Managing Your Brain for Fundraising Success
80% of the challenge of fundraising is all in your mind
Rhea Wong helps nonprofits raise more money. Though she has deep experience with institutional, corporate and event fund-raising, she is passionate about major individual donors and helping organizations to establish individual giving programs. She has raised millions of dollars in private philanthropy and is passionate about building the next generation of fundraising leaders. She has become a leader in the New York nonprofit community and is a frequent educational commentator in the media. She has been recognized with the SmartCEO Brava Award in 2015 and NY Nonprofit Media’s 40 under 40 in 2017. For more information about Rhea, please see her LinkedIn Profile here. Rhea lives in Brooklyn with her husband. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast Nonprofit Lowdown, promoting her newest book Get that Money, Honey! or onstage as a newbie stand-up comedian in downtown Brooklyn. For more information, check out rheawong.com Find her on the socials at: LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram
More information at https://www.rheawong.com/#
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Read the Interview Transcript
0:01 – Hugh Ballou Welcome to the nonprofit exchange. This is Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation, where we help leaders create synergy with their teams. Around this powerful vision that we carry. So how do we support all this? Well, some things we need to keep learning and one of them is about learning about money and today have a really special guest Ria Wong. So Ria, welcome and tell us a little bit about who you are, your background and why do you do this important work?
0:34 – Rhea Wong Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here and to talk to your audience. Well, for any of you who know me, you’ll know my story. I was a little baby ED at the age of 26. I was given the, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity, but honestly, I didn’t know a thing. So my first day on the job, they gave me the keys, they gave me my email address, and I did two Google searches. Google search one was, what does an ED do? And Google search two was, how do you fundraise? And I have to be honest, I don’t think that this is a unique case.
1:07 – Rhea Wong I mean, I think it’s gotten better now, but you’d be surprised or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised at how many people I meet in my world who have been given this very important job of raising funds for a very important cause, you know, causes that change the world. And they’ve not received any formal training in fundraising. So after 12 and a half years of running my nonprofit in New York City, I transitioned and I thought, well, why did it take me 12 and a half years to figure this out? So I’ve now made it my mission to help all of the people who were like me, little baby Rhea as an ED who had no idea how to fundraise, because frankly, we don’t have time for you to take 12 years to figure this out.
1:44 – Rhea Wong The problems that we have right now are so pressing. We need resources now to help solve the problems now.
1:51 – Hugh Ballou Whoa, you can tell this is gonna be a power interview. By the way, hang on, this is only 25 minutes, but at the end, Ria’s got somewhere near the end, a gift for you. It’s a quiz about money, which you’ll find is amazing. So Ria, our title for today is Managing Your Brain for Fundraising Success. And then it’s about, I put this as a subtitle, 80% of the challenge of fundraising is all in your mind. Would you explain that?
2:20 – Rhea Wong Oh my gosh. Okay, cue. I’m just going to wind me up and go. So I remember being in one of these fancy fundraising programs and the person running the program said, well, you know, it’s really your internal energy blocks that you’re putting up that is repelling money. And I was like, what are you talking about? Right? Because I was, I mean, I am a good Asian student, right? I did all the work. Took all the classes, I wrote the notes, I did the proposals, and money just wasn’t flowing to me.
2:51 – Rhea Wong And I didn’t know why, because I had checked all the boxes. And it wasn’t really until I did some of the internal work to unpack some of my stuff with money that I realized that, in fact, I was repelling the money because, you know, and I know this sounds a little bit woo-woo, but I was coming at it from a desperation angle, right? I was just grasping so hard because in my family, My grandparents are immigrants from China. In my family, money meant stability. Money meant security. And so I subconsciously believed that by asking people to support my cause, I was asking them to give up security and stability because I was projecting the St and it wasn’t really until I started to unpack that and tell myself a different story about money and about fundraising that actually I started not only to see more of the flow coming, but I actually started to enjoy it.
3:43 – Rhea Wong So I really think of money as energy and energy cannot be stoppered. Right. And, um, I always think about the Dead Sea. Do you know why the Dead Sea is dead, Hugh?
3:53 – Hugh Ballou I don’t.
3:54 – Rhea Wong So the Dead Sea is dead because it has a very high salt content. Nothing can live in it. And the reason it has a very high salt content is that all of these oceans and rivers flow into the Dead Sea, but nothing flows out of it. And so when things are not flowing energetically, It dies. And so what I realized what I was doing is because I was coming from such a scared place, such a fearful place about money, that I was really stopping the flow of energy from moving.
4:27 – Hugh Ballou Whoa, we were visiting before we went live today and we think of fundraising all wrong and as a transaction. You said it’s a fun, it’s creative and it’s a creative and spiritual activity. Say more about that.
4:47 – Rhea Wong Yeah, well, I was thinking about, look, when we consider all of the wonderful things in the world, right? I was at a museum the other day. I live in New York City. We’re very blessed to have museums and shows and exhibits, et cetera. But I was walking around this beautiful exhibit and I just thought, you know, if it hadn’t been for fundraisers, this exhibit would not exist. This museum would not exist, right? And so fundraisers are, at their core, fundamentally creators. And isn’t creativity, isn’t that a spiritual act?
5:17 – Rhea Wong And so I think that there’s something about fundraising that is spiritual. And I think often we tend to think of fundraising as this like dirty little secret over here on the side that we don’t really want to talk about. The truth is fundraising makes missions possible. Gandhi had to fundraise, Mother Teresa had to fundraise, MLK had to fundraise, right? Fundraising is not dirty. Fundraising is a fundamental fact of how change happens in the world. So I think once you come to it from a place of possibility and fun and generosity and flow, it becomes a different kind of an activity.
5:52 – Rhea Wong And I think people dread it so much because we bring so much of our own baggage about money to the table.
5:59 – Hugh Ballou We do, and we’re not even aware of how that’s hurting us. So, you spoke about money mindset. Let’s dig a little deeper into that. What does it mean to you? And, you know, we have, and I had shared with you that I learned from one of my guests years ago that this is, we operate a business, and it’s not a non, we don’t identify, but we’re not non-profit. We are, instead of a for-profit business, we are for-purpose business. Purposeful work. So we penalize ourselves, but talk about the mindset and how that money mindset paralyzes us or compromises our fundraising.
6:37 – Rhea Wong Yeah, so Hugh, you and I were speaking ahead of the podcast. I always think of managing your mindset the way that athletes prepare for games. And look, I’m not an athletic person. I do enjoy an NBA game, right? But I think when you really think about at the pro level, let’s say, with basketball, what’s the difference between LeBron James versus you know, a rookie coming out who maybe, you know, a good solid, but not LeBron James kind of player. It’s the preparation and it’s the mindset after a certain threshold of skill level.
7:10 – Rhea Wong And conversely, I think as fundraisers, if we want to approach this act of fundraising as a sport, the ones that what’s going to differentiate the good from the great are the ones who learn how to manage their money mindset, manage their internal state, compared to the ones who get very upset and very riled up about money, either which way. And I remember this very distinctly. I was, when I was an ED, I had gotten a letter in the mail and it was a grant that I had expected that we were going to get, and we didn’t get it.
7:41 – Rhea Wong And I was, you know, I was like kind of pouty and stomping around and I was blah, blah, blah. And my CFO at the time looked at me, he’s a wise man, Leonard Perlman, if you’re listening to this, looked at me and said, you know, why are you letting money affect your mood?” And I was like, uh, yeah, you’re right. Like it’s just money. Right. And I think when we right size what money is, money is a resource like anybody, like anything else. But the interesting thing about money is it’s a renewable resource.
8:15 – Rhea Wong It’s not like air. It’s not like time. It’s not like, I guess water is a non-renewable resource. Money is infinite. Like we’re literally printing more of it. So why do we get so bent out of shape about it? And so I think part of what we, and we’ll probably get to this, but we have so much you know, we can say baggage, we can say trauma about money. A lot of it has to do with what we have received as messages in our upbringing. Some of it comes from, you know, some of it is ancestral trauma, so epigenetics, like we might have inherited trauma in our DNA.
8:52 – Rhea Wong Some of it is systemic and social, right? Racism and white supremacy and various policies that have kept money out of the hands of folks of color. So none of it is, Comes from nowhere and I think. Both and yes, and yes, all of these things can be true and we can choose to be discerning about what we want to believe and act on moving forward in our lives.
9:22 – Hugh Ballou 2 different things acting on it is a whole different. Okay. People talk a lot. I think what I heard, I think Jim run said this at only 3%. Of 3% of you will actually do something and I say, yeah, it’s 100 people have an idea 3% likely do something about it. So I see that you’re passionate about this topic, which is why you’re here. So there’s I’ve been working with. This sector, this charity sector, it’s charity, it’s tax exempt. And we have to make a profit, which is, we could call it proceeds, if that makes people feel better.
9:58 – Hugh Ballou Got to have some money left over for salaries, product development. We’ve got to serve people, so we’ve got to build that infrastructure. And I see lots of misconceptions about leadership, but also along with that, there’s some misconceptions about money. So what have you encountered and how do we rectify that money mindset misconception?
10:20 – Rhea Wong So I think a lot of it has to do with our sector. So you mentioned at the beginning, we call it nonprofit, right? We’re already defining ourselves in a negative, what we’re not. And I think there’s something very… Invasive in the nonprofit sector about the stories that we tell ourselves about money. And some of it are myths, like suffering is noble or, you know, rich people are different than us. We’re not like those people or, uh, you know, the rich get richer, the poor get more.
10:50 – Rhea Wong Right. And so oftentimes we will attach meaning to a particular story that we tell ourselves about the way that the world is. And by the way, a belief is just a thing that you think again and again and again. Right. True necessarily, but it might be true for you. And because we, and I think this is a big one in the nonprofit sector, we really attach this idea of suffering is noble and we’re not supposed to have any money. And, you know, we can’t afford that. And, you know, we like to play the comparison games and we like to make ourselves feel more noble because, well, we’re not like those for-profit companies that waste money and have the fancy, you know, beer machines.
11:25 – Rhea Wong We’re doing the real work. I’m not saying that any is wrong or right. I’m just simply saying, is this a perspective that serves you? Is this a perspective that helps you feel better? Because if it’s not, you should probably change the story. And ultimately we have, we’re human beings. We have these big, beautiful brains and we have this power to tell ourselves and create our realities. And the realities that we have are often internal realities, right? You Look, if you want to suffer, be my guest.
11:59 – Rhea Wong I’m not here to stop anyone from suffering if they want to, but guess what? You don’t get a gold medal for suffering. I prefer not to suffer. And so where was I going with this? Oh, I guess I’ll just say that I think that there’s something very sort of toxic in the culture. And I think it’s also perpetuated by the way that funding happens, right? So in foundation work, we look at, well, what’s your percentage of overhead? Or like, we’re not going to pay X percent if you pay this salary to your team.
12:32 – Rhea Wong So it’s almost the whole system is designed to keep us in this scarcity mindset, in this scarcity mode.
12:40 – Hugh Ballou And Pilata addresses that in his TED Talk, the way we think about charity is dead wrong. We in mindset, I mean, overhead is one of them. And there’s some accounting principles that you can define overhead. Is this overhead actually serving people and is it really overhead? It’s not paying for the beer machine, it’s paying for people’s welfare. So there’s a lot of misconceptions on how we do the accounting, Eva, and then how we interpret the accounting. So you triggered something when you were talking earlier.
13:13 – Hugh Ballou Part of this mindset about money, we don’t mind bringing people on the board and wasting their time and not having the planning, not having a system, but we obsess and we waste 10 cents of anybody’s donation. And so, you know, we can’t get the time back. But like you said, money is a renewable resource. So how does this mindset potentially affect our fundraising efforts?
13:36 – Rhea Wong Such a good question. So let’s talk about time and money. So I see, and it drives me crazy, and look, no judgment, I did this myself, but it drives me nuts when I see an executive director who’s paid a very good salary, spending X number of hours doing things like data entry, because it saves them a hundred bucks. We’ve all been there, right? Or like they’re stuffing envelopes because it would cost money to do it. And I’m sitting there thinking, okay, so the three hours that you just spent stuffing these envelopes or doing data entry or whatever else you were doing that wasn’t a high leverage activity has actually cost you not just the three hours of your salary that we just paid, but potentially three hours of going out there and getting a donor or getting a bigger gift, right?
14:26 – Rhea Wong So I think we need to think about money strategically. And so I talk about expense a lot. So when we think about expenses, we think about it, we should be thinking about it in three different ways. Number one, if it gives you back your time, number two, if it makes you money, or number three, if it increases operational efficiency. If either of those three things are true, it’s probably a good use of your money.
14:49 – Hugh Ballou And if you’re doing it, are you robbing a volunteer of an opportunity to serve?
14:55 – Rhea Wong That’s also true. Or or you or pay you’ll pay someone $17 an hour to do it, right? If you’re doing data entry, you are literally the world’s highest paid data entry person. So I think it gets us into this world of we step over the dollars to pick up the pennies. We are not strategic about how we’re using our resources. And then we are asking too low, or we treat people like they’re walking checkbooks. So when you get into the scarcity mindset, you tend to get very transactional. You tend to think of people as like numbers rather than people, right?
15:33 – Rhea Wong And so But that is a recipe for very shallow relationships. Like, I don’t know about you, Hugh. I don’t like being treated like a walking track book. I don’t like feeling like I just got networked, right? I don’t like feeling manipulated. If you do, then, you know, good for you. I haven’t met anyone who likes that. But because we believe that money is scarce, because we believe this is the last gift I’m ever going to get, because we believe that I got to get this gift at any cost, I treat you like you’re just a number to me.
16:03 – Rhea Wong And that means, sure, I might give you $1,000 now, but because you haven’t established the trust, because you haven’t shown that you are willing to put in the time and energy, like I could have maybe written you a $10,000 check, but now I’m not going to because you’ve shown me that I’m just a number to you.
16:21 – Hugh Ballou Wow. Wow. Yeah. And besides checkbook, it could be, we treat people like they’re an ATM machine.
16:28 – Rhea Wong That’s right.
16:29 – Hugh Ballou That w your corporate donation changing. Thank you very much. Goodbye. So we’ve identified the problems. Big ones.
16:35 – Rhea Wong Yeah,
16:37 – Hugh Ballou And I bet you they’re more persistent, more relevant to more people than we realize. We would call that a leadership blind spots. So it’s time to acknowledge them. And somebody like Ria could help you realize those. So we’ll tell you about our website and how you can find her in just a minute. But what do we do about it? How do we get a positive money mindset?
16:58 – Rhea Wong Yeah, so a couple of things that I just want to share, some fun hacks. So the first thing I would say is take some time and really sit down with yourself. Ask yourself, what did you hear in your family growing up? What did you see? What did you experience? Like in my family, all I heard was, you know, money doesn’t grow on trees. Who do you think we are, the Rockefellers? You know, I saw my parents scrimping and saving. You know, the biggest fights I ever saw my parents having were about money, right?
17:21 – Rhea Wong So really just like sit down and kind of unpack for yourself, like, what are these stories that I’m telling myself about money? And how did those stories affect my relationship with money today? Am I a spender? Am I a saver? And why? Know that the things that you do are survival mechanisms, right? We all have trauma in some ways in our lives. And so whether I’m a saver or a spender or I splurge or I go on shopping sprees or whatever it is I do is usually a reaction to my lived experience growing up.
17:53 – Rhea Wong So I would say Part of it too is to create a different story for yourself. Okay, so if all of these things are true, you know, if you have these beliefs that you don’t want to have, what would a new belief be? And how can you start to live into that belief? So let’s say I tell myself a story that I’m really not that good with money. Like I’m not that good with money. You know, it comes, it goes, whatever. What if I wanted to have an identity of I am really good with money? If I had that identity, you can put it on a little post-it, I’m really good with money.
18:23 – Rhea Wong Then you start to operate as if, right? Well, what would someone who’s really good with money do? And you start to practice. It’s like, It’s like training for a marathon, right? You’re not going to run the full 24 miles the first time out of the gate, but maybe you go around the block and then maybe you do a mile run. Then you do three miles, right? And eventually you kind of iterate your way into this new identity of, oh, I actually, I am, I am good with money. So that’s the first thing. The second thing that I would say is your brain is only in one of two modes at any given time, executive mode or survival mode.
18:58 – Rhea Wong Hugh, what would you guess is the percentage of time people spend in survival mode on average?
19:04 – Hugh Ballou Oh, I bet it’s pretty high, a lot higher than that. I would say more than half.
19:07 – Rhea Wong Oh yeah, 70% on average. Or fair in New York City, I think it’s like 90%. Anyway, the point is survival mode is when your amygdala is taken over. That’s when you’re in this sort of high reactivity, high emotional agitated state, right? You’re either in your fight, flight or freeze mode and you’re operating from almost this instinctual animalistic perspective of like, oh, like this is a threat to me, right? So I’m going to react. So if I’m perceiving, you know, not getting a certain gift as a direct threat to my person, I’m going to have lots of emotions about it.
19:48 – Rhea Wong My, you know, my heart will start beating, maybe I’ll start sweating. And so one thing to do, and this is a quick hack, is to take a breath. And identify the feeling that you’re feeling. So I’m feeling frustrated, I’m feeling anxious, I’m feeling whatever. It’s important to say I’m feeling as opposed to I am. So instead of I am stressed, like I feel stressed. The reason being I am is an identity statement. I feel is a feeling and feelings pass. And just the very act of identifying what that feeling is moves the energy to your prefrontal cortex, which is this beautiful part of your brain right behind your forehead.
20:25 – Rhea Wong And that part of your brain triggers your executive function. Your executive function is when you’re in the flow state. It’s where generosity lies. It’s where you see different possibilities. Whereas in survival state, it’s very black or white, right? It’s like run or fight. And so you can kind of trick your brain into being in executive mode. And then the last strategy that I’ll offer is breathing. So, Hugh, I’d be willing to bet when you get stressed out, your breathing gets quite shallow.
20:56 – Rhea Wong Is that right?
21:00 – Hugh Ballou Yeah, I’m nodding my head. People can’t hear that. Sorry.
21:04 – Rhea Wong So quick tip here. There’s a thing called box breathing, which by the way, Marines do, which is pretty cool. And you should breathe through your nose. So you breathe in for three counts or four counts. You can choose. You hold for four counts, you exhale for four counts, and then you hold for four counts. And it’s actually the exhaling and the holding that do the most because it stimulates your vagus nerve. And by calming the body down, you calm your brain. So there are, what do they call them?
21:37 – Rhea Wong Top down strategies, which is like brain oriented down to the body. And then there are bottom up strategies, which is the body to the brain. So those are a couple that you can try in your everyday life.
21:48 – Hugh Ballou She’s giving you a lot of good stuff. This is this is the nonprofit exchange. If you’re coming by on Facebook, you don’t know what we’re doing here. The nonprofit exchange.org is where you find this. This is number 375 in the series of really good interviews. So I want to take a minute. And let people see your website and tell, I’m gonna, for people looking, they can see it, people listening, it’s https://www.rheawong.com. So what are people gonna see when they go there?
22:23 – Rhea Wong Well, they’re going to see lots of resources. So I have a book called Get That Money, Honey. There are book bonuses. I also have a podcast. I also have a webinar series and a newsletter. So there are all the things. And if you’re interested, I have a group coaching program where I work with folks for six months to help turbo charge their individual gift fundraising. So that is open right now. I also have a fun free quiz. That I can offer folks, which I shared with you in the chat and I think will be available on the podcast notes.
22:56 – Hugh Ballou It will be available in the notes. We’ll have a full transcript. So if some of these great ideas slipped by and you aren’t taking notes, we can go and look at the transcript. So everything that’s been happening and been said on this podcast and video, you will be able to capture it and be able to do something about it. Man, oh man, oh man, this has been some good stuff. So there’s many, many factors that we could talk about, but the clock isn’t in our friend today, but there’s so many things you’ve given us.
23:28 – Hugh Ballou So can you give our listeners one piece of advice to help them improve their money mindset and consequently their fundraising efforts?
23:39 – Rhea Wong Well, Hugh you I, and and I were talking and I love a dating analogy. So what I would say is that when you are putting yourself in a place of wholeness and security and safety, you are able to be the best, the best fundraiser you can be as a partner to your donor. And the last thing I’ll say is desperation is a stinky perfume. So I think all of us have had the experience where we’ve been out there like going on dates, trying to find the one, and it almost gets a little desperate. And that is not when you find the one, right?
24:16 – Rhea Wong So I think you got to do the work on yourself first before you can expect someone to want to be your partner in life and in fundraising.
24:25 – Hugh Ballou Absolutely. Rhea Wong, your wisdom greatly exceeds your linear years on this planet. So you’ve given us a lot of things to think about and very, very valuable information that we can implement. Thank you for being our guest today on the Nonprofit Exchange.
24:43 – Rhea Wong Thank you, Hugh. It was a pleasure.