MM: So, who is Rhea Wong and what is your mission?
RW: Okay, so I’m what I’d like to call a recovering executive director (ED). I was an ED at 26, and on my first day at the job, I did two Google searches. Google search one was, what is an ED? Google search two was, how do you fundraise? I think this is unfortunately not an isolated incident. I think a lot of us are put into these very big roles without a lot of support, without a lot of training, and without any idea about what it is we’re supposed to be doing.
Over the course of my 12 1/2 years as an ED I grew the organization substantially, but it took me 12 years to figure out how to do it, so I’ve dedicated this next stage of my career to helping people to not make the same mistakes I made, and to get much better, faster. Because, frankly, the world needs a lot of healing and we don’t have time for people to figure stuff out — the world needs clean water and the whales need saving, kids are going to college and women getting health care they need. None of these things can happen without money. My mission is really to help people understand how to unblock the flow of resources to make the important work happen.
My mission is really to help people understand how to unblock the flow of resources to make the important work happen.
MM: Beautifully said. So, in that vein, in terms of actualizing your mission, would you consider yourself to be an innovator, a mold breaker, or a game changer?
RW: Um, that’s it, I can only pick one? I would say game changer. And the reason why is, I think that there is a certain way in which fundraising has been thought of. In the nonprofit field, it’s usually either like, ooh, that’s icky and I don’t want to do it or there’s this very transactional mindset we get into. Oh, we look at people like targets, and we’re going to pitch to them. And there’s some magical combination of words I’m going to say that convince them to give me money. I don’t think that either of these approaches work for me. I think at the core, I mean, it’s a game changer, but it’s also very basic. We are all human beings, and we all want to connect. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves and we all want to believe that our lives meant something. When we are able to go into fundraising space with a pure intention of wanting to connect and wanting to connect you and a donor with your desire to see change happen in the world, it becomes less transactional and more relational. What I’m trying to do as a game changer, if you will, is I want to get people out of this transactional mindset of looking at people as if they’re walking chequebooks and realize that we are in the business of community building.
I want to get people out of this transactional mindset of looking at people as if they’re walking chequebooks and realize that we are in the business of community building.
MM: One of the things I thought was very interesting and where I think your point of view and mine converge is on the value of strategy. I’ve always believed technology serves strategy and I know you believe a strategic plan is absolutely fundamental in terms of fundraising. Can you elaborate on why they’re top priority yet seemingly receive little attention? And who is responsible for the strategic plan?
RW: Oh, gosh, that’s such a big question. I often think of organizations as organisms, right? And, I think in so many ways the nonprofit field has been kind of beaten down. We’re underfunded, we’re understaffed and we’re undervalued. When you’re operating from the space of constantly having to scratch for your survival, you don’t give yourself permission to dream big. You don’t give yourself permission to be audacious in your goals. I think part of it is a culture of nonprofit where we aren’t given permission to think big and when I think about lackluster strategic plans, it’s because there’s kind of a lack of imagination and it’s through no fault of their own. I don’t want to fault my fellow nonprofit execs, it’s just simply, if you have been told your whole life you’re going to be underfunded and your nonprofit is really not going to be able to achieve all you want to achieve. And of course, you’re going to have to do 50 million things with not enough money or staff or support. Then, how can you even imagine a world in which you can actually dream big? I think that’s part of it. And then I think the other part is that a lot of times I see strategic plans that are so complicated and overblown, they just sit on the shelf and they collect dust, right?
You don’t give yourself permission to be audacious in your goals. I think part of it is a culture of nonprofit where we aren’t given permission to think big and when I think about lackluster strategic plans, it’s because there’s kind of a lack of imagination and it’s through no fault of their own.
Complexity is the enemy of growth. If you have a strategic plan people don’t understand and can’t talk about in a way that’s really exciting and very simple to understand, you’re never going to talk about it, right?
Complexity is the enemy of growth.
MM: One of the things I heard you discuss on your podcast Nonprofit Lowdown was the concept of 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, which distills this idea down of making a connection with a targeted group. So, the antidote to complexity is this idea of really focusing, so your strategic plan isn’t that we need to talk to the entire universe. Your strategic plan is: we need to talk to these thousand people. Is that something you counsel your nonprofit executives on, to start thinking with more laser-like focus?
RW: Yeah. I’m so glad that you said that. I think, as the nonprofit, we get so focused on the new donors and “How come that person is not funding me?”, that we don’t take care of the people that do fund us. We have a leaky bucket problem. I have experienced giving to an organization once and then never giving again because they didn’t tell me what they did with my money. They didn’t communicate with me. The only time I ever heard from them was, you know, a year later when they were asking me for money again. I’m like, well, that’s just made me feel great, right? I think if we as a sector doubled down on stewarding people properly, we wouldn’t have to focus so much on getting new people because we would not be losing so many of the people who’ve given to us in the first place. I think we tend to get seduced by the new shiny. We’re like oh, but I need this donor and that donor. And yes, I think you do need a robust way to bring people into the pipeline. But I think the first thing you need to do is to plug the leaky bucket, right? And I think the other thing we do — and I think this is just a human thing is— we tend to focus on watering the weeds and not the flowers. What I mean by that is we tend to focus on the problems; we tend to focus on that donor who didn’t give any money. I’m going to chase after that donor or the board member who’s not doing anything. Instead of thinking about who is actually doing stuff, who’s actually giving and how I work with that. I think it’s just a matter of perspective and it’s a matter of getting real. You know what you can do and what you can compel and inspire people to do. I think people have this idea they need millions of people giving money. No, you don’t.
I think if we as a sector doubled down on stewarding people properly, we wouldn’t have to focus so much on getting new people because we would not be losing so many of the people who’ve given to us in the first place.
MM: One development director swoops in and they’re not going to transform your whole organization, right? Can you expand upon that?
RW: I think you need to optimize your organization for the thing you’re trying to do. And the thing you’re trying to do is to raise money. Then, you have to align your resources, your people and strategy to that. And it’s not going to be that one person who’s going to come out of the sky and just wave a magic wand and make it all happen. I’m sure you see it in your personal life too, is one salesperson going to be responsible for the whole company? No.
There’s this idea if I hire a development director, everything will be fine and I’m never going to have to touch fundraising. I think it goes back to the essential issue: we have to realize that nonprofits are businesses and businesses have revenue, and they have expenses. And if you as a business owner or an executioner are not paying attention to these two things, you don’t have a business. You have a nice hobby.
The essential issue: we have to realize that nonprofits are businesses and businesses have revenue, and they have expenses.
MM: Parlaying from the idea no one human is ever going to be the panacea, let’s talk about the idea of influence of many. We had an interesting conversation with Tim Lockie of The Human Stack. Tim helps organizations through digital maturity and he said nonprofits don’t realize the currency of the sector is influence, not cash. And I’d love to get your take on that idea.
RW: Hmm. The currency of the sector is influence, not cash. That’s interesting. I don’t know if I agree with that. I actually think the currency of this sector is good feelings. Essentially, when you’re talking to someone about supporting an organization out of their own personal assets, what you’re really promising them is a feeling at the end of the day, right? Everyone is looking for something and the exchange is for some amount of money. You were going to get this feeling and this feeling could be about legacy. This feeling could be about belonging. This feeling could be about, you know, my own self-importance. This feeling could be about telling myself I’m a certain kind of person. We’re all looking for something, but it’s a different marketplace than say, Amazon. If I give you money, I get a product. It’s a different thing.
I actually think the currency of this sector is good feelings. Essentially, when you’re talking to someone about supporting an organization out of their own personal assets, what you’re really promising them is a feeling at the end of the day, right?
And it literally lives in a different part of the brain. Dr. Russell James talks about this all the time. Dr. James is a brilliant guy who lives in Texas and he put people in an MRI and looked at their brains when they were talking about business. When they were talking about philanthropy, literally different parts of the brain lit up — the part of the brain that lights up when we talk about philanthropy is the same part of the brain that lights up when we talk about emotion and family. It’s very much heart-centered. It’s very much based on emotion. It’s very much about feelings, not about the data. The data needs to be there, but the data is what I used to back up what is essentially an emotional decision. When you think about why you give to certain things, it’s because there’s some emotional connection there. It’s the economy of good feelings.
MM: I like that characterization and it’s actually an interesting segue because in this line of work, crafting that emotional connection is vital. I know you’re a fan of ChatGPT, and I wonder if there is a sense of irony using ChatGPT or Artificial Intelligence (AI), to tug at the emotional heartstrings of humans? AI can do so many great things. I’d love your perspective on how it adds or detracts from fundraisers.
RW: Well, I believe there are limits of ChatGPT and AI because it can’t, at least not at this point, adequately substitute for emotion because it doesn’t have emotion, and it also can’t substitute for stories and stories are the currency of nonprofits, right? It can’t tell the story because it has no life experience.
I think ChatGPT, like anything else, is a tool. It’s not the end all, be all. It’s a glorified pen or a calculator, right? I can sit there and do long multiplication by hand or I can use a calculator. But, I still need to be a human that’s smart enough to understand what I’m trying to calculate. What is the end goal I’m trying to get to? I think it’s a great tool to get you 80% of the way there. But, it’s not it’s not the story. It’s not the thing that’s going to move hearts and minds.
MM: Good point. You have an online course about it that provides practical and tactical advice on using the tool, which I’m sure is very helpful for fundraisers in this space. What are a couple of things you would say are great use cases for ChatGPT?
RW: So many. I mean I think it can be really useful to start to craft an annual appeal campaign, right? So often, the tyranny of the blank page keeps people from doing anything like getting the juices flowing. I think it’s really helpful to do things like, create headlines for social media.
AI can be helpful to do things like look at a data set and come up with some trunks or input. These are my donors. This is how much they’ve given, etcetera, etcetera. It can be great for things like effective research. I’m researching these foundations. What are the deadlines and what are they funding and who are the program officers? Things that don’t have to be manual? Fantastic.
AI is not good at telling emotional stories. Conveying in a really heartfelt way why people might want to give to a certain thing, it comes up with pretty generic stuff. Again, I would say it gets me 80% of the way there, but I think — to your point — as nonprofits, we really need to lean into our brand identity and our personality. I think there’s a tendency to be very vanilla because we don’t want to offend anybody. But, if you’re not turning anybody off, you’re not turning anybody on.
I would say it gets me 80% of the way there, but I think — to your point — as nonprofits, we really need to lean into our brand identity and our personality. I think there’s a tendency to be very vanilla because we don’t want to offend anybody. But, if you’re not turning anybody off, you’re not turning anybody on.
MM: Excellent point! So, in the last few minutes we have, I do want to touch on your book Get That Money, Honey!: The No-Bullsh*t Guide to Raising More Money For Your Nonprofit. Great title by the way.
RW: Thank you.
MM: One of the things you home in on is this idea of getting past our limitations around money and having a money mindset. Can you describe to me what that looks like?
RW: Oh gosh, how much more time do we have? There’s really kind of two modes here: scarcity and abundance. When we’re in a scarcity mindset, when we deeply believe there’s only so much out there and we’re always going to have to compete for it, and we’re never going to get enough, we’re operating from a sense of fear. And when we’re operating from a sense of fear, that’s when we burn ourselves out. That’s when our adrenal glands get fatigued. That’s when our cortisol levels spike. They’re some very physical reactions to burn out. When we’re operating in this white-knuckled way, it’s not sustainable over the long-term.
Now, if you believed a different story, if you believed there was more than enough out there for you. If you believed you were not in competition with others and that there was enough room for all of us, then the energy that you bring to it is really different. It’s a much more generative, relaxed, generous space where you’re not white-knuckling things and you’re not treating people like transactions. You’re treating them like partners.
Now, if you believed a different story, if you believed there was more than enough out there for you. If you believed you were not in competition with others and that there was enough room for all of us, then the energy that you bring to it is really different.
I like to take it into brain science. Our brains are only ever in one of two modes: either survival or executive mode. Survival mode is when our amygdala, which is the lizard brain responsible for fight, flight, freeze, is activated. Seventy percent of our time is spent in survival mode as humans, right? We’re always interpreting things as a threat, even if they’re not. When we were cavemen and we had sabretooth tigers coming after us, sure, but not so useful in 2023.
Conversely, executive mode is the prefrontal cortex. That’s when we’re in flow state. You know, that’s when athletes say they’re “in the zone.” That’s when we’re generative creative. We can see connections. We’re not in black and white thinking. And that’s a space where generosity lives, where abundance lives. If we can get our brains to operate in this space of being in executive, not survival mode, we can actually approach fundraising in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we’re under threat all of the time.
If we can get our brains to operate in this space of being in executive, not survival mode, we can actually approach fundraising in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we’re under threat all of the time.
MM: Very interesting. It makes perfect sense. There’s a lot of creativity in fundraising, which kind of parlays into the concept of storytelling. Storytelling is a creative exercise, and we always refer to it as an art form, right? And it’s not an easy art form to do well. I’d love your thoughts on the art, but also the complementary science of storytelling.
RW: It’s a good question. There’s a whole science of fundraising, of storytelling, which we don’t have time to get into, but there are frameworks. One of the frameworks I really like is Marshall Ganz, who is a professor out of Harvard. And he talks about challenge, choice, outcome. If you think about any story, any movie, any book that you’ll love, it follows this basic flow: you have your main character, there’s some kind of explosion, some kind of challenge that happens, and then the character makes a choice in the face of that. Within that choice, there is an outcome, and then usually the hero returns to their normal world, changed — think Star Wars, Harry Potter.
I think if we work within a framework, we can get better at telling stories because I think very few people are natural born storytellers, and the way that we get under the skin of a story is really good details; show me, don’t tell me, right? Make me feel like I’m a kid sitting in a chair with my legs swinging. Our brains are actually not that smart — we are not very good at knowing the difference between a story and real life. Anyone who’s seen a movie and was at the edge of your seat, you know it’s not real, but your brain doesn’t necessarily know that until you emotionally react as if it’s really happening. , again, we need to bypass the thinking brain and get to the emotional brain, which is all story-driven.
MM: Where does the genesis of storytelling reside?
RW: It’s interesting, we have a hard time telling our own stories. It’s almost like surgeons can’t do surgery on themselves. It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce something off of. And I actually think one of my special superpowers is, I’m really good at pulling out people’s narrative. The thing is, when you have all of these things happen in your life, it’s hard for you as the person living those events to see the patterns, right?
If you take the 30,000-foot view, it’s hard to see it when you’re in the weeds, but we all have a reason for doing the things that we do. We all have choices that we’ve made, and usually the choices have brought us to the point in our lives where we are today. To sort of answer your question, it all lies in our past. It all lies in our history. It all lies in the choices that we’ve made and it’s really just excavating these moments that have been very pivotal in our lives.
MM: Okay, let’s switch gears from storytelling to the functional side of things: meeting with donors and prospects and making “the ask.” What are the things a fundraiser should absolutely be tracking in their fundraising CRM system?
RW: Such a good question. I think we need to think past the more common metrics of like X number of phone calls or Y number of emails going out. I would love to see fundraisers start to measure their success on how they’ve been able to move a relationship forward; how they have been able to build trust with someone, how they have been able to deepen the connection. If there’s a metric that we can use to track that, I think we’re on the right track.
MM: As a fundraiser, before heading out the door for a big ask or meeting with a donor, what are you wearing? What gives you confidence?
RW: My rule of thumb is wear something that makes you feel powerful. Clothes send a visual signal of who you are and what you’re about. Choose something that makes you feel good because when you look good, you feel good. Also, try to match the vibe of your donor. Are they super formal or more jeans and hoodie? Dress accordingly (but not a hoodie, please).
MM: What must-haves are in your bag?
RW: Always materials with appropriate data for an ask, lip balm, bottle of water (to take a sip for that all important pause after the ask), nice pens, laptop.
MM: What tech do you take with you?
RW: Laptop, phone, Kindle and I’m obsessed with my reMarkable e-tablet.
Rhea Wong (pronounced: REE-ya), is multifaceted maven — an author, podcaster, speaker and trainer. Check out her podcast Nonprofit Lowdown, and her book Get That Money, Honey!. To learn more about Rhea, visit her website at Rhea Wong Consulting.