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Rhea Wong thinks about nonprofit burnout and reconnecting with donors


In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, our focus is on leadership. Throughout each episode, we’ll chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today.

On this episode, we sit down with Rhea Wong, founder of Rhea Wong Consulting and author of "Get That Money, Honey", to discuss:

  • Experiencing burnout as executive director of Breakthrough New York (7:43)
  • Her resource guide "Get That Money, Honey" (18:10)
  • How nonprofits need to change their approach to donor prospects (21:08)
  • Building trust with donors (30:05)
  • Creating more engaging nonprofit marketing (36:32)

Meet our guest

Rhea Wong-1Rhea Wong

Founder of Rhea Wong Consulting and author of the Get That Money, Honey

“One thing that might be helpful to your listeners that was certainly helpful to me is to recast yourself as not an extractor of resources, but rather a philanthropic advisor. Because when you're a philanthropic advisor, you are working on behalf of your client to help them make the best investment for them.”

Podcast Transcript 

Justin: Welcome to Group Thinkers, the podcast from RKD Group. I'm Justin McCord, and with me is Ronnie Richard.  

Ronnie, on today's show, we have Rhea Wong from Rhea Wong Consulting. Rhea came into our sphere by way of the bridge conference that happened recently where she was the closing keynote and did a dynamite job. And so, since then, I've gotten to know her a little bit, and that prompted us wanting to have her on the show. Tell us a little bit about Rhea. 

Ronnie: Yeah, Rhea. Rhea started her career at the age of 26, she was the executive director of Breakthrough New York. So, she's coming in―I know me personally at age 26, I barely knew what I was doing in my career or what I wanted to be―so she's here, executive director, and is, you know, thrown into this world of fundraising and didn't really know, kind of, what she was doing. And felt like she didn't really have any resources and kinda learned along the way. And ultimately, she talks about how she's, kind of, experienced some burnout―something that’s happening across the nonprofit industry. But she kinda stepped back after that and started her own consulting business, and now she works with nonprofits to kinda pass that knowledge forward. 

And a couple things that really stood out to me in the conversation was when she started talking about this focus on donor prospects and how everybody's after getting, you know, finding new donors and getting new donors, but there's not enough focus on retention, and this leaky-bucket syndrome that happens at organizations where you bring donors in and they just go right out the door. It's like, plug your bucket first, focus on that retention and keeping those donors, and then maybe you won't need to find as many new donors either. And then, she also talked a lot about, along the same vein, like, understanding what people's values are, and why they gave to your organization, and what that means to them and who they are. So, I think those things are really important right now; it’s, we're kinda going through this, I guess, transformation of the industry. Like, is that what you would call it, maybe, I guess? A new chapter? 

Justin: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely a new chapter. And I love that you hit on those points. You're gonna hear Rhea talk, and you're gonna hear her talk about the Grateful Dead. And so, that's kinda fun for me. You're also gonna hear her talk about, I think, the aspects of tribal marketing and the importance of understanding why someone is interested in you. Like, where do you align in values or perspective with your donors and your volunteers? And frankly, I think that's an area that, if we can better unlock it, we're going to see a surge in value in terms of the relationships that we have with our donors. So, some really interesting stuff. She is such a, a ball of energy, and so it's a fun conversation. And so, yeah. With no further delay, here is Rhea Wong on Group Thinkers. 

Rhea, you look excited. 

Rhea: I'm like, it's go time. Let’s do it. 

Justin: Okay. So, the last time you and I saw each other it was a couple weeks ago. We were standing on stage in front of a couple thousand people. And, you know, no big deal. You were rocking it, delivered closing keynote for the bridge conference that was a resounding success by all indications. Like, can we just rewind to that moment for a second? What did that feel like for you, to deliver a message of substance to that type of audience? 

Rhea: Well, I will tell you, Justin―and I put this on my LinkedIn―like, real talk, this is the biggest audience that I've been in front of, right? So, when I do keynotes, it's usually, like, a couple hundred people. So, I was a little scared. Not gonna lie. Not gonna lie. But actually, once I got going, I feel like I, I got into my rhythm. Hopefully, the message resonated with folks. You know, I tried not to take it personally when I saw people, like, leaving out the back. I was, like, I'm just gonna assume that you have a train to catch and this is not about me, which is sort of like fundraising too. Like, I'm just gonna assume, like, it's not because you hate me just because you got other things going on. But, yeah, it felt good. And, I mean, you tell me, you were in the audience, so I have no idea how it was received. But it felt, it felt like it landed. But you know?  

Justin: Oh, it totally landed.  

Rhea: Okay. 

Justin: Are you kidding me? I mean, like, look―and here's the thing: yes, there's gonna be people that have meetings or whatever, and they're trying to get to places. The crowd was so into it. And  

Rhea: -- Oh, cool. –  

Justin: and Ronnie, Rhea did a great job of, you know, with a, you know, let's call it 2,000 people there, creating points of interaction. So, stand up, sit down, talk to your neighbor, work out these three things, use some, some techniques to make it thoughtful and meaningful. And, and that was unique because it wasn't just a point of consumption. So, a lot of times … 

Rhea: Yeah. 

Justin: ... and, you know, keynotes are all shapes and sizes. Keynotes can be consumption minded where you're, you're just drawing off of what's being said. But I saw many people, like, testifying to what you were saying, Rhea, and so, that was awesome. And I think it went … 

Rhea: Thank you, Justin, I appreciate it.  

Ronnie: Yeah. I think people took stuff home, too, because I recall seeing on LinkedIn, you know, maybe, like, a week later, people referencing that closing keynote, somebody saying that the line “Are you playing to win or just not to lose?” really stuck with them. So, I think, I think it definitely hit. 

Rhea: Awesome. Thanks, Ronnie, I appreciate that. Yeah. I mean, I, I get really fired up, not necessarily because I love the spotlight but because I'm just so passionate about our sector and providing value. And, you know, I'm constantly sharing things that have helped me―ideas, books I've read, things I've come across―because I, like, it's a hard job. And there's so much that we're asked to do. And so, I feel like my role is, like, if I can make your job just a little bit easier or I can help you raise a little bit more money, then that's, you know, my thing is, really, how can I deliver the most value? So honestly, it would be more troubling to me to hear someone say, like, that wasn't actually that helpful or that valuable versus, like, oh, she stunk. Like, okay. 

Justin: Yeah.  

Rhea: Both things would suck, of course. But, like, to me, because my whole mission is, like, how can I deliver the most value to you? that would be the worst thing to hear. 

Justin: That's, that's really well said. It really is. You reference something, just in terms of your mindset and your approach and especially with the pressures that, that nonprofit leaders face. And, and that holds a special place in your heart because that's a part of your story. So, walk us back to, you know, 2005, around that time whenever you stepped into Breakthrough New York and what you experienced in terms of your time as a fundraiser and nonprofit leader. 

Rhea: Yeah. Thanks for asking. So, I tell the story a lot. I was 26 years old, so you can do the math. That's how old I am now. And I didn't know anything. Right? I was given the keys and an email address. And look, I don't wanna say I did it alone. I mean, I had a team. I had two-and-a-half staff members, including myself. So, on the tiny little team, I had a board. So, I, I also just wanna call out, like, I wasn't this lone ranger. But that being said, I mean, I hadn't had any experience with fundraising other than, like, selling candy bars, you know, for elementary school. And I think I did, like, a fundraiser for, you know, an AIDS marathon. Right? That was the sum total of my fundraising. And so, I think it's insane that we ask people to try to solve some of the most intractable problems in our society―education, reproductive rights, cleaning the environment, saving the whales―and give them zero. Like, many people have zero experience. I was just thinking about it today, I was getting my haircut: Pino in New York, you have to have something like 800 hours of training to be a barber. You know how many hours of training you need to have to be a fundraiser? Zero. You have to have a pulse.  

Justin: Just the pulse.  

Rhea: Just the pulse. So, I just, I remember being in that role and feeling totally hopeless, being very panicked, trying to try all the things. Right? ‘Cause I'm just, like, I just need to find something that works and knowing how it feels to, to feel like I don't know what I'm doing. I'm failing at my job, at a job that I care so deeply about, about a mission I care so deeply about. And, you know, the rest, like, sleepless nights, I'm sure you've been there, Justin, you know, waking up in a cold sweat at 3 o’clock, like, oh, did I send that email? Getting my PTSD talking about it. But I just don't want that to happen for other people. So, if I can save them at least one sleepless night, I feel like I will have done my job.  

But, you know, it wasn't really until I started to learn how to do it and I realized, not only was there a framework for it, but that we could teach people the skills, so they didn't all have to learn trial by fire. Right? I mean, so many of us have been thrown into the deep end and told to swim. Why don't we throw people floaties? Like, why don't we give them swimming lessons? We don't have to do this. And I think that's part of the reason why people burn out so much because they're in this situation that feels like they can't win and told that if they can't win, it's their fault. Like, they did something wrong. They're not grinding hard enough. They're not working hard enough. And I just think that that is not fair. 

Justin: It's so interesting. We've, in some ways, I think we've lost the value of mistakes, and we've also, we've created these scenarios where, yeah, you know, you think about a leader at a nonprofit of any size, and they are boxed in on the decisions that they have to make. Right? So, you know, you've got the board and/or executive team putting pressure from the top, You've got their direct reports putting pressure from the bottom. You've got program delivery putting pressure from one side. You've got donors putting pressure from another side. And so, you know, it should not surprise us the amount of burnout and or short-term decision making because it's just, ‘What do I have to do in this moment …  

Rhea: Yep.  

Justin: … to solve for this fundraising goal?’ So, let me just deal with that and not think about the long-term impact. And …  

Rhea: Yep.  

Justin: … it's, it's, you know, I don't know; it's not something that we―people can't continue to operate that way. That's why you're seeing the burnout rates that you're seeing. So, so did you burn out?  

Rhea: I think so. I mean, to be frank, I think I probably should have left my organization two years before I actually did. And I stuck around for those extra two years because I had to put everything in place to make sure that it was in a good place when I left. But, you know, my, my zest for it, I think, really burnt out earlier than I left. And, you know, I think about what I know now about Brain Science, which I didn't know then, which is, you know, our brains are only ever operating in one of two modes: survival or executive. And we spend 70 percent of our time in survival mode. And for nonprofit EDs, I would say probably it's more like 90 percent. Right? And so, what happens in survival mode is our brain is constantly on fire because we are perceiving everything as an attack as if it was a saber-toothed tiger coming at us. So, what do we do when we're in a threatened position? We either fight, we flee or we freeze. And I know a lot of fighters, right? Because, like, we come to the cause because we're so passionate and we believe in the thing. And so, what that looks like with fighting is putting in the hours grinding harder, but it doesn't actually help you to think expansively.  

So, I think, to your point, it … there's, like, short-term decision making. Because, frankly, when you're outrunning a saber-toothed tiger, you're not thinking, you know, about your next week or next year. Right? You're, like, how do I get another situation right now? Like, I'm gonna climb this tree right now. And I can't think about what climbing this tree is gonna be for me, like, a week from now. But, like, what's happening right now? Sorry. It's a metaphor that's sort of falling apart. But the point is, like, when we're constantly in that survival mode or constantly in that, like, we need to solve the problem right now, it really keeps us from long-term planning; it keeps us from creativity; it keeps us from coming from a place of responsiveness rather than reaction, right? We're always in the red zone. And, to your point, it's not sustainable. You cannot be in the red zone for a long period of time without physically, mentally and emotionally breaking down. 

Ronnie: So, when you're in this survival mode―and you said, you know, the last two years or so, you probably felt like you were either approaching burnout or at that stage―from there, kinda, what was your next step? Because then you started your consulting firm, right? And did you have to take a step back and think about, okay, now that I'm out of this, like, ‘go, go, go and do everything now’ phase, like, what do I wanna do? Or did you, kinda, have that moment earlier in time? 

Rhea: Yeah. That's a good question, Ronnie. So, I mean, truthfully, I actually joined a tech firm for about two-and-a-half months after I left being an ED because I just thought it'd be an interesting pivot. It was, sort of―there was a connection between the nonprofit world and tech. So, it wasn't, like, completely different. I quickly learned it was not for me, was not a fit. So, I jumped out. And for the first time in my life, I was, like, I don't know what's next. Like, what, what is this thing? Right? ‘Cause I'd always been defined by my job or, you know, when you're in school, it's like, okay, we know what we're doing. We're going in, like, high school and college and da, da, da. I'd never not had a job, and for, you know, a Chinese-American oldest daughter, like, that is, like, I don't even know who I am if I don't have a job to do. And so, for the longest, I would have to fight myself from when I answered my phone saying, “Rhea, Breakthrough New York.” I was like, no, no, no, I'm, I'm just Rhea. So truthfully, I had not intended to be a consultant. I picked up a couple of projects and in-between things between finding jobs. You know, I had a lot of friends who are EDs and are like, oh, you have some free time. Great. Here. Help me with this. So, one project led to the next, to the next. I was like, oh, I guess this is what I'm doing now.  

And the other thing is, like, I was seeing all these JDs, and I was, like, I zero percent wanna do any of these, you know. And truthfully, I think because I was burnt up, I think I was also getting some―I, I mean, I joke, and I say PTSD, but I actually do think there was some real PTSD with the experience. And then I, kinda, came to it, and this was, kind of, mid pandemic. I was like, what's the thing that everybody needs? Like, it was, like, two things. I surveyed my audience. Thing one was always about HR, you know: staff, talent stuff. And I was, like, I don't wanna touch that with a 10-foot pole. The other thing is fundraising. I was, like, well, you know what? Pretty good. I've figured out how to do this. I'm really curious about ways to do it better. And I think, you know, at the end of the day, if you have no money in the system, like, you have no lifeblood, I don't care how passionate you are, even Gandhi had to fundraise, right? And so, the other thing is, like, I care about a lot of things. Like, I care about many different issues, but I'm one person. I can't do all the things, but what I can do is help the people who are doing the things to get more resources to do the things. So, this was kinda my answer to, like, oh, this is how, this is how I multiply myself. Like, in the multiverse, I can support all these things by, what's that phrase? Like, teach a man to fish? Like, I'm teaching them all to fish so that they have enough fish. 

Justin: You found your passion in a different place. And, and I don't know that it's …  

Rhea: Yeah.  

Justin: … you know, the way that, that we go through life, things ebb and flow, and purpose can sometimes ebb and flow. And so, maybe there are points of pressure and even that burnout moment to where it's not that you were without passion, it's just that it was, it was masked by all of the pressures that you had been feeling. And, and so you went from, you know, a passion for helping students into a passion for actually creating students in some way, in terms of the nonprofit sector. And so, so then, so how does the book come into this? Like, what point in the journey did “Get that Money, Honey,” when did that spark into your soul? Like, how did you go about getting, getting that on paper? All of those pieces? 

Rhea: Yeah. So, I have to give a shout out to my co-writer, Isabella Masucci, who actually was my student back in the day. So, I've known her since she was 12 years old. And, I was doing my courses, you know, I was doing group coaching. And I was, like, you know what? This is great, but I am constrained by the amount of people who can, A: enter my courses, and B: frankly, afford them. I mean, they're not inexpensive. And yet I feel like the knowledge I have can be really helpful. So, I worked with Bella, and that was kind of my pandemic project. It was how about I just write down all of the stuff that people ask me about all the time that I teach and I just put it out there and I sell it for 15 dollars? Or, actually, even less if you're, you know, listening to it on Audible. Right? Because to me, again, it's how do I create the most value for people? And, you know, these basic frameworks are things that I learned after I was in the nonprofit sector. I was like, you know, this stuff would have been really helpful for me if I had learned this when I was an ED. And, unfortunately, with, you know, my board, bless their hearts, like, they were supportive, but there was never any explicit discussion about, like, how are we going to get you these skills to improve our outcomes? Because the thing is, like, we had great outcomes because the truth is, like, I just grinded harder. What's the past tense? Ground? Anyway.  

Justin: Ground? 

Rhea: Yeah. I, I was just, like, like, hustling. Right? And …  

Justin: Yeah.  

Rhea: … the thing is, as board members, they don't know how to fundraise either. So, it was just sort of, like, okay, like, the blind leading the blind, and I was, like, okay, there has to be a better way here. So, you know, I've always thought that there was a book in me. I thought, I thought it was the great American novel. Turns out it was a fundraising book. But, you know, more to come.  

I don't know if that answered your question other than, yeah, get the book. Read it. Do this stuff. I mean, it's really just reps. Right? Because I think the other thing is, people think that fundraising is so difficult and so mysterious. The truth is that A: it's not rocket science. Like, you can probably figure it out. And B: it's just a math problem. Right? So, the more people you talk to you, the more you put out there, the more nos you get, but the more yes’s you get. And so, I think, you know, I, I don't know if either of you work out or anyone listening works out, but it's like going to the gym. You just gotta do the reps. Like, you can't expect to go to the gym and lift 100 pounds the first time you go, right? You gotta work up to it, but it's really, it's, it's compounding the reps. That will get you the results. 

Ronnie: I'm curious, obviously, having been in the sector now that you're still in the sector but not directly at a nonprofit. Are there some things that you've seen, in the realm of fundraising, that's really stood out to you as things that either need to change or things that you just didn't realize when you were at a nonprofit? Kind of an open-ended question, but I'm just curious, like, how are, how are you seeing things for, you know, from the outside looking in more now? 

Rhea: Oh, Ronnie, Ronnie, Ronnie, where can I even begin? So many things. Okay. I'll tell you one of the things I gotta have a bug up my butt about right now is the concept of donors, right? Or donor prospects. So, the number one problem, everyone's like, I need more donors; I need more donors; I need more donors. Well, number one, that may be true, but, like, I often think the first place to look is your past donors. So, we all know it's cheaper to raise a dollar from someone who's already given than a new donor, And I think part of why we feel like we need to keep refilling the bucket is that the bucket is leaky. Like, you are losing so many donors out of the holes because our donor retention rates are really terrible. It's, like, what? 45 percent? 

Justin: Yeah 

Rhea: So, like, you're literally, like, you're not even, like, breaking even.  

Justin: Yeah. 

Rhea: Yeah. You're actively losing. So, my first thing is, like, okay, plug your leaky bucket. What do I mean by that? Look at your donor retention rates. Look at the touch points. And I think sometimes we have this idea of, like, well, I just, I sent the thank you note, and I, you know, put them on my newsletter. I'm like, well, obviously, that's not enough. Number one, you need to tell them, what did you do with their money? Because at the end of the day, it's an exchange. Right? It's a value exchange. So, like, if I go to Whole Foods, and I give them 20 bucks, and I get a peanut, like, if that was an exchange, we can argue whether it's a fair exchange or not. In the nonprofit sector…  

Justin: Because the peanut, by the way. It's really very good peanut. It's a very nice one.  

Rhea: Yeah. It's like a perfect peanut, you know? Picked at the height of dawn, by ferry, I get it.  

Ronnie: You just need one. 

Rhea: Yeah. Just one. But, but when we're giving a donation, there is an exchange. It's just a bit of a delayed gratification. Right? It's like, okay, I'm giving you money because I want to see a thing happen. I want some impact. I want, you know, the wells built, the kids educated, like, whatever. If you don't tell people what you did with their money, you're not closing that story. And so, people will feel like they got ripped off because it's, like, I gave you $20, and I didn't get my peanut. So, I think that's the first thing is we need to tell people what we did with their money. I also think we need to treat people like they’re people. Right? So often, I think, especially when you get into this, like, survival mindset, you get real transactional. And you stop seeing people as people, and you, and you start seeing them as just a walking checklist. Like, I gotta, like, get them to give me money. I gotta, like, figure out how to, like, extract And I think it's so much a mindset of this, you know, extractive capitalist system that we're living with is that we see people as resources to be extracted not as human beings that want to be part of something. So, I think that's thing one. I also think the other thing is, Ronnie, you just opened the whole can of worms. 

Ronnie: I told you it was open ended. 

Rhea: I think the question of value is really important here. So, as nonprofit leaders, we think about value for our beneficiaries, right, like, our clients, we think about, you know, how are we helping them? We don't think enough, I think, about the value that we're giving our donors. Because they're giving you a donation because they want something. And I don't mean, like, in that gross way, like, I want to be recognized, and I want you to kiss my butt and I want you to, like, my name on a building. I don't mean like that. I mean, they're giving because it's something about who they tell themselves that they are. They want to make an impact. They want to give back. They want to feel part of community. They want to teach their kids something. Right? Like, so figure out what that thing is, and then just give them more of it. And I think so often, I think now with this, like, trend in community-centric fundraising, which I don't think is a negative trend, but I also think we tend to think of providing value to our donor just like something dirty. Like, oh, like, it's in, like, we're getting in a white-savior complex. I'm like, no, no, no. Everybody wants to feel special, right? I talk about Danny Meyer here in New York. Danny Meyer, you know, he has Eleven Madison Park, and Gramercy Tavern, and he's a famous restauranteur, and he said, “Imagine everyone is walking around with an invisible sign around their neck that says, make me feel special.” And I think everyone deserves to feel special. So anyway, so that's, like, my bugaboo about donor retention. 

Justin: That's fascinating. So, so just a couple of comments there or thoughts as you walk through it. “Yes” is the first comment because, you know, we even, in the last month or so, we put out some research where we dug deep into trust and found that – I say found, it’s not surprising, but it's revelatory―that the trust factors, trust is actually built off of transparency and competency. 

Rhea: Mhmm.  

Justin: And being transparent and being competent means, tell me what you're going to do, do it, and then tell me that you did it. Right? Like, that's, that's all it comes down to. And then, likewise, it's about an emphasis on trust more than an emphasis on relationship. And we work so hard at the idea of being donor centered and donor centric in relationship fundraising, And those are terms that have been normalized for now 20 years. And in that same two-decade time frame, we've lost 20 million households that are giving. And maybe we should stop trying to be everyone's best friend and start being worthy of their trust in that follow-through.  

I'll give you an example, Rhea. A year ago, my son―he's 14―he was raising money for his soccer club to help offset costs for his club to go to Europe. And so, you know, it was, it was a significant fundraising ask and lesson. And this just gets dad fired up. Like, alright. I'm gonna teach him what this looks like. And so, making the initial ask: easy. He was super comfortable, like, recording quick little videos on his phone, sending them to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends and those sorts of things. And, and so, you know, he received all the pledges to hit his goal, which was fantastic. 

Then I said, okay, now after every game, you gotta follow through and tell them exactly what happened. Like, what happened in this game? What did you learn in this game? And why does their investment in you matter? Right? Because that's closing that loop. And I wonder if even the use of the word donation, that it, it's something that feels too much like charity and not enough like investment. And we thought about it like an investment. It would, in turn, require a return, right, in order for it to be a good investment? And so, yeah, I think that we, in so many ways, again, back to the idea of the pressure cooker, that our nonprofit friends live in that pressure cooker can sometimes build these behaviors that we get trapped in and don't know how to get out of. And that's a part of the gap and what's created these lower retention rates.  

Rhea: Yeah. Yeah. One thing that might be helpful to your listeners that was certainly helpful to me is to recast yourself as not an extractor of resources but rather as a philanthropic advisor. Because when you're a philanthropic advisor, you are working on behalf of your client to help them make the best investment for them. Right? And I think when we get ourselves out of this idea, like, I just need to, like, get all the money, and we're, like, huh. Can I find people who are aligned with the thing that I want to do, that I'm doing in the world, who also want to do this thing and, like, build a, you know, essentially matchmake? Right? Like, Justin, you tell me that you care desperately about whales? Guess what, we're saving the whales. How are we gonna do this? Like, let's do it together. And that feels so much less icky and extractive. Because I think the reason people think that fundraising is icky is it's been done in an icky way. It's been done in, like, a super-transactional extractive way, but we, you know, look at people like they are ATMs.  

And look, it takes time. That's the other thing. We have to have the patience to build the trust. Trust is not built overnight. But if we have no trust, we have no transaction. And so, if we're not willing to take the time to build the relationship of trust that you, Justin, know me, Rhea, and know that I'm gonna do good things, and I'm, you know, essentially, like, you're trusting me as a person because, like, you don't have the capacity to, like, go in and, like, check the books and all the programs. Right? And I think we need to understand that, like, trust is a long game. And I also think, as fundraisers, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of our donors. Like, does this generate trust if I ask you to go to coffee and the whole time I'm just, like, thinking about the checklist of things that I wanna say to you to, like, pitch you and, like, get you to do something for me? Like, that feels awful. Like, we all have been on that side of the equation where, like, you know, for me, it's going to a cocktail party and talking to someone and having them, like, look over my shoulder to see if there's, like, someone more important that they can talk to. Like, it feels terrible. Right?  

Justin: That does. Yeah.  

Rhea: And I think we … yeah. And so, like, how do we spend the time to build the relationship of trust? Anyway, I'm saying the same thing over, but, like, I think you and I are very aligned on that point.  

Justin: Yeah. No. I think we're totally aligned, and there is a, you know, we think that there is somewhat of a sobering that is starting to bubble up in the sector around these ideas. And, and it is gonna take a minute to stem the tide. But, you know, Rhea, I think the, the reality is that if you look at chapters of philanthropy, you could say that we're now at a post pandemic chapter. And so, we might be emerging in and starting a new chapter. And so, we're optimistic that that new chapter includes more of an emphasis on trust. And more of an emphasis on being authentic, not in the buzzy way that that word loses its meaning, but actually being a real person that's not going to think of someone at a cocktail party as an ID from their database and, instead, thinks of them as a real person and is engaged with them instead of worrying about, who’s that over there? Can I see their name tag from where I'm standing? Right? Like, we're at the formative stages to where these things are possible, and we think that's super exciting. Scary. Right? And, and unpaved in a lot of ways, but, it's an exciting time, I think, to be in the sector. 

Rhea: Yeah. I think it is, and I think there's a lot that the sector can learn from the for-profit world. And I think there's a lot the for-profit can learn from the nonprofit sector. But, you know, I wanna talk about donor prospects for a second. So, I just ran a poll on LinkedIn. And the final question is, like, why don't you have enough prospects? Right? The number one reason that everyone thinks that they don't have enough prospects right now is that they've tapped out their personal networks, which may or may not be true. I don't know. Right? So, A: I would say it's time to interrogate that because, I mean, have you literally called every single person that you know, and every single person who's on your database and every single person your board members are willing to give you access to? Probably not. But aside from that, then I think the next question is, like, how do we have a one-to-many approach? And that's where I think content marketing is really interesting. So, I feel like a lot more nonprofits need to be thinking about how do I build a marketing channel? Like, maybe it's YouTube. Maybe it's, I mean, god forbid, TikTok. Like, maybe it's a podcast. Like, how do I build a platform that lets people know that I'm out here doing the thing because so often we short shift marketing We just rely on this word of mouth and this very organic process, which, like, can work up to a certain point, but at some point, the well runs dry. Right? And so, you have to let other people know about the work that you do.  

And then, you know, there's a paid ad strategy too, which is, like, is a whole other thing. But I feel like before you can jump to a paid ad strategy, like, master one thing, and make sure that you've fully saturated that, and, you know, I love Alex Mozy, but he's, like, make a hundred calls a day. Like, until you're actually, like, making a hundred calls a day, like, you haven't tapped out your network. Like, I think people have a saying, like, “I've hit my ceiling.” Like, really? Have you? Because, you know, the math would suggest not because sending, like, a couple emails a day and making a couple phone calls a day, like, you probably have not reached every single person in your network. 

Justin: Yeah. We've heard that even, you know―so our focus is on the on the mass market, direct marketing side, and we hear that from organizations often of, you know, like, I've tapped out my audience. Like, I can't, you know, and, you know, so then there becomes maybe an over reliance on co-ops, etcetera, etcetera. And the reality is, you're not. You might be, you might be sending to too many people. You might be, you might not be focused in on the right people. Right? You might be looking at the wrong data attributes and making decisions. And, therefore, you think that you've tapped out. Or, like you said―which I love because it's how I cut my teeth, in sales at a minor league baseball club decades ago―was make a hundred phone calls a day. Right? Like, get on the phone and actually talk with people. Like, work through that grind, and see what you can learn from it, right? Because that can help inform some of your next decisions. What I really love, Rhea, is your, your desire, and it's become just, I mean, it's your mission at this point to provide resources, right, to, as you said, be a, be a resource that can teach nonprofit executives to fish. And so, you've got a handful of different resources. Why don't you tell us a little bit about where people can go, how they can learn more about learning and pick up tools that you offer. 

Rhea: I would love to. But can I respond to your one question before? Because I feel like it's really important.  

Justin: Of course. 

Rhea: Let's talk about marketing for one second because nonprofit marketing, by and large―not your clients, of course, Ronnie and Justin, but by and large―the marketing is so boring. It's boring. And I think we think that people's attention spans have gone by the wayside. That may be true, but I also think that the bar has raised, like, our standards for what we pay attention to has gotten higher. Right? Because look, no one is sitting there being, like, people aren't watching long-form Netflix shows― obviously they are―so …  

Justin: Right. 

Rhea: … you just have to be better. Like, you cannot recycle the same old crap. Like, I feel like in the nonprofit sector, we're so afraid to offend that we don't actually turn anybody on. And, like, I've never walked into a room in that, “You know, this beige is really great. Like, this beige color is really, it's really working for me.” Right? But I think as a sector, we are all really comfortable in beige. And, you know, and I think it's not our fault. Right? It comes from a lot of different pressures. And, like, the board, I don't wanna open myself to liability and my funders into this and then that. But here's the thing, we're on a mission to solve the biggest problems in the world. We have to be bold. We have to be willing to turn people off. Right? If we, if we don't turn anybody off, we're not turning anybody on. Nobody gets that excited about vanilla. Right? Like, vanilla ice cream, not that exciting. Mitch said this, “Pink Sherbet. Pink. People have very strong views about Pink Sherbet, either pro or con. Dare to be Pink Sherbet.” Vanilla is boring. No one's paying attention to vanilla. So anyway, all to say that I think we also have to think about when you're sending out, like, the millionth appeal or the millionth email and you're not getting a response, is it because your message is boring?  

Justin: No. It's, it's a worthwhile question. And again, it's like another point to me of how we might be at the beginning of a new chapter. Right, to be bold …  

Rhea: Yeah. 

Justin: … and take chances. And this, now that we're emerging from the fog of the last couple of years, that now's the time, even while the pressure is increasing, right? You've got costs that are still high―now costs have stabilized on a lot of marketing efforts, but they're still higher than what they were pre pandemic. You've got response that is dropping. It's creating even more of a retention vacuum And so, what do you have to lose by taking a chance on doing something different and doing something bold? 

Rhea: Well, I'm, I'm just gonna call you out right now. So, for folks listening to the pod, Justin has a wall behind him of Grateful Dead posters. Let's talk about the Grateful Dead and how this applies to marketing. Right? Number one, they did the reps. Like, how many seasons on the road have they done? Right?  

Justin: Oh my god, 50 years on the road. 

Rhea: 50 years on the road. They did the reps. Like, the first time they went out, they probably sucked. Right? After 50 years of touring, they're probably pretty freaking good at what they do. Number two, they've cultivated a community. They call themselves The Dead Heads. These are people who will see their show hundreds of times, follow them all throughout the country and the world, know every song, like, know everything. Right? So, it's about cultivating a passionate community. Like, you're not for everybody, but for the people that you're for, they love you. Like, you are a Dead Head till you die. Am I right?  

Justin: Yeah. Right on. 

Rhea: And then the third thing, I just wanna point out, like, look at these beautiful posters. You can't look at a Grateful Dead poster and be, like, oh, I don't know, I don't, that doesn't really speak to me. Right? Like, I don't know who that is. Like, they have a very clear aesthetic, a very clear point of view, a very clear brand. So, I think these three things; I mean, I could probably pull out more. I don't know that much other Grateful Dead, but, like, it's instructive for fundraising. 

Justin: It is. I'm gonna add a fourth. And … 

Rhea: Yeah. 

Justin: … and I'm gonna go as far as to say, they, for me, are an originator of modern content marketing. Now, let me break that apart for a second. In their formative days when they started touring and having concerts, etcetera, once they got a record deal, record labels wanted to make sure that they were doing in-studio work, albums, right, and that that was driving the brand forward. But The Dead had figured something out. What their fans loved was to actually record live concerts and then trade those recordings for free.  

Rhea: Mhmm.  

Justin: And so, they fought and fought against the studio to allow their fans to record for free. And, and so much so that it became a part of the subculture of those that follow The Dead to trade tapes. And, you know, if you listen to the serious Dead stations, they will play concerts from 1972 or 1983 or 1994, whatever it is. And, and so it creates this avenue for giving away your resources, giving away what you're good at, giving away what you know, which I think helps elevate belief and buy in and authenticity between the content creator and the end recipient. 

Rhea: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Totally. Wait. Two more things about The Dead that I think is really interesting, too. Number one is that they have always been completely themselves. Like, it's not, like, they walked into the studio and they're like, we're gonna turn you into, like, this kind of band, like, gonna turn you to the next Beatles. Like, that that was never the thing that they did, which I think speaks to the power of, like, knowing who you are. There was a second thing I had, but I completely forgot. So … but, anyway, I think that The Dead is instructive. Like, you know, and so for anyone listening, I think take anything that you love and deconstruct it. Like, what, how did you come to love this thing? How do people cultivate the community around this thing? Like, the BTS Army, like, let's talk about the BTS army for a second. Like, they are rabid fans. They will show up. No, I mean, they'll do all the things. Right? They will literally, apparently, watch BTS while they're sleeping. That's a whole weird creepy thing. Anyway, the point is, though, that it's about your thousand true fans. And how do you―you know, you're not for everyone, like the Grateful Dead, not for everyone, but for people they’re for, they are for them. 

Justin: Yeah. There's something uniquely powerful about tribes. And, you know, there's lots of learnings, lots of resources available, and you know, I think, maybe more important than ever for our friends that lead nonprofits to understand and, and lean into whatever their tribe is in terms of people, they're constituents. Because it's not just about those that invest their dollars. It's also those that invest their time, you know, that, that come alongside missions and give up their time. That's investing in another way. It's a tribe that you can activate into, you know, being an ambassador for you outside of it. So, yeah,  

Rhea: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's about, like, give, give, give, then ask. Right?  

Justin: Mhmm.  

Rhea: You know, then that's kinda how I purchase it. Like, I give so much for free. I have my podcast. I give resources, to your point. And for every give, there's not a requisite ask. And I think when people get that equation wrong, when it's like ask, ask, ask, ask, ask, ask, ask, then give, like, that's when people get tired. Like, that's when you don't inspire trust. That's when it starts to feel extractive. Right? So how can we as nonprofits, like, give to our donors? And again, I don't mean, like, swag. Like, no one wants more crap in their house. Right? I mean, like, what is the, what is the emotional experience that you are giving to people that rewards them for being a fan? Right? I think about, like, Disneyland. So, I have a friend of mine who brought her grandson to Disneyland. And they stayed at the Disney Hotel. And every day, they left; they came back in, like, Micky was positioned in a different position. Like, he was, you know, reading the newspaper, he was, like, sitting in the back, and then the little three year old was, like, oh, Mickey moved while we were at Disneyland, and it seems like little moments of magic that I think we forget. Like, we forget to make it special. We forget that we're all looking for some kind of emotional experience. So, I mean, you know, the best thank you I ever got from donating to an organization is I got a handwritten note, not from the ED, but from a kid. Right? And it, it wasn't long. It was like, “Hi, this is my name.” You know, thank you for this. Like, it did x, y, z. And they remember that. And I, like, put it on my fridge because it was meaningful. Because I think, again, when we forget the humans, we forget the humans! 

Justin: Yeah. Yeah. And, and it's so much right now and going forward, it's about creating experiences, to your point. Right? Creating moments and letting those moments be what we can deliver back. You know, delivering back. When we think about impact, too many times we're thinking about that annual report PDF that, you know, ain’t nobody interested in. It's not that helpful. But if you can deliver experiences back, right? You know, this past weekend, my family and I, we all went and spent some time with a relief and development organization which has a facility here in the Dallas area, and we packed food and packed boxes. And we were doing logistical work as a part of a crew of, I don’t know, 50 different volunteers. And at the end of our time, they said, in the two hours that you've been here, you've packed this many boxes. That equates to this many kids in this country who are going to be fed.  

Rhea: Mhmm. 

Justin: And, like, you immediately felt the impact just by hearing them line those things out. And then, of course, they brilliantly threw a QR code up and said, look, we can, you know, what you've done today is incredible. Perhaps you want to go a step further. And so, they made the donation ask. And I thought it was such a great way to activate and share the ultimate impact in real time with someone. 

Rhea: Yeah. Well, and, and I think how much more powerful too it would have been if they'd had a conversation with you afterwards about, like, what does that mean for your family? Right? Because ultimately, I think I'd like to believe as parents, we all want our children to be good people. We want to teach them values and why it's important to care about your community. So, like, by reinforcing that message, like, why did you go with your kids? Obviously, you wanted to teach them something. Right? So, if I entered into a conversation with you to help you reiterate in your own brain, like, oh yeah, this was about values. This was about teaching my kids something, something I hope that they become in the future, like, caring, community-oriented people. Like, that's a partnership for a long term because it then demonstrates that I'm not just thinking about this right now on these bags packed, but I am thinking about you and what you want for your kids in the future. 

Justin: Totally agree. Totally agree. Rhea, you are a bright light, my friend.  

Rhea: Oh, thank you, friend. And, Ronnie, I'm sorry. I feel like we haven't brought you into the conversation at all.  

Ronnie: I'm, I'm just sitting here taking it all in. I'm enjoying it.  

Rhea: This is what we you get when you get two chatterboxes on the line. 

Justin: Ronnie’s familiar. He's, he puts up with 

Ronnie: It happens. 

Justin: Listen, for our listening audience, we gotta ask for you something for you to consider. You know, I want you to go check out That's On the site, you can get access to her newsletter. And so, she has promised pictures of her cute pup alongside resources. From―what's the pup's name, by the way?  

Rhea: Her name is Stella. 

Justin: That's my daughter's name. So, let's not confuse the two, or maybe we do a joint newsletter, and we include my daughter and your pup. 

Rhea: I mean, two Stella's are better than one. Right?  

Justin: That's true. That's true. So, so Rhea and Stella available in the newsletter. If you could check out, you can also go there to learn more about the accelerator course. You can learn more about her book, “Get That Money, Honey,” as well as her podcast and all things, Rhea. Rhea, thank you for hanging out with us today.  

Rhea: Justin, Ronnie, thank you so much for having me. This is a really fun conversation. I'm sure we could go for, like, three more hours, but, you know, we gotta limit the podcast. I get it. 

Justin: Yeah. Yeah. You gotta, you gotta limit it at some point. We gotta leave people hankering for more. So, we'll do it again.  

Rhea: That's right. That's, yeah. Wait. Let's do it again because I, I feel like I have, I mean, you and I could riff on any number of topics that get me fired up. 

Justin: Lots of Bees. We got lots of Bees in our bonnet that we're gonna have to tackle over time, Rhea.  

Rhea: That's right. That's right. Very cool. Alright, friend. We'll catch up with you soon.  

Alright. Thank you so much, Ronnie. Thank you, Justin. 

Group Thinkers is a production of RKD group. For more information, including how you can partner with RKD to accelerate growth for your fundraising and nonprofit marketing needs, visit 


RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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