How can you direct transformative fundraising for your nonprofit?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Rhea Wong, fundraiser and author of Get That Money, Honey!: The No-Bullsh*t Guide to Raising More Money For Your Nonprofit, chat about how people’s feelings about money impact their ability to fundraise.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner of Big Duck. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Rhea Wong. We are going to talk about, “How can you direct transformative fundraising for your nonprofit?” So, let me tell you a little bit about Rhea.
Farra Trompeter: Rhea Wong has deep experience with institutional, corporate, and event fundraising, though she is most passionate about major donors and helping nonprofits establish individual giving programs. Beyond raising money for nonprofits, Rhea is also the host of her own podcast called Nonprofit Lowdown and is also a standup comic. So Rhea, we’re ready to start laughing. She is a leader in the New York nonprofit community, and she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and the world’s most spoiled dog, Stevie Wonderdog. Rhea has raised millions of dollars in private philanthropy and is passionate about building the next generation of fundraising leaders. And in that spirit, she recently wrote a fabulous book, Get That Money, Honey!: The No-Bullsh*t Guide to Raising More Money For Your Nonprofit. Rhea, welcome to the show.
Rhea Wong: Farra, it is such a pleasure to be here. Long-time listener, first-time caller.
Farra Trompeter: Exactly. Wow, we’re a mutual admiration club over here.
Rhea Wong: Yes, absolutely.
Farra Trompeter: Many of us enter into fundraising with little training or support, or even, really, without a deep intention to make a career out of it. I’ve heard you say that you wrote this book because it was the book you wish you had when you were 26. When you were the first-time executive director and an accidental fundraiser. And I’m just curious if you can share a little bit about what was going on for you back then and why you wrote the book now.
Rhea Wong: Yeah, that’s such a good question. So, I think that the story mirrors a lot of the stories that we hear, a nonprofit of accidental fundraisers. It’s like, you’re good at a certain thing and then, like, you start to get promoted and then eventually you’re the last one standing, and then you’re like, oh, I guess you’re the ED now. Like, okay, cool. So, like a lot of EDs, I actually started a program, which I think is a fairly common story, and then I was hired as an ED at the age of 26. I was given the email address and the email account and the keys and said, good luck. And I talk about this a lot, I literally did two Google searches that first day, which is, uh, “how to be an executive director” and “how to fundraise”, right? Up to that point, the only fundraising I’d ever done was, like, I did a marathon for AIDS research. Like, it was very minimal and all of a sudden I was like, I’m 26 and you’re giving me, at the time it was a $250,000 budget. And of course, it’s almost one of these things where it’s like, you don’t know what you don’t know. I was like, I can figure this out, I’m smart, I’m 26, I can do anything. Honestly, if I had known how much I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but I was there, I was thrown into the deep end, and there was no option but to learn how to swim. Fast forward 12 and a half years later, I had, along with my team, my board, my staff, we were raising about $3 million a year in private funds.
Farra Trompeter: That’s amazing.
Rhea Wong: That’s institutional, individual, corporate, so forth. It was great. We had 10x the number of kids that we served every year, but I was like, why did it take me, like, over a decade to figure out how to do this? So I wrote this book because I wanted something for the 26-year-old me, and I know this is an industry that kind of eats its young, right? We put these young people in positions of authority without really helping them to develop the skills to do their job well, and then we wonder why people burn out. It’s like, well, of course they don’t know how to do their job and so they’re doing it with blood, sweat, and tears, and they’re also not paid enough. And so if we’re actually serious about keeping talent in the sector and moving capital to do the work, people have to know how to do their freaking jobs.
Farra Trompeter: It’s not too much to ask. I appreciate that.
Rhea Wong: Right?
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. You know, my first official fundraising job, the one I was actually first paid for, beyond just being a volunteer, was as a telemarketer or a tele-fundraiser when I was in college, And I was dialing for dollars for different organizations, and basically, I was calling donors and prospects for a range of nonprofits, and I realized that I had the most success, that I was good at it, because I was actually genuinely passionate and excited about the different causes I was calling about. And the more I believed in something, I think that belief, that joy, actually came through the phone line. And I know that in your book, one of the things that I appreciate you noted, was that 80% of your fundraising success is based on your mindset, the other 20% on your tactics. And I’m curious what you mean by that, and what’s that ideal mindset someone should have if they’re going to be someone in development or fundraising or an executive director?
Rhea Wong: Okay, Farra, you’re hitting all my trigger points. I’m getting very triggered right now because, here’s the thing: I love money. I didn’t always love money, right? But I love thinking about money, I love talking about money, I love talking about other people’s money, I love talking about how money can change the world. But the thing is, first of all, in our culture, writ large, I think it’s very taboo to talk about money. I was raised to believe that, like, we don’t talk about it, it’s very impolite, but literally, as a fundraiser, it is your job to talk about money. And in the nonprofit space in particular, I think we’re so deep in scarcity, right? Like, it’s even in the word nonprofit. So it’s always about what we don’t have. We don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough time, we don’t have enough staff, we don’t have enough pencils. Like, it’s never enough, right? I just think that if you approach fundraising with the mindset of, there’s not enough to begin with and then, on top of it, all of the baggage that we’re usually raised with, as you know, humans, and you know, no disrespect to our families, like they didn’t know better, but so many of us bring our own baggage to the conversation from our families, Like, well, money doesn’t grow on trees, and who do you think we are, The Rockefellers, and that’s not for us, that’s for rich people. We’re like rich people are different than us, right? So we have all of our personal baggage, we have all of the sector baggage, and then we also have the baggage to contend with, of the wealthy donors that we’re talking to. Cause I think the other assumption is, just because you have money, you don’t have baggage. They also have baggage, right? So, like, both of you are sitting on this invisible pile of baggage, and it’s like an iceberg. It’s like, you see the tip of it, but it’s like this whole thing underneath, and it’s all about our relationship to money.
Rhea Wong: And so, for me, I can teach you tactics all day long. I can teach you, like how to send that email and whatever it is, but if you’re not actually in the mind space of being able to be comfortable with money, like, having examined your own relationship with money and the stories that you tell yourself about money and your own beliefs, that there isn’t enough in the world, right. Cause, fundamentally, I think the issue that a lot of people contend with is this fundamental belief that there’s not enough money out there. That is empirically untrue. We are living in the wealthiest time in human history, and for those of us in New York City, the wealthiest city in the fricking world, right? There is enough money out there. Your job is just to go find that money. And so, when you shift that belief to, there is enough and I just need to find the right people, it becomes less desperate.
Rhea Wong: The folks out there who know me, I love a dating analogy. It’s like the difference between believing that, like, that right person is out there for you versus, like, no one’s ever going to love me, and I’m going to be alone forever. That comes with two very different energies. And so, last thing, I know it’s a very long-winded answer to the question, but I was listening recently to this amazing podcast episode with this guy named Boyd Varty. He wrote The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life, and he was talking about what you do if a lion charges you. And his point was you have to stand your ground and you have to project energy that you’re not going to threaten the lion, but that you yourself are potentially dangerous. And the minute you start running is the minute you are going to get mauled, right? Instead, you have to project an energy, and I think as humans we forget that we’re essentially animals and we have energy that we need to project. And so when you come from a perspective and an energy of, like, abundance and confidence and attraction, that’s much better. Like, no one likes desperate energy. Like, desperation is a stinky perfume.
Farra Trompeter: Let’s go back to the dating analogy. Don’t be desperate. Put yourself out there with confidence. You’re hot. People want to be with you. Come on.
Rhea Wong: Exactly. Like, you want a piece of this. Of course, it’s amazing. And so, I think when we get into desperate energy, when we get into scarcity energy, that’s when, first of all, it’s very unattractive. Second of all, that’s when we take money that we shouldn’t take, right. That’s money that makes us feel bad, that takes us off mission, that asks us to, like, do the work for a fraction of the cost of what it takes to do the work. I mean, it’s just all bad stuff. So, my message, if you hear nothing else, is everyone get on your feet, get off of your knees.
Farra Trompeter: Ouch. I like it. First, you were giving me, like, Madonna Material Girl energy. Now I got a little Get on Your Feet, Gloria Estefan going. I got a whole playlist for this podcast going in my head.
Rhea Wong: Oh, I love it. (singing) “Get on your feet.” Yeah, cause the thing is what people fundamentally don’t realize is that when you are fundraising, when you are asking people to give of their resources, you’re not asking for a favor. This is not, like, a favor that you’re doing for me. I’m not begging for anything. I am inviting you to participate in a thing that I think is awesome, that you might also think is awesome. So it’s value for value.
Farra Trompeter: You’re giving people an opportunity.
Rhea Wong: You’re giving them an opportunity to join. At the end of the day, as humans, especially, I think, coming out of the pandemic, we’re all looking for meaning. We’re all looking for connection. We’re all looking for something to be part of that is bigger than ourselves. And if you can provide that, you are providing something of value. And so, by combining their resources with your resources, you can create something better together.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I love this cause we talk a lot about mindsets and personas as it relates to the donors themselves. I did a whole podcast conversation with Mica Bevington, which we’ll link to, about thinking about donor mindsets. But I like what you’re talking about is, like, the fundraiser’s mindset, and you have a lot of insights in the book about people’s feelings about money and how that impacts their ability to fundraise, like you were just speaking about. And I know that you also do a lot of consulting and coaching through a program that you run called the Fundraising Accelerator, and I’m just curious if there’s any other insights or stories you have about the people you’ve worked with and what they’re dealing with and how you’ve gotten them to either identify or shift their feelings.
Rhea Wong: Yeah, I have to tell you and, Farra, I know it doesn’t sound sensical. I’m from Northern California so I speak fluent woo woo, but I think this one shift changes everything. What I’ve seen with my students who’ve gone through the program is by shifting their mindset, they’re out there in the world, making bigger asks, attracting the right kind of partners, asking for what they need to do the work, and it creates a whole different paradigm. I call it BDE, big donor energy. Like, you’re just putting out there what you want to attract. I know that’s a little woo woo for y’all, but.
Farra Trompeter: We like to talk about Big Duck energy, but I’ll give you big donor energy.
Rhea Wong: Oh, there you go. BDE, people, big donor energy. And it’s not cocky, but it’s confident. Actually, I just had my first session yesterday and talked about money mindset with my students, but there’s something about kind of excavating the stories that we tell based on our childhood experience of money and then connecting it to like, well, why don’t I love fundraising? And all of a sudden, I mean, I’ll just, without telling tales, there was one person yesterday who was like, oh, in my family money represented control, and it represented something that could be taken away at any point based on how I might be feeling about you at any given point. And so, no surprise, that he felt very ambivalent about fundraising because the story about money that he told himself, was one of, like, control and who has it and who doesn’t and what can be taken away. And he’s like, I’m connecting the fact that that story is something I’m projecting onto people for whom that is not the story of money for them at all. And I was like, that’s right. It’s like, let’s do a dating analogy, it’s like going into a new relationship and bringing all the baggage like, well my ex did x, y, and z to me and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and I have all these emotional scars about it, right. Got to let it go. Start fresh.
Farra Trompeter: Well, I’m going to pick up on this control element and talk about something that I know that you got into a little bit in your book and you and I have both spoken a bit about, which is this growing tension happening right now in the nonprofit sector, particularly in some fundraising conversations and spaces over the past few years, about traditional fundraising “best practices” that tend to center the donor and give the donor control. With newer movements like Community-Centric Fundraising that are about centering the community and really looking to ground equity and social justice and how we think about our fundraising and our relationship-building. My sense is this is not about an either/or for you but more of a both/and situation. And I’m curious if you could share a little bit of your hot take with our listeners on where are you on this kind of donor-centric fundraising versus community-centric fundraising debate? I know a lot of people are out there questioning themselves, trying to figure out where they are with it, and I think I hear a lot of people questioning the difference between, well, what I know works and is proven versus what I believe is the right thing to do. So, talk to me about where you’re at on this.
Rhea Wong: Yeah, I kind of feel like that’s a false dichotomy. So, actually, I just published a podcast with George Suttles, Stella Billings, and Santana Moreno about this very question of disrupting fundraising. And Santana had a really great point, which is we all have to develop our own theory of change around this. It’s not about accepting one school of thought or another school of thought, whole cloth. What I think about is actually a little bit different, which is to me, the center of the relationship should be about the work. And so, when it’s donor-centric I think that you’re centering the money. When it’s community-centric, certainly you’re centering the community, but the community isn’t necessarily the same thing as the work. And so when you put the work in the center, then I think you see that everybody has a role to play.
Rhea Wong: And then I think the other piece that we know about human beings is that we’re all the heroes of our own story. We see ourselves as the stars of our own movies and what we know about fundraising, but what we know about people in general is that they’re all looking for a way to complete their stories of themselves as a hero. So whether you’re completing that story for donors or completing that story for volunteers or completing that story for participants of your organization or recipients of your services, I think, as fundraisers and as leaders, we can make everybody the hero of their own story. And it’s not about the organization being the hero, it’s about the organization creating a platform for the work for other people to be the heroes of their story. So I don’t know if that answered the question.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, no, I appreciate that, and we’ll find that episode that you’re mentioning and link to it from the Nonprofit Lowdown. We’ll link to that in our transcript of this at bigduck.com/insights. Before we go, I want to shift gears. I’ve got a few more questions for you, but one is one of my favorite topics and, many times I was laughing while reading your book, but one of the things that I particularly was cracking up over was when you were sort of listing off this book is for you if, and you were talking about the different kinds of people, and one of the things you said was if you’re the kind of person who screams to their coworkers, partners, friends, loved ones, “Why the fuck won’t my board fundraise?” So I want to talk about that. I’ve seen a range of advice here from instituting a formal give-get policy to keeping it open, especially if organizations are trying to have boards that are representative of their community and of the work. Let’s talk about boards and fundraising for just a minute.
Rhea Wong: Okay, this is a whole other podcast, Farra, but a couple quick takes here. So, number one, I think it’s an upstream problem. So if you have a board that is not fundraising, not comfortable, not going to do it, it’s usually because they were not recruited with the understanding that that’s what they were supposed to do. I think part of it is having clarity on the front end about recruitment, orientation, expectation-setting, goal-setting. So that’s thing one. Thing two, I think this is the common misconception, which is just because you have money doesn’t mean that you have baggage about money. Everybody has baggage about money. So I think the other key thing is around board education. So we can have conversations with boards about what does money mean to you, what did it mean in your family, and how does it feel to you when you give to organizations that you love and how might you then extend that feeling to those around you?
Rhea Wong: And then the other piece, too, that I think generally nonprofits do a terrible job at, is that they don’t educate their board members about what fundraising actually is. I think they make it about the solicitation, but it’s actually, for those of us who know, it’s about the relationship-building, right? So when board members start to understand that fundraising is more than the solicitation, it’s about, hey, can you ask your friend out for coffee? Can you host a dinner? Can you bring a friend along for a site visit? Can you bring a friend along to volunteer? Oh yeah, I can do that. Well that’s fundraising, right? I think the mistake, I see this so often when EDs or DoDs send their board members into, you know, wherever to unleash them on their network, on their Rolodex, and they’re like, well, just ask for money. Like, that’s literally the equivalent of going into a singles bar and just asking people to marry you. Like, it’s embarrassing and it’s weird and it’s awkward and no one wants to do it. Of course you wouldn’t want to do it because there’s no warm-up there. There’s no preparation there. I think a big part of it is that we have to take responsibility for educating our boards about, similar to the beginning of this conversation, we need to train them for their jobs, and then after the training, if they still don’t want to do it or are still unwilling to do it, then I think that’s a different conversation. But just because they’re unwilling to do it because you haven’t equipped them to do it doesn’t mean that they’re never going to do it.
Farra Trompeter: That makes sense. Well, before I let you get back to your very important work and all our listeners out there to get back to their work, I just want to ask you one last question. So your book is full of such great advice. I really hope everyone out there reads it, but I’m just wondering if there’s any tips you can share for our listeners out there, especially as it might relate to actually using communications to engage donors, which is also part of fundraising.
Rhea Wong: Yes. Well, I know this is your bread and butter, friend. There are so many things that I think we can learn about good communications, and I think often this is wrapped up with the scarcity mindset of like, well, we can’t afford that, right? But you’re choking off the thing that will actually bring resources to the table. So, a couple things is number one, being able to invest in marketing infrastructure so that you’re communicating with your donors and your potential donors on some regular basis, be it through social media or email marketing or what have you. Or even if this is what you do, you’re buying Google ads and Facebook ads, right? So I think that’s thing one, which is, are you adequately investing in the assets and resources that will attract more resources to you?
Rhea Wong: And then the second thing is around brand, and I know this is how you feel really passionate, I think in the nonprofit field, we are so afraid of offending that we become boring. Let me just tell you something, I never walked into a room and I was like, you know what is awesome? This shade of beige, this beige is really moving me. In order to be remarkable, you have to produce things that should be and can be remarked upon. And I think because we’re so afraid to turn people off, we don’t turn people on, and that means having a really strong brand voice, it means daring to be a little bit quirky, it means daring to rub people the wrong way. Because if that is true for you, then those are not your people. And I think, again, it goes to the lack of confidence or the scarcity, which is like, oh, I can’t afford to turn anybody off, cause I need all these people, but all these people are not going to be attracted to a blah brand. People want to be attracted to a strong brand that really means something, that really says something. And so those are kind of two things.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I know you’re triggering, like, six different other podcasts we could have, and maybe we will. But I think to that point, we often talk about a good brand opens the doors to people, invites more people in, but sometimes it also means inviting people out, people who no longer make sense to be part of your world based on authentically, who you are today, not who you were 5, 10, 50 years ago. And sometimes that is, first, we have to figure out exactly who you are, then we can shape and update their brand to reflect that. So I really appreciate what you were saying there.
Farra Trompeter: Well, everyone, I hope you take a look at Rhea’s book, Get That Money, Honey!: The No-Bullsh*t Guide to Raising More Money For Your Nonprofit. You can listen to her podcast, Nonprofit Lowdown, and you can find out more about her work at rheawong.com. R-H-E-A-W-O-N-G.com. You can also connect with Rhea on LinkedIn. Rhea, thank you so much for being here today.
Rhea Wong: Farra, thank you so much. This is so fun, and we’ll have to do it again cause we have lots to talk about.
Farra Trompeter: Definitely.