A former executive director of the nonprofit Breakthrough New York, Rhea Wong is a podcaster (she hosts Nonprofit Lowdown), fundraiser, and consultant who helps executive directors and development staff raise money. She runs the Fundraising Accelerator, an executive coaching program.
She’s also the author, with Isabella Masucci, of a new book, Get That Money, Honey: The No-Bullsh*t Guide to Raising More Money for Your Nonprofit.
The book is part manifesto, part utilitarian workbook, with do-it-yourself exercises scattered in between Wong’s crisp words of advice for executive directors and nonprofit fundraisers.
Wong’s approach focuses on pursuing (and securing) large, private philanthropic gifts.
NPQ spoke with Wong this May.
NPQ: What brought you to write this book?
Rhea Wong: I was a 26-year-old executive director, and like a lot of executive directors, I was kind of thrown in the deep end without a lot of training, a lot of support. They handed me the keys and my email address in the first day and said, “Good luck.” And so my first day on the job, I did two Google searches. One was: what exactly does an executive director do? Two was: how do you fundraise? Unfortunately, I think a lot of people in our sector are thrown into the same types of situations. And so I wrote the book for the 26-year-old me who had no idea what to do. The idea behind it was, if you’re new to this, if you don’t know anything, grab this book and it’ll at least give you a starting point. Because the other thing is, I learned by trial and error, I made a ton of mistakes along the way. And so my hope is that I can save people who read the book, you know, some of the basic mistakes, like don’t make the same mistakes I made, make new and different mistakes.
NPQ: You write about changing one’s mindset around money—and how you had to do that yourself.
RW: I think the main thing that really was a big stumbling block for me is, so I was in it for twelve-and-a-half years, and I would say I spent the first half of it never having examined my own relationship to money. And I think that’s a mistake that a lot of us make when we enter the fundraising field or into nonprofit leadership.
And the reason why that’s important is that in our society, money means a lot of things, right? We imbue it with lots of meaning, you know, good and bad.
And then I think there’s a lot of trauma, especially for folks of color, around money. Systemic trauma, racial trauma, intergenerational trauma, plus the trauma that we experienced just growing up in our households. That’s a lot of stuff to bring into any conversation, especially a conversation with someone who is wealthy and potentially a donor.
So many of us, and particularly in the nonprofit sector, we have a belief that money is scarce, that there’s never going to be enough, that we see other people as competitors, that we’re never going to be able to afford anything, we can’t pay our people enough, et cetera. Those stories don’t really help us. They’re not empowering. And what happens, physiologically speaking, is when we are in a space of scarcity, we are what we call survival mode.
Our brain is only ever in one of two modes, either survival or executive, right? When we’re in survival mode we interpret the world as a threat. And what happens then is we are not actually able to work from a place of calm, we’re not able to see all of the possibilities.
NPQ: Why did you decide to focus on major individual gift fundraising in particular?
RW: I believe the last numbers I saw, it was that 46 percent of all philanthropic dollars given was given by individuals. So there’s a tremendous amount of money out there.
I see a lot of organizations focus on foundations or corporations or whatever, and that’s a much smaller piece of the pie. And those dollars also tend to be quite restrictive. Individual giving tends to be unrestricted, and it tends to be less cumbersome bureaucratically. When you’re speaking directly to the decision-maker, decisions can happen much more quickly.
The other thing I will say is that we just have tremendous individual wealth in this country. So what’s interesting is even though philanthropic giving is down, overall, the number of people who have donor-advised funds or family foundations has risen. So obviously the wealth is there. It’s just being parked in different places. And I’m a low-hanging-fruit kind of person. If that’s where the money is, we should go there.
But I think that a lot of people are really hesitant to do it because it feels much more intimate to speak to someone about their personal assets. It feels like there are more ways to go wrong than when you’re speaking to a program officer and there’s a set cadence that we’re going to go through, and we all understand what the framework is. I also think that’s why major gift fundraising is really interesting. It’s very improvisational. Anything can happen.
NPQ: You write that, as a fundraiser, you’re not selling your organization’s work to donors; you’re selling them on your ability to meet their emotional needs.
Philanthropy is inherently emotional.
RW: I’m going to tip my hat here to a really amazing researcher named Dr. Russell James out of Texas. He put people in MRI machines and he talked to them about business. And when he talks about business, one part of the brain lights up. Then he talks about philanthropy and a different part of the brain lights up. The emotional part of the brain lights up. It’s the same part of the brain that lights up when we think about family.
Philanthropy is inherently emotional. We use data to back up what is essentially an emotional decision for us. And everyone out here in the world has a story about themselves. They have a movie and they are the main character. We all want something. And when we think about philanthropy, it’s often because somebody wants something. They want legacy. They want to be remembered. They want to belong. They want to transcend.
I think the mistake that a lot of nonprofit folks make is thinking that it’s a sales job. Philanthropy works in a different part of the brain. And so what we as fundraisers need to do, we have to understand that we are merely guides in the story of our donors. We’re there to help them to reach their philanthropic dreams and goals. And we need to figure out what it is that they want and how can we align what they want to see in the world with the work that we’re doing. So it’s inherently a different orientation to the conversation.
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NPQ: One of the things that you say is that when it comes to the work of getting and keeping donors, solicitation itself is only two percent of the pie, so to speak, and that the biggest slices are cultivation and stewardship of donors.
RW: I think everyone gets really bent out of shape about solicitation. You get nervous about it. You think about getting rejected. We have so many emotional feelings wrapped up with solicitation, but really, it’s such a small part of the process.
If you’re dating somebody and you decide to ask them to marry you, how much is that one piece of “Will you marry me?” compared to the dating phase, where you got to know each other, where you built something, where you were building trust together? And then hopefully, once you seal the deal, you spend a lot of time on stewardship. You spend a lot of time making your partner feel special, like they’re glad that they said that they were going to marry you, that, you know, hopefully you’ll make it to the next anniversary, right. That you’re continuing to build on stuff. And so, I think it’s a helpful way to think about the kinds of relationships that we should be building with our donors too. The ask is such a small part of the overall engagement process. Pun intended.
I think we really need to think about, how are we building a relationship of trust? How are we building towards an eventual ask? And honestly, if you’ve done it well, the ask will just feel like the natural next step. Like it should not be a surprise.
NPQ: You write a lot about boards and why so many executive directors experience frustration with their boards, particularly around fundraising. What are some of the common pitfalls here?
RW: I think number one, people aren’t recruiting for the things that they want. They’re not onboarding and being very upfront with what they expect, and then they get annoyed when the people get on the board and they’re not doing the thing that they didn’t know that they were supposed to do in the first place—a lot of it is fundraising most of the time.
Once folks are on the board and EDs do want them to fundraise, they often don’t provide the training necessary. Fundraising is a skill like anything else, and I think we assume that because someone does sales, or because they’re coming from a corporate background, they’ll know how to fundraise. I think we can say that that’s probably not true.
And I think there’s a real lack of clarity and leadership. A lot of times folks will join boards and they will have no board experience. They’ve not had any governance experience. So again, we don’t train people for the job that we’re asking them to do. We don’t provide them with information about what’s the proper level of altitude they’re supposed to be working at. And so they end up in the weeds and micromanaging.
NPQ: Speaking of responsibilities and delegating, you have this anecdote in the book about how, as executive director of Breakthrough New York, you initially spent all this time ordering pizzas for the youth the program served. And it was actually a fairly complex task, there were a lot of facets to getting the pizza orders right. But it probably wasn’t the best use of your time.
RW: Absolutely not. Lesson one is encouraging people to take a step back, to think strategically about their time.
I think that sometimes we do things like ordering the pizza to avoid doing the things that make us uncomfortable. So I know how to order the pizza. I feel very comfortable doing that. I know how to answer my emails. I may not know how to pick up the phone and talk to a donor, so I just do the thing that makes me feel comfortable to feel like I’m “busy” to avoid the thing that I don’t really want to or know how to do.
And I say this for not just EDs, but leaders everywhere: I think there’s a fear of delegation, especially if you are a highly competent person because you think that no one is going to be able to do it quite as well as you will, or they’re going to make mistakes. And someone said this to me once: if somebody can do the job 80 percent as well as you can, give it to them. We really need to embrace progress, not perfection.
NPQ: You write about times of crisis and how leaders can be reluctant to fundraise at such moments—but shouldn’t be. Why not?
RW: People are generous and they respond in moments of crisis. The donation rates after 9/11, the donation rates during the pandemic, during Black Lives Matter—we see this over and over again. People want to give. They want to help and they’re more generous in moments of crisis. People want to be part of the solution. They want to feel like they belong. They want to feel that they’re doing something bigger than themselves. I think the nonprofits that are thriving are the ones that dare to step into the breach.
We, as fundraisers, have to be the ones to dare to dream and dare to hope and to give others around us hope.
But also, it’s an opportunity to build your community. It’s so powerful, it especially was in the early days of the pandemic, for people to reach out to their donors, just to say, how are you doing? Are you okay? Because we’re humans and we want we want to feel like we’re part of something. And how powerful would it be for me to feel connected to the nonprofit that I give to in this time that feels really scary and very isolating.
Good things happen in life, bad things happen in life. But the show must go on. And I think we, as fundraisers, have to be the ones to dare to dream and dare to hope and to give others around us hope. And that happens through conversations. And it happens during fundraising.
NPQ: You mentioned that there can be trauma around issues of money, especially for people of color in this space. Are there particular challenges that you see leaders, executive directors of color encountering when it comes to fundraising?
RW: Do we have another hour? There’s a lot to unpack there, right? There’s the history of enslavement and exploitation and forced labor and stolen lands and stolen people, and capitalism writ large and systemic racism and redlining . . . I could go on and on and on. How do we heal from this history of trauma that has been inflicted on us?
I really believe at the end of the day, fundraising is the most revolutionary thing you can do.
There are big, important questions. And I think as fundraisers, we’re in this tension of holding all of this history and this trauma at the same time that we are the bridge to wealth, really, and mobilizing wealth. And that wealth generally tends to be predominantly White, older, and in many cases built on the very exploitation that we are talking about.
So the short answer is, I’m still struggling with myself. I don’t pretend I have all the answers, but I think one of the answers is that we just have to be able to say what it is. We have to be explicit about it. We have to ask good questions about how we move forward from here. And I think we need to heal ourselves because I really believe at the end of the day, fundraising is the most revolutionary thing you can do. You’re moving capital from one place to another to make change happen, to make the world a more equitable place.