In this month’s blog, we sit down for a Q&A with Merkle RMG CEO, Bill Sayre. Bill officially retires from Merkle RMG on May 31. Today we look back on his 20-year career at the company, reflecting on changes, meaningful moments, and visions for the future.
What originally brought you to Merkle RMG?
Before I joined the company, I ran a data and printing business in Chicago that served over 5,500 car dealerships nationwide. I was approached by Merkle to outsource my printing business to them. I toured their operations in Maryland where I met David Williams, the CEO, and other executives. I was really impressed with the leadership, culture and organization. Instead of becoming a client, David asked me to join the team as Senior VP of Operations at Merkle RMG, which I accepted in 2001. I then became President in 2002. The rest is history.
How have you seen the industry change over the last 20 years?
Back then, fundraising was mainly driven by direct mail. I remember when I joined Merkle RMG, there was a backlog of mail-in cash donations as a result of 9/11. Online giving wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. A few nonprofits were trying to figure out how to use that new channel, but adoption was extremely slow.
Also, I think nonprofits had a more captive audience because there was less competition. As a result, there was less focus on retention and the meaningful engagements that go with that.
Today’s donors also expect faster responses. Twenty years ago, it could take several weeks to receive a thank-you letter for a donation. Today’s world of Amazon Prime has really reset donor expectations, because they’re used to that next-day delivery experience.
How have you seen Merkle RMG change over the last 20 years?
Nonprofits used to view caging companies as low-value vendors, rather than strategic partners. Over the last 20 years, Merkle RMG has forced that change.
We began to build out our services and capabilities to offer nonprofits more value by helping them outsource more of their back-end processes. We started with acknowledgements, and over time introduced exceptions handling, imaging, contact center services, sustainer management and ultimately donor stewardship via Rapport. In doing so, we’ve evolved from a caging vendor to a strategic solution provider.
We were the first of our kind to take this approach, and we set a whole new standard for our industry. It took a long time for our competitors to even try to catch up, but it’s amazing how many have tried to adopt our model. I’m proud of how Merkle RMG has emerged as an industry leader over the last two decades.
What are some of your most meaningful career highlights at Merkle RMG?
A key leadership goal is always to leave the business better than you found it. That applies to the number of employees, impact on the industry, and opportunities you create for your people.
It makes me feel good that we’re now the eighth largest employer in Washington County, Maryland. Merkle RMG had around 200 employees when I arrived, and now our team has more than 700. It’s rewarding that we’ve been able to offer employment opportunities to more people in our community.
I’m also proud of the development we’ve been able to provide our staff. There are people who were 18, 19 years old when I started who are now VPs of departments. We’ve also done a lot to create a fulfilling environment for everyone who works here — whether it’s through social activities, wellness offerings, or career training.
COVID-19 marked another important career moment, because it really showcased how awesome our team is. Most of our employees did not work remotely. They showed up every day, had their temperatures taken, wore masks, stayed socially distanced, all to take care of our clients. That dedication meant a lot to each other and to our clients. We did all we could to support our staff during that time, and we really pulled together as a team.
The whole experience showed me that Merkle RMG will be just fine after I leave, and I’m proud to have built a such a resilient, loyal organization.
How do you see the industry evolving over the next 20 years?
Digital is going to gain more ground as a donation channel. Right now, the average donor age is between 80 and 90 years old. These individuals tend to write and mail checks, but that will change. As more digital natives reach their 40s — which is when people tend to become donors — a larger portion of the donor base will be giving online.
Direct mail may not go away completely, but it may be used as a plea or reminder, rather than a primary giving channel.
Nonprofits are 10–15 years behind commercial folks in terms of knowing their customer preferences and creating one-to-one relationships. But they’re moving in that direction. That’s where I think Rapport can be such a critical stepping stone for the industry.
What are you looking forward to most in your retirement?
A little known fact: I went to college for graphic design. But I hadn’t done anything creative since then — until my wife sent me to a week-long painting workshop a few years back. That got me hooked, and I’ve been painting ever since. I have an art studio, my work is on display at a local gallery, and I’ve picked up quite a few commissions.
My goal is to keep painting, but for it never to feel like a “job!”
Check out Bill’s creative genius on Twitter and Instagram! Follow him at @billsayreart.