Season 3, Episode 4
In this episode, Amy Eisenstein is joined by Rhea Wong, author of “Get that Money, Honey” to discuss how nonprofit fundraisers can get out of a scarcity mindset and improve their fundraising results. Learn concrete strategies for improving your fundraising beliefs and behaviors.
You may think that nonprofits have a scarcity mindset, but my guest today, Rhea Wong, is going to talk about why that doesn’t have to be the case.
So welcome, Rhea. I am so excited to have you here as a guest on the podcast. I’m going to give you a second or two to introduce yourself, but first I want to tell listeners that you have the most awesome book called Get That Money, Honey! Which I absolutely adore.
I love seeing you speak and present on money mindset and scarcity and limiting beliefs, and that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today. So why don’t you tell listeners about yourself, some highlights, and then we’ll dive right in.
Well, Amy, first of all, thank you so much for having me, longtime fan, first time caller. I’ve been a admirer of your work for a long, long time. I’ve been stalking you on YouTube for ages, so it’s such a pleasure. You’re like a Beyonce to me.
Aw, you’re so sweet. That’s really kind. I should have said, normally my partner, Andrea and I do these podcasts, but I am super-excited to have the opportunity to talk with you. Andrea has the week off, so I just should have gotten that in, but we’re going to have an awesome conversation.
I am looking forward to it. You’re such a master interviewer, so I am psyched.
Many of Us are Accidental Fundraisers, Like Rhea
To answer your question, my nonprofit journey started when I, well, really before I was 26, but I was a 26-year-old Executive Director in New York City. At the age of 26, I was like, “I know everything!” In retrospect, I was like, “I know nothing!”
As what happens with a lot of people, and I’m sure you can relate, is I was an accidental fundraiser. So they handed me the keys, they gave me my email address, and they were like, “Okay, bye.”
So the first day on the job, I did two Google searches:
- The first Google search was, what does an ED do?
- The second Google search was, how do you fundraise?
To that point, I had only done little fundraisers for marathons and things like that, and all of a sudden I was being asked to raise $250,000 in private funds. I was like, “What?”
So over the course of 12 years, I and MIT, I can’t take all the credit for it, we built up the organization to about $3 million a year in private funds, and it was a wild ride. I just thought, after I left:
“Why did it take me so long to figure this out?”
So I really dedicated to this next stage of my career to helping people learn how to fundraise, ’cause I think it’s ridiculous that we put people in these really important jobs to solve the world’s biggest problems without any training.
You would never go to a doctor who hadn’t been to medical school. You’d never go to a lawyer who hadn’t been to law school. Why are we asking fundraisers out here to fundraise without any kind of training? So that’s what I do.
Yeah, I love that. It’s interesting, I think the older fundraisers listening will know that they’re really, we’ve seen a revolution in fundraising training.
So just 20, 30 years ago, there were no degrees in fundraising. No colleges taught it. There was no formal structure or practices, but we have come a long way now, so there’s more and more professionalization of the sector, which I’m so delighted to see. But I think you’re right, there are so many people in the field right now that came up through, they were a social worker or they were a teacher, and they really, really care about specific causes, which is amazing, but they really don’t have any formal fundraising training, so they’re experts in their field, but not in fundraising.
They get promoted to Executive Director because they’re so good at their programs and services. Then it’s like, “Oh, my gosh. Now it’s time to fundraise.” So I am so glad we’re going to be talking about this today.
How a Money Mindset Impacts Your Fundraising Results
So let’s start with money mindset and why that impacts your results, your fundraising results, how your mindset can really play a role in how successful you are at fundraising. Talk about that for a bit.
Yeah. Oh, my gosh, wind me up and let’s go. So I think that the reason why so many people burn out in fundraising is because of the mindset issue. It’s because they believe that fundraising is just about the money, and it’s not just about the money, it’s about the relationship.
But when we come from a place of scarcity, of believing that money is scarce, that we’re in competition with other people, when we don’t get gifts, we personalize it. It starts to wear us down, and it gets us in a place of survival mindset. So eventually we burn out because it feels terrible to constantly be in this state of fighting, competing, scarcity, feeling like you’re under the gun.
I certainly have had my nights of waking up at 4:00 AM in a cold sweat worrying about payroll. It’s a terrible feeling, and yet, I think the key here is that we need to, first of all, unpack our own relationship to money and then learn how to manage our minds so that we’re not constantly in this state of panic about money. Because in our modern-day society, money is survival, or at least that’s the story that we tell ourselves.
So if we don’t have money, then we’re not surviving. So if we can actually decouple that story, we can move in the world of fundraising without it feeling so, I’m trying to think of another word other than desperate, but yeah, it’s desperate. Right?
Yes, overwhelming. Right. So let’s talk about that a little more. How would somebody think about uncoupling their money mindset? I don’t remember the exact words you used, but how does somebody start to unpack that years and years of belief systems, right?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
That money is scarce and that money is the root of all evil and all of these stereotypes, or not even stereotypes, that’s the wrong word, how we talk about money in this culture and our society. So how do we get to people to break free from the trappings of their mindset?
Yeah. My gosh, so many things.
Step 1: Unpack What You Believe About Money
So first, I think the key is to unpack what it is you believe about money. So often what we believe about money is inherited from our parents, and like any good therapist knows, it’s about your parents.
So I do this exercise with people, which is, I break down, “Well, what did you hear in your family growing up? What did you see? What did you experience emotionally? Because it’s really the emotional experiences that create memories. It’s our brain’s way of keeping us safe. When we were a caveman, it’s like:
“Oh, don’t go past that cave because that’s where the sabertooth tiger lives.”
But the memories that we have that evoke a strong emotion are often the things that create our current reality, ’cause we just play it over and over and over in our brains because our human brains, as wonderful as they are, also get us into rerun cycle, so we obsess and we play the same thing over and over again.
So what a belief is, is really just a thought that you think a lot, and then it cements itself into, “Well, that’s the way the world is.” So in my family, I always heard, “Well, money doesn’t grow on trees,” and “Who do you think we are, the Rockefellers?” And, “That’s for rich people, not for us.”
So the first key is just write down all the things that you believe about money.
Yeah, I love that. Write them down. Write them down. What do I know about money, or what do I think I know? What do I believe about money? What did I hear about money as a child? Good. Okay, step one, I love it.
Step 2: Acknowledge Your Confirmation Bias
So step one, and then step two, realize that your brain has a thing called confirmation bias, which is that your brain has a way of filtering out things that you don’t deem to be relevant to you.
So I use this example a lot, which is, if you’ve ever had the experience of, let’s say you were really lusting after a pair of shoes like, “I really want those shoes.” The moment you decide that that’s the thing that you want, all of a sudden you see that shoe everywhere, or you hear that song everywhere or whatever it is that your brain decides that it wants, all those things were already always there, it’s just that your brain filtered it out.
So similarly, your brain is filtering out all of the messages that reinforce your beliefs. So if your belief system is like:
- money is scarce
- money doesn’t grow on trees
- money is hard to come by
Then you’re going to pick up on all of the examples that reinforce your beliefs.
The key here is, what are some counter examples? What are some things that I could point to you as evidence that what I believe is actually not true? Our willingness to be wrong is going to be directly correlated to our success.
So if I believe, “Well, people aren’t generous and rich people are bad,” that might be a belief. Can I think of specific examples that I’ve seen where that is actually not true, where that proves that to be false? Then you start to open up your mind and so your brain is only ever in one of two states — either survival or executive:
- Executive state is when you start to open your mind to the options and possibilities.
- Survival state is when you see the world as black and white — it’s this or it’s that. It’s yes or it’s no, you get very tunnel vision because in the world of running away from a sabertooth tiger, you’re not sitting there thinking about all of the creative possibilities. You’re like, “I got to run.”
So part of it is just calming your brain down and opening up yourself to the possibility that you might be wrong.
Right. I really like that. I think you could sit down with someone else at your organization and say, “Let’s point to, let’s make a list of all the opportunities,” or not the opportunities, “but the times we’ve been successful at fundraising, or when people were generous or when people did want to talk to us.”
So even if they’re few and far between so far, really paying attention to when you were successful or when a fundraising solicitation worked or when you got the grant. I love that because I bet that most people, you’re right, they tend to focus on the negative. It’s easier. Right?
“Oh, I didn’t get that grant,” or, “The person didn’t want to meet with me,” or, “They didn’t give me the gift,” or, “They didn’t give me what I asked for.” Those replay in our mind over and over and over again, but forcing yourself to pay attention to and notice, and I would say, just like you said before, write down examples of when fundraising worked, of when people were generous.
I love this. What else?
People Tend to Focus on the Negatives Rather Than the Positives
Well, and Amy, the other piece is it gets even deeper than that, so exactly your point, our brain finds it much easier to think about when things go wrong versus when things go right, or to think about creative ways that things could unfold because it takes more mental energy, it takes more mental calories to think expansively.
So forcing yourself to think expansively, you’re actually moving the energy to your prefrontal cortex, so that’s one thing.
The second thing is often when things don’t go right, we tell ourselves a story about ourselves. So we didn’t get the grant, “Oh, it’s because I wasn’t good enough. It was because I messed up the meeting. It’s because they don’t believe in me,” All of these very negative, very old, by the way, this usually happens, intersects with a story that was probably created in your mind from zero to seven. It’s a story that you made about yourself based on circumstances that happened outside of yourself, and then you just replay the thing over and over and over again.
So I think the other piece is to unpack what is this story about yourself that you’re telling about these circumstances? There are circumstances, and then there’s your story about this circumstance, and those are two very separate things. So it takes getting quiet with yourself and be like:
“What story am I telling myself here, and is it true?”
Because I think our brain has these neural synapses that we walk over and over and over again, such that they just become ingrained in us. So it’s so easy for us to get to that old story of, “Well, I’m not good enough. There’s something wrong with me, people don’t like me,” whatever that old, old story is, and it takes a minute to stop yourself and be like:
“Okay, can I just take a breath? Can I calm down? Can I get into my parasympathetic nervous system?”
Again, I know I’m in California, so I get a little woo-woo, but scientifically backed woo-woo here, which is, can I just take a breath? Because often what I found when I get stressed is that I would have a physical reaction. My chest would tighten, and my ears shoulders get up to my ears, and they start breathing shallowly.
I think there’s an opportunity to get curious like, “Okay, why am I having this physical reaction right now?” It’s often the physical reaction and essentially your adrenal gland just pumping cortisol through you that eventually leads to burnout.
So our brains are incredible. We can actually train our brains to not get into this reactive mode of feeling like we’re threatened by telling ourselves a different story about what is actually happening.
Yeah, I think that’s such a good point. It reminds me of a cliche, but I think a well-known saying I think it’s mostly attributed to Henry Ford:
“Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
Optimism Genuinely Helps the Average Fundraiser
You’ve heard this saying before, and it really reminds me of fundraisers that I’ve worked with in the field. I jokingly call her Debbie Downer. She believed she couldn’t fundraise, and she believed that people didn’t want to talk to her. She believed there was no money out there.
And so how did she spend her time?
She gossiped at the water cooler. She played online. She didn’t do what she needed to do to bring the money in because she really believed it wasn’t out there.
Conversely, we’ve all worked with fundraisers who are amazing fundraisers, and they believe the money is out there and that people do want to meet with them, and they just need to make the circumstances happen.
They need to call and follow up. They need to schedule the meeting. Sometimes it takes a few calls, and that’s okay. Maybe the person doesn’t want to do this skiff, but they want to support something else, and that’s okay. They just need to have the conversations until that happens.
So when people have this mindset that they can fundraise and that there is the money out there, they do take the actions necessary, which I think is exactly what you’re talking about, is getting past these limiting beliefs that we have. If you believe you can fundraise, you’re going to pick up the phone and make the calls, and if you believe you can’t fundraise, you won’t. So your actions follow your beliefs.
Adopting the Growth Mindset as opposed to the Scarcity Mindset
Yeah, that’s exactly right. So there’s this model where you have your beliefs or your thoughts, and those then cause your emotions. So emotions are real, but the way emotions happen is in your hypothalamus. So once you have a thought, your hypothalamus kicks in and your hypothalamus pumps neuropeptides through your system and then creates what we call emotions and feelings.
Then these emotions and feelings create your actions and your actions create your results. So to your point, we can be better. We can change our actions if we change our thoughts about it. I’m reminded of the work of Carol Dweck, who some of you might know. She coined it growth mindset.
So often I think as fundraisers, we attach our worth to our outcome:
“If I get that gift, I’m a good fundraiser. If I don’t get that gift, I’m a bad fundraiser.”
What if instead, we attached the value to the effort?
At the end of the day, the outcome is really beyond your control. You don’t control people’s minds. You don’t make decisions about people’s giving. All you can do is control:
“Did I put in the necessary efforts and steps to lead us to the gift?”
Sometimes I’ll be successful and sometimes they won’t. But when you decouple your worth and your value from the outcome, be unattached to the outcome, be attached to the effort that may lead to the outcome.
Interesting. Easier said than done, right?
Yeah. Well, especially I think the way that the world works, you have the board and you’ve got eds and everyone’s breathing down your neck to get the money in the door.
Fundraisers Tend to be Too Shortsighted
But I think the other thing is, and I think this goes to the scarcity mindset in our sector in general, is that we are very shortsighted about things.
As we know, it takes time to develop a relationship. It takes time to establish trust, especially for really significant major gifts. When we rush that process, we essentially are creating distrust in our donors because it’s like, “Don’t rush me.” Your timeline has nothing to do with my timeline.
I think if we reposition ourselves, first of all, to understand that we need to invest time in the relationships that will matter, and it may take more time than just your fiscal year. But if we also position ourselves not as an extractor of resources, but instead a facilitator or an advisor, I like to think of us as philanthropic advisors, it changes the dynamic, ’cause it’s so often — and I think this goes to the scarcity thing — a lot of fundraisers think of themselves, it’s like:
“Oh, I’m just out there to get the money.”
SIDENOTE — As a donor, I don’t feel great about you coming to get the money from me. Right? I am not a goldmine that you’re trying to extract money from. I’m not an ATM. But instead, if I came to someone and I was like, “Hey, Amy, I’d love to find out more about you. What do you want to accomplish with your philanthropy, and is the thing that you want to do connected to the thing that we do? If it’s not, that’s okay. I could also make an introduction for you.” It helps establish a trust.
I like to use the Yoda, we’re Yodas to our donors, Luke Skywalker. They give money in order to see something happen in the world, to complete their story of who they are and what they have left behind in the world. “How can I facilitate that?” I know I said a mouthful. Let me pause.
Yeah, no, I think it’s such good food for thought. Like I said, sometimes it is easier said than done, but it’s so important because if you are able to, as you were saying earlier, disconnect from the personal, you didn’t use this word, but the real personalness, that’s not a word. I don’t know what word I’m looking for.
But if you can somehow not take it personally, whether you get gifts or not get gifts, but you do the work that needs to be done to build those [donor] relationships and build that trust, the money will come and the impact will happen because that’s what you’re in alignment with what donors’ vision and values are.
Once you can find that alignment between what a donor wants to accomplish and what your organization wants to accomplish, I think the money does start to flow.
So, all right. Let’s go back to some of these tangible takeaways. I’m all about what can we do? So I love the idea of starting with writing down all of your money baggage. Right?
What money ideas do you have? Start by writing that down, and then what was the second thing people were going to write down? Now I went blank.
Counter examples, so like —
Counter examples, yes.
Positive Examples to Support a Better Money Mindset
Counter examples. Okay. So then they’re pointing to examples of when they did successfully raise money. Good. So what’s one more thing that listeners can do to start to overcome some of these limiting beliefs and change their money mindset?
Okay. So this is one of my favorite things, and again, easier said than done. I’m here spouting all sorts of advice, and I’m still challenged to do them myself. So I love this book called Atomic Habits by James Clear.
I point to the fact that, you know how at the beginning of a year, in January and February, everyone’s like, “I’m going to get it in shape,” and the gyms are full. Everyone’s on a diet and they’re doing all the things. Then come March and April, the gyms empty out, and you’re like, “Okay, I don’t know where y’all went.”
It’s because we often try to change our outcomes based on the behaviors. So we’re like, “I’m going to work out five times a week,” or whatever. Instead, what we really need to think about is how we change behaviors on the level of identity like, “Who am I in this world? If I am a healthy person, what choices would a healthy person make?”
It’s really just habit-forming. It’s about small step-by-step habits. So to your point about this person you brought up as an example who said she couldn’t fundraise. Okay, maybe she can’t fundraise, but if she were an awesome fundraiser, what things might she be doing?
- Might she send that email instead of gossip by the watercolor?
- Might she pick up the phone versus sit on and play Wordle, whatever?
So it’s minute-by-minute, first of all, envisioning a different identity for yourself, and then acting in accordance with that identity and acting as if, and eventually, the habits form that you become that person.
Creating a Positive Habit
Let’s use this exercise example. Well, if I’m just a very athletic, healthy person, what might I do? I might go to the gym three times a week. I might start eating healthy, whatever it might be. But then you also have little triggers, so you make the tasks small enough.
So let’s say I’m trying to get in shape. I’ve never been at the gym before. Well, I’m probably not going to go to the gym and work out for two hours and kill myself. Maybe I just start with like:
“Okay, I’ll just walk to the gym and open the door and walk in, and then I’ll walk out, and then I’ll do that again tomorrow.”
You set little tiny goals for yourself along the way to start to create habits.
Right. I love it.
Creating a Positive Fundraising Habit
To take that analogy to the fundraising world, can you call three donors every day? Whether you’re saying thank you, you’re asking for a meeting, you’re asking how they are, you’re wishing them happy birthday, you’re asking for an update, you’re giving them an update, whatever it is, just making sure that you do not leave your desk until you have talked to, or at least left messages for three people every day, get in the habit of calling donors.
That is a small, tangible, concrete thing that people can do every day, and I think too many fundraisers actually don’t talk to donors every day.
Limiting Beliefs About People with Wealth
Oh, my gosh. Can we just talk about for wealth for a second and money?
So I think the thing that keeps fundraisers from engaging with donors is this idea that they’re different, like:
“People with money are different. They’re different than me. They might be bad. They might have done bad things to get their money.”
There are all these stories. So I think that goes on the list of what are the stories I tell myself about people with wealth?
But recognizing too, that donors are just people and like people, we all just want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We all just want to believe that our lives have meant something, and we want to make a difference.
People want to give money, we just put it in the blocks to make it hard because we don’t act in ways that increase trust. We don’t act in ways that make them feel like partners. We don’t act in ways that are transparent, and so of course, why would they trust us? They’re always worried that we’re just going to spring and ask on them before they’re actually ready, and before we’ve actually created the context to do so that we haven’t actually established the trust.
Yeah, I think that that is so important. Once we really see ourselves as partners with our donors and giving them opportunities to make the world a better place alongside of us, as opposed to, as you said before, this idea of them as an ATM or just a money machine, we will be more successful.
So I think this was such a valuable conversation because we work primarily with people who are working on capital campaigns, and they are in a position usually of asking for bigger gifts than they’ve ever asked for before, and working with donors who have the potential to give more and invest bigger amounts than they’ve ever experienced before.
So having these really thoughtful conversations and even giving people these ideas that they can change their money mindset, that they can get out from under some of these limiting beliefs, because you do have to believe in a capital campaign setting that you are going to raise significantly more than you’ve ever raised before.
Well, and I think the other piece is when we have a lot of limiting beliefs about money and it’s not out there, and P.S., we are living in the richest time in human history on the richest country on the planet, so you can’t tell me that money isn’t out there.
But our own energy puts up the blockages when really … I love that what you said before, alignment, we really need to get ourselves in alignment with the flow of money and the flow of generosity. Then we are just a vessel through which things can flow. We’re not roadblocks, we’re not extractors, we’re not all the … So can I just share one last thing?
Our Job as Fundraisers is Really More About Our Donors
I just had a really fun podcast interview with this man named Troy Smith who was an FBI hostage negotiator, “So you think your job is high stakes? I got a hostage negotiation.” He had some really great tips, but one of the biggest tips was like your job as a negotiator is to listen to the other person and understand their view of the world. What got them to the point today that they decided that the only thing they could do was hold up a bank?
You have to be calm, and you have to be fully present for that because ultimately, our jobs as fundraisers is not about us, it’s about our donor. What is it that they want to achieve? Who are they? What would make their lives better, and how do we offer them the opportunity for significance? That’s what the job is. I think so often we go into it with our own agenda, our own timelines, our own desires, our own priorities, and it just doesn’t work.
Yeah. Interesting. So on the flip side of that, we don’t want donors to dictate the mission or change the programs and services. So really it’s about finding alignment, right?
That’s right. That’s right.
Both the donor and the nonprofit have to be an alignment for the magic to happen, for the really big gifts to come in.
That’s right. That’s such a good point. This is not about being a doormat and letting people walk all over you, this is about being a matchmaker. Is the thing that you want as a donor, the thing that we do?
Also, I think if we’re living an abundance and we really truly live into this idea that there’s more than enough out there, we can bless and release people that are not aligned with us. Sometimes I think why we get burnt out is that we’re bending over backwards to try to fit our way into a thing that a donor wants that isn’t really what we do and that there there’re more fish in the sea, as my mother would say when I was in my dating life. There are lots of people out there, and so if you’re working with someone truly not interested in being a partner in all the ways that feel good and right in alignment with your integrity and what your organization does, let them go.
Yes. I think that’s such good food for thought.
Rhea, how can people find you and learn more about your work and what you’re doing?
The easiest way is to visit my website, Rhea Wong, R-H-E-A W-O-N-G.com.
Excellent. You are doing amazing work with fundraisers and helping them raise more money by doing exactly what we talked about today — by releasing their limiting beliefs, by changing their money mindset, and really fundraising in more impactful ways.
So thank you so much for joining us today. You’ve been enlightening!
Oh, Amy, thank you so much, and thank you for all that you do for the sector. I know you’ve been doing it for a while, and we all appreciate it, so thanks.
Thanks, Rhea. See you next time.