Pyramigo Profile: Chris Nelson

An interview with our Arts and Culture Director

Posted: Jan 3, 2016

Every day we’re excited to come into the office. Not many people can say that. But we can, because we know the work we’re doing matters. We believe we can change the world. Each of us has a different story to tell, a different story about why doing good in the world matters to us. We thought we’d share it with you. Get to know the Pyramigos!

Chris Nelson loves diving deep into our client’s stories. His love for music, the arts, and nonprofits merged together when he joined Pyramid in 2008.

How would you describe yourself, Chris?

Six feet. Almost. OK, 5-11-and-three-quarters. I also like to dive deep.

Nice try. What does it mean to dive deep?

There’s a theory that some people are scanners and some people are divers. Picture yourself swimming in an ocean. Some people like to go down a little ways and check out what's here, then come back to the surface, head somewhere else, and go down a little ways over there. Other people like to find a spot and go deep, deep, deep. I like do dive deep in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s listening to Dylan records or helping a client articulate the essence of their work.

That said, at Pyramid we're all scanners in some sense since we work with many different clients and causes. I love to work with our conservation clients, for example, but I get really stoked when I get to dive deep with arts and culture clients here in Seattle and across the country.

Interesting. So is “diving deep” about building long-term relationships with clients? Or is it more about the issue that you're working on?

It’s about both. Developing long-term relationships with a client is especially gratifying. So many elements of our work build on each. It’s great when have an extended collaboration. With Icicle Creek Center for the Arts, for instance, we began with research and helping them articulate the essence of their work. From there, we built a community engagement plan and a board development plan. That led to a sustainable fundraising plan. Each of those elements supported the next.

But it's also about the issue. What are the issues that are facing a sector as a whole? With arts groups in Seattle, it might have to do with space or rising rents, for instance.

Sometimes organizations only talk about what they offer, which could change over time. But their reason for being, their core beliefs are solid. Supporters need to know those, because they build trust.  Even if the kind of performances or services they offer changes, their core belief in their mission should hold.

What do you love about helping an organization articulate its essence? 

Organizations often don't have the time, space, or resources to do it. There are some projects that might involve pitching media stories that only lasts as long as a particular performance or exhibit is happening. When you help an organization articulate their reason for being, that's going to last for years to come. 

Chris Nelson
Chris isn't shy about showing pride for his favorite Seattle orgs.

You got your start in journalism. Tell me more about that.

Right out of school, I worked in nonprofits. I did two tours with Volunteers in Service to America at the Greater Philadelphia Food Bank. While I was working there, the Internet started to take off. 

In 1995, I started writing for one of the first online music magazines called Addicted to Noise. I then started a whole new career as a music journalist, where I wrote about music and the music business. Addicted to Noise got bought by a company called SonicNet, which then got bought by MTV, so I was a staff writer for all of those before I decided to strike out on my own as a freelancer. When I decided to freelance, I worked for places like the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

And around that time you wrote an investigative series on Woodstock ’99, which won you the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award. What was that experience like, and what do you think you learned from it? 

That was a series I did with a writing partner, Brian Hiatt, who’s now a senior writer at Rolling Stone. It was a way to dive deep. I learned the importance of uncovering small details, doing dozens of interviews, poring over documentation.

Eventually, I was ready to combine journalism with the issues I cared about in the nonprofit world. That's how I found my way to Pyramid.

Interesting. What would you say you're most known for among Pyramigos?

I’m known for being able to find the heart of a story and then knowing how to present it to the right audience. When you're pitching an idea, you need to be able to explain right away why people should care.

So where does music fit into your career? Did you play when you were younger?

I was the singer in some sub-sub-subpar bands. We were not high quality, even in lowbrow circles. Performing was not my forte, but thinking about how we related to the bands that we liked and the nuances of a particular lyric—that's the diving deep I love. If I latch onto a band, I want to know details. I want to get all of the band's releases and every release from the individual band members.

And then you get the tattoo of the band.

No. No tattoos. My commitment stops where the ink starts.

Fair enough. Are there any musicians you won’t stop liking?

I'll always go back to Bob Dylan. There's so much there whether you're looking at a catalog of his music that's almost 55 years long or you're looking at all the musicians who influenced him. You can just go deeper and deeper.

That’s great. Where can we find you and the family when you're not working?

I love to take family vacations around the Pacific Northwest. We spend time in the San Juan Islands every summer.

I also love taking the kids to shows at the Vera Project. I've been on the board since 2014. You may find me in record stores or taking the family to other new art experiences. We take the kids to every show the Seattle Opera puts on. Two years ago we didn’t know a thing about opera, but then we started taking the kids to dress rehearsals and we’ve been going ever since.

Wow, these are some very cultured kids. 

They totally love it, which was a complete surprise. My 12-year-old is really into both history and music, so he likes to listen to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and things like that. The 10-year-old likes to get noisier, so he's more of a Sonic Youth, Fugazi kind of guy. Our eight-year-old's favorite artist is John Denver, so she’s got her own thing going on. And the youngest one, she’s six, hasn’t yet pegged anything that she feels ownership of. I’m pretty sure she’ll get there soon enough.

That’s fantastic. Thanks, Chris!