospective donor, a constituent or anybody from a marketing context, where you’re choosing to have that conversation; is it the right place, right? And does your messaging sort of align with the place where you're finding them? And certainly, you have more control over that in a digital context as you're sort of pushing, kind of, print and other kind of broader, maybe video communications out. You may have less knowledge, or you know, kind of, ability to kind of control those things matching up well, but I think it’s that combination of both of them that matters a lot. And I think we sometimes get half of it right, and then we forget the other half. And increasingly, as we become much more tech and data enabled, I feel like we're getting the latter half right, where, especially again in digital, we're kind of being contextually relevant in the moment but then sort of forgetting to toggle our messaging based on people's broader context and being audience specific about it, right? Like, it's hard to, you know … what resonates with different people based on what's happening in the world isn't gonna be the same for everyone. So, starting to think about different permutations of your messaging is really important.
Ronnie Richard (17:44)
Justin McCord (17:49)
Yeah, this is a really interesting time in nonprofit marketing and fundraising and for so many different reasons. And you mentioned just so much of the noise, like, in the current context or on the horizon. And for better or worse, we tend to think in 12-month cycles. And many times, I think it's for worse, right? But you know, the ...
Stephanie Russell (18:13)
Justin McCord (18:19)
understanding people's context and putting them in cohorts has probably never been more challenging for nonprofit marketers and also never been more needed. And here you are coming in to help lead that sort of effort in strategy and decision science. And so, how do you think about that, in helping mature how strategic practices play out so that nonprofits can better connect with folks?
Stephanie Russell (18:59)
Yeah. I mean, I think it's about making sure that the complexity you're introducing and being audience specific doesn't outweigh the benefit of the value you're going to get from it. Right? So, being mindful of where there's downstream effort for deploying, you know, kind of audience specific, you know, kind of, campaigns and messaging and personalization. We just have to be, sort of, mindful of that, I'd say. Increasingly, the things that we can do in all channels, whether, you know, ranging all the way from direct mail through to paid search, kind of the ability to be personally personalized is getting much and much easier and faster, right? In terms of availability of data and then the platform's ability to execute that of times where we're challenged as sort of that sweet spot of creating assets, right, that are both resonant and kind of in that right channel. And a lot of that starts with upfront planning, right? We're having a lot of folks in planning cycles now. We're talking about lead times and why it takes as long as it takes, right? And kind of getting some of those assets organized and pulled together. And again, thinking about our planning in an audience-centric way, I think for a lot of the industry it’s a little bit of a shift, as much as we've been talking about it for so long. So, I think, sort of, once we get past the socialization starting to plan way. And then again, sort of think about the pull through of, kind of, the audience data. Do we have it? You know, do we have the assets that are, you know, going to be audience specific and personalized, and also making sure we don't, to my earlier point, go overboard there, right? Because we've done that as an industry, it points to, right, where we sort of get complex for complexity’s sake, because theoretically, it feels like the right thing to do. You know, but that kind of cost benefit isn't quite there. But I will say, just the pace with which tech is catching up with us, and sort of the ability to do dynamic things and creative, and even in a direct mail context, is getting better every day. And so, it's a super exciting time to be a strategist and be somebody who thinks about audience first and in terms of the power of what we can do there, it’s pretty fun.
Ronnie Richard (21:01)
I'm curious, you just were talking about audience first. In the nonprofit space, we often talk about how nonprofits are a little behind the for-profit world, just by nature of not having budgets for extensive R&D and things like that. Having worked in the for-profit space in the B2B world, what are some of the things that you're most excited to be bringing to nonprofit organizations? Is it that audience-first mindset? Is that one of them.
Stephanie Russell (21:32)
Yeah, that's definitely a part of it. And then, also, I think there's fairly traditional ways we think about audience in the nonprofit space in terms of, like, just the fundamental industry ways we think about, you know, new donors, and core donors, and sustainers and all that, which is great. I think we have an opportunity to kind of further dissect, right, and think about people's context attitudinally, right? Motivationally, emotionally, kind of, where are they?
I will say the commercial space, this is one of those areas where we’ve often done that, and then sort of the ability to actually deploy it at scale gets tricky, right? Commercial organizations love to field quant and qual studies and understand all these emotive things. And then you get to the point where you're trying to apply that to tens and hundreds of millions of people, and you're like, oh, I don't know their attitudes and motivations, right? So, I think making sure you're starting with the end in mind, and knowing how you're going to deploy and execute, and then overlaying some research and getting more motivational, attitudinal insight on that in a way that you can then scale. I think there’s a ton of power there. And frankly, even in the commercial space, I think it’s spotty where we’ve done that effectively. But as we think towards the future from a fundraising perspective, I think there's a lot of power there to just continue to adapt and be audience centric from a classical, life-cycle perspective but then starting to get into motivations and emotions. Pretty cool.
Justin McCord (23:03)
There's so much of this, Stephanie, that I feel like has the potential to propel the sector forward and to solve for many of the long-tailed challenges that we see in the sector. And so, I have, like, George Burns dressed as an angel, sitting on one shoulder telling me that, and then I have George Burns dressed as a devil, sitting on the other shoulder saying … I try to work in as many George Burns references as I can all the time. That's my first ... But we were talking earlier just about the noise. And so, in the midst of ...
Stephanie Russell (23:34)
Careful, Justin, you’re dating yourself.
Ronnie Richard (23:43)
Really trying to hit that 18-to-24 demographic.
Stephanie Russell (23:46)
Justin McCord (23:58)
... this season and storm of uncertainty, why is now the time that we are going to be able to take these leaps forward?
Stephanie Russell (24:14)
So, tie that back to your George Burns reference in terms of why we can, why we can't. Is that, sort of, what those two George Burns's were giving you? I mean, look, I think change is hard for everyone, right? And especially in fundraising and nonprofit, being mindful of how accountable we need to hold every dollar is constantly top of mind.
Justin McCord (24:20)
Stephanie Russell (24:38)
That said, I think the push towards audience centricity and personalization―and also, right, thinking about privacy and handling of data―has been part of the conversation for so long. And it really does just take time and repetition and a little bit of comfort in terms of, yep, this has been proven in the commercial space, right? And we're prepared and ready to adopt it on the fundraising side, I think we're sort of at that sweet spot where we've had the conversations for a while, and they're starting to become much more comfortable with it and more willing to, kind of, deploy and move that forward. So …
Justin McCord (25:19)
So many George Berns's.
Stephanie Russell (25:21)
Ronnie Richard (25:23)
Stephanie, I'm curious, along your career, we've talked about 25 years of your path. Who have been some of the people that have shaped you, have helped you grow, have taught you things that you're applying today?
Stephanie Russell (25:39)
Yeah, so it's interesting. I was thinking about this earlier and, kind of, back to the sports reference. I actually had a coach in, I think it was with my junior varsity basketball team, who was just, sort of, really resonated with me in terms of, like, there's always going to be things. And I had some business conversations this week and last around this as well. There's always going to be challenges that are thrown to you on the court.
And you just have to push through and persevere and not make excuses, right? Cause we're all dealing with stuff, right? So when we think about, sort of, the complexity of the world of marketing and fundraising, like, just that message has always stuck with me. And then, certainly from a professional perspective, I've had a lot of great leaders and mentors and managers. And I think, starting from the top, I had the really great benefit of having a CEO for, you know, well over a decade who just was a fantastic visionary, right, and was someone … and I didn't realize how important that was until I was in places where we didn't have that presence as much. With that vision, I sort of took it for granted, right, but the ability to, kind of, set the vision and the charter for an organization, I think, is critical. Super excited about Chris's role in doing that for RKD. Tons of potential there, and I think, you know, sort of already seeing a lot of that same style of leadership. And then also along the way, I've just had great, sort of, day-to-day managers who always, you know, left me with really good nuggets along the way in terms of, you know, just things that have stuck with me. Sometimes you need to ask forgiveness, not permission, and, you know, just kind of some of those mantras that I don't, you know, sort of realize but have pervaded kind of my day-to-day and how I operate.
Justin McCord (27:27)
So, you know, just in wrapping our time, Stephanie, because you’ve got a flight to get to, in wrapping our time for our listening audience, you know, it's a combination of practitioners and leaders and folks that sit in various parts of the nonprofit marketing and fundraising cycle and space. If you were gonna give them one piece of advice in terms of moving forward, how they think about or implement strategy this year, what would that, what would that be?
Stephanie Russell (28:09)
Yeah, so actually, to quote that kind of visionary leader I mentioned, what got us here won't get us there. So, I think the sort of reliance on what we've been doing and what's working, not to toss that out, right, but to kind of think about how we turn the corner. Particularly, we had a lot of great fundraising momentum over the pandemic, right? So, we saw a lot of good results. I think it's easy to rest on your laurels there, but continuing to challenge ourselves in terms of how we think about our strategy―that step back as we look to the future is really critical.
Justin McCord (28:41)
That's a good word. That's gonna go in my notes. I've got little soundtracks, and that's gonna go in there. So for sure, for sure. Stephanie, thank you so much for spending time with us. Travel safe, and I get to see you in person this week. So, I'm excited. Yeah. All right, thanks.
Stephanie Russell (28:49)
Awesome. I know, I'm excited. Good to see you guys, get to chat.