The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 33

The Role of Curiosity in Major-Gift Nonprofit Fundraising, with Rhea Wong

In this Episode:

Studies have shown that as much as 88% of a nonprofit’s donated funds come from just 12% of their donors. That trend is only increasing, as a larger portion of all donations is coming from a smaller number of people. Each nonprofit might define a major gift differently, but the need to cultivate and maintain relationships with major gift donors is undeniable.

Unlike clearly defined grant applications or other sources of funding, donors are individuals without instruction manuals, and they want to be treated as such (and not as checkbooks). How can a nonprofit fundraiser identify prospective major gift donors and what does it take to build a relationship?

Major gift fundraising consultant Rhea Wong teaches people how to (and how to love) major gift fundraising. She believes it comes down to having a system and developing a curiosity mindset, and she joins us this episode to lay out an effective approach to both.

Listen to this Episode

[00:00:18.110] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast, and podcast. Where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better word for all of us. Da-Ding!

[00:00:22.050] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, I’m very excited to have Rhea Wong, who is the founder of the eponymous Rhea Wong Consulting. Rhea helps nonprofits raise more money, which is something I think we all agree is a good thing. 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 the New York Nonprofit Media’s 40 under 40 in 2017.

[00:00:59.130] – Boris
Rhea lives in Brooklyn, my hometown, with her husband and the world’s most spoiled dog, Stevie Wonder Dog. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast, Nonprofit Lowdown, or on stage as a newbie stand up comedian in downtown Brooklyn. For more information, you can check out We’ll have that link later on. Her superpower is teaching people how to and how to love major gift fundraising. So that’s her impressive bio. Let’s bring Rhea on to the show to tell us more. Hey, Rhea. How are you doing?

[00:01:34.830] – Rhea Wong
Hi. I’m good. Thank you, Boris. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting.

[00:01:38.190] – Boris
It’s awesome to have you honestly. And I didn’t realize that first of all, hilarious name for the dog, but I didn’t realize that you were doing your stand up comedy in downtown Brooklyn. I’m in Jersey now, but I’ve got to make my way over. Maybe after the show, we could talk about how to see you do the thing.

[00:01:57.330] – Rhea Wong
Well, the pandemic has definitely put a damper on the open mics, but I like to say I bombed all over downtown Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. So bombing in a dive bar near you.

[00:02:09.450] – Boris
Well, I’m sure it’s made you a better storyteller. I know all my bombing experiences have made me one. So let’s talk today about you and the work that you’re doing. You heard me read your bio, of course. And it’s got some very impressive awards there. Why don’t you tell us your story, though? How did you become the expert in nonprofit fundraising that you are?

[00:02:32.910] – Rhea Wong
Yeah, well, actually, it’s funny. Stand up comedy kind of comes into this, which is that I think a lot of people are really scared of donors and major gift donors. And to that, I say, okay, just do a five minute stand up comedy set and after that you’re bulletproof. If you can do that, everything else is easy. Especially if you bomb, you’re bulletproof after that.

[00:02:58.590] – Boris
I think we just got a million dollar idea, which is acting training or stand-up comedy training for fundraisers.

[00:03:05.790] – Rhea Wong
Oh, yeah. No, I’ve been on that train. I wanna get my students to do five minute stand up routines, but I feel like it would be a mass exercise and they would all quit. So how did I start? So I was actually a 25 year old or 26 year old executive director, which you know, in hindsight, I’m like, that seems like a bad idea to hire a 26 year old. But at the time, I was like, “Yeah, I can figure it out. I’m smart. There’s nothing I can’t do.” I talk about this all the time, which is my first day on the job I did two Google searches. Search one was, what does an executive director do? And the second was how to fundraise. So to say I was an amateur is generous. It would be a generous term. So over the course of twelve years, when I started the budget was something around $250,000 a year. By the time I left, twelve and a half years later, our budget was up to $3 million a year in private philanthropic funds. So I figured it out. But it took me twelve years to do it.

[00:04:07.230] – Rhea Wong
And so when I started my consulting practice, actually, initially, I wasn’t doing major gift fundraising training. I was doing a lot of a little of this, a little of that. And then I thought, like, what’s the thing that I really am good at and actually enjoy? And it turned out to be major gift fundraising. So what I do is I run what I call the fundraising accelerator a couple of times a year where mostly executive directors and some development directors enroll for an eight-week boot camp around how to be a major gift fundraiser. So I’ll pause there. That’s my story. But I don’t know if you want me to elaborate.

[00:04:43.050] – Boris
Well, I think we’re gonna elaborate as we talk. I think first of all, an accelerator sounds pretty great. I’m sure we’ll be able to find information about that on your site, which we’ll link to in the show notes. I also really… I mean, I love the approach, and I love that you were able to learn on your feet. But now I think it’s great that you’re helping other people not have to make all those mistakes for twelve years to get to where you are.

[00:05:11.323] – Rhea Wong

[00:05:11.710] – Boris
So let’s dive in and let’s pull out some of that knowledge that you’ve accumulated, not just in those twelve years, but ever since as a consultant and everything you’ve been doing. From a donor perspective, from a fundraiser, I should say perspective and specifically, I guess in the scope of major gifts, which is what you’re specializing in, what’s going on in the nonprofit world today?

[00:05:34.510] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So actually, you cited a statistic, which I thought was interesting, which is that overall philanthropic giver, like the smaller donors, are going down at the same time that major gifts are going up. And so I just pulled a couple of data points from 2021. And when we look at it, 69% of all philanthropic gifts given nationally are given from individuals, which accounts for 75 billion with a B dollars. Right? So, obviously, there’s a lot there. I think the challenge that we have is that we…Especially for the smaller nonprofits, there seems to just be like this desperation of like, we just need to get any money in the door. Right? So we do a little bit of everything, but don’t really make a lot of progress on any one thing. So it’s like we have our year end appeal. And maybe we do… Like we’re doing an online giving campaign and maybe we’re doing a social media campaign, and maybe we’re also doing grants. And I think all of those things are important things to do.

[00:06:43.270] – Rhea Wong
I tend to be pretty pragmatic. What is the biggest bang for my buck from an ROI perspective? And so what’s historically true is that 80% of your budget will be provided by 20% of your donors. So I think… And again, some people may disagree with me on this, but it seems to me from an efficiency standpoint that if you could just focus on that 20% that’s giving 80% of the dollars, that’s a really good foundation around which to build a fundraising program for sustainability into the future. A couple of other statistics I just wanna cite to you: the largest growing wealth demographic in the world is actually what they call high-net-worth individuals. So that’s 30 million in assets and above. And I think that grew like 30% just last year alone. And it’s also cited that there are 53.1 million millionaires in the world.

[00:07:36.970] – Rhea Wong
So like statistically speaking, especially since we live in the US, which is the second wealthiest country after Switzerland, PS, just in case you don’t know. Statistically, you probably know millionaires and you just don’t know it yet. So I think there’s so much opportunity out there. There’s such incredible wealth out there. And I think really, major gift fundraising starts with first recognizing that there’s a lot out there. Like there’s a world of abundance. We just have to ready to go look for it.

[00:08:11.030] – Boris
So I’m gonna just push back slightly or actually give the flip side of that argument, which is, yes, I know the Pareto principle 80-20. And the majority of funding often for nonprofits comes from 20% of their donors. Maybe it is 80%. Maybe it’s higher for some organizations. Isn’t that a little bit of a precarious situation to be in though? Because if let’s say that comes from a certain, I don’t know, 15 people and three of them drop out in a given year, that’s a huge portion of your budget that might go away. What do you say to people who don’t wanna be overly dependent on these major gift owners?

[00:08:52.430] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So I… So a couple of things I would say, I’m not saying to focus on just those major gift owners, but I am saying, have a strategy for those major gift owners. Right? So, as an organization, your goal should always be towards diversification and bringing more people up into that major gift category. So to your point that you’re not depending on those three people or those ten people. Right? And so… But I think the base of building that momentum really has to come from a small group that are like passionate about your cause and then you grow out from there. So I’m not saying you stay small, but you start with something that you can wrap your arms around. Does that make sense?

[00:09:34.610] – Boris
It does. It does. And now I’ll play devil’s advocate to myself and support your argument, too, because, yes, you definitely wanna diversify. And we talk a lot on this show about how to attract more people to your cause. But there’s also the idea that if you could get some major donors, for example, to sponsor some of your overhead so that you could say that all donations go to your programs. That’s a big selling point. And hopefully the types of strategies that you teach, we’re gonna be able to pick up more of the major gift high wealth individuals so that we’re not dependent on as few as we might be currently.

[00:10:15.170] – Rhea Wong
That’s exactly right. Which, like the name of the game, is always about how do we continue to bring people into our community, bring people into our list of supporters and continue? And I think this is where, as a nonprofit sector, where notoriously bad is steward them so that they continue giving year after year. Now, that’s not to say that someone is gonna give to you forever and ever. Right? Like circumstances change, people change their minds, right? So even if you have the best stewardship in the world, you’re not gonna necessarily get to 100%. But I can’t remember exactly. I think across the sector, our donor retention rates are 45%. Like that’s a terrible statistic. And so if we could actually spend more of our time focused on stewardship, we could actually spend less of our time having to constantly attract new donors because we could count on the ones that we have, you know, as we say. And you know, in business, it’s cheaper to make money off of a client you already have than to get a new client.

[00:11:17.450] – Boris
Absolutely. Retention is cheaper than acquisition. Absolutely.

[00:11:20.810] – Rhea Wong
That’s exactly right.

[00:11:21.590] – Boris
So let’s back up for just a second. We’re talking about major gifts, and I realize this might mean something different for different organizations. But can we define what a major gift is?

[00:11:33.470] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So again, it depends. And maybe there’s some, like metric out there that I’m not aware of. But I think it depends on whatever you consider to be a major gift. So, generally speaking, rule of thumb, I will advise organizations to look at the span of gifts and then look at the top end of individuals. So I’m speaking exclusively here about individuals. I think foundations are a different thing. Corporate is a different thing. Events are a different thing. So there are different strategies for different types of revenue streams.

[00:12:07.190] – Rhea Wong
So let’s talk about individuals, but let’s look at your spread and say, oh, it looks like we have, you know two people who’ve given $10,000 last year and then, you know, probably a few more have given five, a few have given more, et cetera. So you might decide that, okay, ten might be our major gift number. How are we going to steward the people that we have on our pipeline to get some number of them up to this $10,000 mark? So it’s both an art and a science. I’m not going to say unless someone else there has like a hard and fast strategy. Then please let me know. But I think it’s more kind of like rule of thumb and what makes sense for your organization. Obviously, a major gift for a small nonprofit is gonna be different than a major gift for the Met Opera, that’s apples and oranges. We’re not even talking the same thing. The key really is just to have a goal of some sort.

[00:13:00.710] – Boris
I think that’s a great analogy with the Met Opera versus a small organization. Which makes me wonder if maybe there is a number out there and maybe if someone’s listening can let me know where a major gift might be considered anything over a percentage of your budget, like say over 3% of our budget. Well, that’s a major gift or over 1% depending on what the budget is and what your donors are.

[00:13:23.810] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. If there is, let me know. I’d be curious about that.

[00:13:27.710] – Boris
Yeah. So, okay, now that we know pretty much what a major gift is and we can all figure it out for ourselves based on our budget and how many donors we have and what ranges are giving in, what is a major gift strategy then?

[00:13:45.230] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. Well, let me back up, too, Boris. I actually think what’s really interesting to me about major gift strategy and giving is I like to call it kind of the jazz of fundraising. I think things like foundation… And again, grain of salt. I know this doesn’t apply to all foundations everywhere, but to me, foundation fundraising, or even like year end fundraising or corporate sponsorship fundraising or event fundraising. There’s a formula, right? Like we get it. It’s like, okay, you submit the RFP, then the program officer comes for a visit, then whatever. Then they get reviewed by a board and then you get it and then you do reports. So it’s all very laid out.

[00:14:28.250] – Rhea Wong
I think the reason why people feel nervous about major gift fundraising is they are people. And people are unpredictable and you don’t know what they’re gonna say. And everyone wants something different. Right? And so I think that’s why it’s hard to find training around major gift fundraising, because a lot of it can be, you know, I know your acting training might come into play here. It’s improvisational. You’re like, I’m just gonna like figure out what I think the next best thing is, right. And a lot of it is learned on the job. A lot of it is like wisdom that you learn from having made mistakes, honestly.

[00:15:04.610] – Rhea Wong
So, that being said, let’s talk about a major gift strategy. So once you determine whatever you decide is a major gift, and once you’ve evaluated your pipeline, right? So these are people who’ve given to you in the past. These are potential prospects. These are maybe friends of your board members, volunteers. There’s just like a universe of people out there. Right? So you have… There’s a big pool. And generally speaking, your best prospects for a major gift are people who have given in the past. Right. So what’s a likely indicator of the future is past behavior. So if they’re giving you a small gift, they may actually be able to give you a big gift.

[00:15:43.910] – Rhea Wong
And this is…I’m just gonna give a little pet peeve issue here. My pet peeve is when people sit around and they say things like, “Why don’t we just call Jeff Bezos or MacKenzie Scott or Oprah or Mark Zuckerberg?” It’s like, okay. First of all, unless you actually legitimately know them, that is not a useful suggestion. And also, why would some random celebrity or wealthy person give you a gift out of nowhere? Like this doesn’t… Look, obviously, in the case of MacKenzie Scott, yes, she did kind of give gifts out of nowhere. I think we’d all agree that that is a very outlier case.

[00:16:24.350] – Rhea Wong
So what I think you do is once you have this pool of potential people who might be more generous to your organization, then I think you do an evaluation and you do it against four different metrics. You do it against affinity. So is there some evidence that your cause is the cause of your potential prospect? If it turns out that they’re big into the environment and you’re an education program, like I don’t know. This may not be their thing, right? Number two, capacity. And again, there are lots of wealth screening tools out there which are kind of creepy. But you can do a sort of a cursory, especially where a small nonprofit and can’t afford it. You can find out a lot of stuff on Google. So some indications of wealth that I would look at are, you know, are they… What is their job? You can find out on LinkedIn. Have they made any political contributions? That’s public information. Where do they live? That’s usually an indication. So if they live in a particularly ritzy zip code, that’s an indication. Are they pictured at any other fancy galas? Are they listed in other annual reports, right? So there’s data that you can get that you don’t have to pay for. So that’s capacity. So, you know, if you’re trying to identify a major gift donor and they fit all three criteria, but they don’t actually have money to give, then they’re not a major gift prospect.

[00:17:49.190] – Rhea Wong
Number three is relationship. So this goes to the Jeff Bezos thing. Do they have some kind of relationship with your organization or with your board or with your staff? Because if they don’t, then it’s basically like, well, let’s just call Oprah because we’re an education organization, and we know Oprah loves education like people give to people. And then the fourth is recency. And so ideally, you’re engaging and potentially looking at people who have been in contact with you within some reasonable period of time. Six months is probably a good rule of thumb, even a year. But if like someone once gave you a gift and they didn’t hear from you for five years, they’re probably not your hottest prospect.

[00:18:33.270] – Rhea Wong
So you look at all these metrics. And again, you can refine these. Right? It’s not like you have to have everything buttoned up straight away. But you have this list of 20. I like to call it 20 because that feels like a manageable list. And then you do the hard work of actually just like picking up the phone or emailing them and engaging them in the conversation. So if they’re not answering your emails or responding to your phone calls or responding to a letter, I like to try, you know, three different times. If after that, they’re not responsive, then they get dropped down to the B list. Right? Because either they’re trying to tell me they’re not interested or somehow they’re like too busy to actually respond, which means that they’re probably too busy to even meet me in the first place. Right? So it’s just constant refreshing of the list.

[00:19:20.370] – Rhea Wong
And then at every stage, and I like to say, you know, call it weekly, you do a review. Okay, where are we on this top 20? And what do we need to do to move these people forward? And so we think about what kind of opportunities, what kind of cultivation things can we do in order to bring them in closer? Because every move you make should be designed to bring them in closer and to engage them further and to get them more in love with you. It’s like… I use the dating analogy all the time, right?

[00:19:48.150] – Boris

[00:19:48.870] – Rhea Wong
Every date should be moving towards something, inevitably, maybe a proposal, right. In this case, a solicitation. But it’s always about building a relationship and creating more of a bond and being really specific about that. Now, the other thing is and I think this is why it’s tricky, is everyone wants something different. Right? Some people really wanna go on all of the dates and get wine and dine and go to the symphony. Right? Other people are like, just send me an email, tell me what you want. So you’re gonna have to know that. And you’re gonna have to ask the question.

[00:20:25.770] – Rhea Wong
And so I think the theme of this whole conversation was about curiosity. So the curiosity is, find out who your people are. Ask them the question. Ask them how they wanna be communicated with. Ask them if they wanna be invited to events, ask them if they wanna come to volunteer, ask them if they wanna come see the program. You won’t know unless you ask the question. And I think so often we’re so afraid of screwing it up that we don’t even ask the question so we assume. And for us, you know what happens when you assume.

[00:20:57.070] – Boris

[00:20:57.070] – Rhea Wong
And then, you know, once you’ve developed the cultivation touchpoints, I usually like to say about two or three really good touchpoints before the solicitation. Because if you wait too long to ask, then you get into that weird friend zone. No one wants that or a very, very long engagement. No one wants that. And then after you ask, then you have a stewardship strategy. And so again, this goes back to the point of making sure that we plug that leaky bucket. I like to say seven touchpoints of thank you and gratitude before you even think about asking for the next gift. Because if they only hear from you when you want money, they’re gonna stop answering your phone calls. Let me pause there. I just dumped a whole lot of information on you. Does that answer your question?

[00:21:44.230] – Boris
It answered my question in spades. And I didn’t wanna stop you because you were sharing so much great information there. But now let’s kind of go back and look at it and maybe break it down a little bit for folks. So first, you were talking about the affinity and the reasons why they might give based on relationship capacity and affinity and recency. It sounds like a lot of that goes into what we commonly talk about on this show, and I know you talk about a lot as well is, the donor avatar.

[00:22:20.530] – Rhea Wong
Yeah, definitely.

[00:22:22.330] – Boris
So what are you gonna put into that avatar? I know when I do one, I’ve got the demographics and psychographics. What are you looking for in those, Rhea, when you’re looking for a major gift donor?

[00:22:36.970] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. That’s such a good question, actually. And thank you for saying that because I think as you’re looking at your pool of prospective donors, that would be a good time to work on your donor avatar. So generally, your donor avatar is a person who is either currently donating to you or that you want to donate to you. And you’re thinking that if I had just like 10 or 20 more of these people, that would be great. Right. So exactly your point Boris, you break it down into two different dimensions. The first is demographic. So the things that you can see they’re, you know, married, not married, living in this like college graduate…

[00:23:16.450] – Boris
Financial status.

[00:23:17.470] – Rhea Wong
Have kids, financial status. Like all of the things that you can see externally. Then the psychographics is about the stuff that happens internally. What do they hope for? What do they fear? What do they dream of? What is their vision of the world? What do they value? What do they wanna leave behind? Right.

[00:23:34.570] – Boris
And that’s where the affinity really comes in.

[00:23:37.150] – Rhea Wong
That’s where the affinity comes in. The way that I recommend people do is that they have a hypothesis, right? Just fill in the sheet. Literally put a picture of a person. This is Liz. Here is what she…This is how she spends her free time. This is where she went to school, et cetera. Then pick up the phone, ask to have a conversation. And it’s not a conversation about money, but interview your donor because I think the other thing that we don’t do in the nonprofit world is that we don’t make time for market research, you know. I can’t visit a freaking website without it asking if I wanna take a survey at the end. The answer is no, I don’t. But they’re asking the question. And so I think we have to be fearless about asking people. We have to ask them their opinions. We have to ask them what they value. First of all, people like talking about themselves. And secondly, it gives you really important insight into how to sharpen your approach and how to sharpen your marketing to attract your ideal donor.

[00:24:38.530] – Boris
So oftentimes, when I’m teaching people how to basically grow their base, I’ve got a course “Growing Beyond your Base.” I have them fill out these avatars, and I have this survey basically that I want them to conduct, and that could be online. But of course, it is better, especially with high touchpoint kind of concierge approaches to the major gift owners. It’s much better to do it in person. And we do. We ask… ideally, you already have one or two people whom you can go to and talk to them and ask them these types of questions. They’re already fans of yours. They’re fans of your work because they’re supporting you. They’re gonna wanna give you some of their time to help you find more people like them…

[00:25:19.867] – Rhea Wong

[00:25:20.470] – Boris
Which is exactly what you wanna do. And they’re gonna feel more valued because you’re not just asking them for their money. You’re asking them for what makes them a person that cares about these things and helping build the organization. There’s just so many wonderful things that come out of interviewing somebody, and you could structure it as a formal interview, or you could just, you know, ask for a conversation.

[00:25:44.530] – Rhea Wong

[00:25:44.530] – Boris
You could just ask questions and really get to know them as a human being. Everybody loves to feel like a human being rather than a checkbook.

[00:25:51.850] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. No one wants to feel like a checkbook, right? And especially now, I think the strength of our relationships and the ability to connect is more important than it’s ever been. I think we all felt really disconnected during the pandemic. And so the more you can show that not just that you understand and care about them as humans, but that you are also a human, just makes it better. I say this a lot, when I started fundraising, I didn’t know anything about fundraising, but I had a good idea and a good personality. I could talk to anybody. Right? Look, obviously, there’s some percentage of people in this world who find me obnoxious and like wanna roll me down the hill in the barrel. But generally speaking, I get along well with most people. And I think that willingness to connect, that willingness to reach out, that willingness to ask questions and engage in conversation goes… Basically, that is major gift fundraising. Here’s the big secret guys. I’m teaching you guys how to have a conversation. That’s it. That’s the secret.

[00:26:53.410] – Boris
And it’s an important one. And it’s actually… I know it’s difficult for a lot of people, and I think that even for professionals who have been at this for a long time, a lot of them, they feel like they don’t wanna bother their donors. They don’t wanna, you know, nag them. They don’t want to basically give them any reason to feel like they’re being annoyed by you. And so they’d rather like be hands off until it’s time to interact with them for a very specific reason. And I think that backfires because, like you’re saying, people want to be treated like humans. They want touchpoints of gratitude. They want to feel like they’re in a relationship with you of some sort that is beyond just, “Oh, it’s time for money. Here you go.”

[00:27:36.430] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. It’s about closing… It’s not about closing a gift. It’s about opening a relationship. So again, let’s have a little dating analogy here, but… by not calling the donor and engaging with them as a donor, they’re telling themselves a story and you’re telling yourself a story. But these two stories are really different. Right? So their story is like, “Oh, they don’t really care about me. They only care about me when it’s time to raise money and they want a check.” The nonprofit’s mind is, “I don’t really wanna bother them. I don’t wanna be annoying, right?” But again, unless you ask the question, herein lies the role of curiosity. You won’t ever know. It could be that someone is like look, I find it annoying when you reach out to me every month. Fine. Great. Thank you for telling me. What would you prefer? Or I think it’s great when you reach out to me. I love getting your emails. Good to know, right? But be curious. You don’t know. You’re just assuming.

[00:28:44.110] – Boris
Absolutely. And every time you say ask good questions… a couple of years ago, when my kids were a little younger, every time we would drop them off at school, I would tell them ask good questions, because that is really how you learn. You don’t just learn by listening to whatever someone says. You learn by asking good questions, and it shows that you’re actually interested and gets that kind of rapport going. So I love this whole theme about curiosity, being curious about other people. That’s one of the things that is true about me, as well. I love talking to people because I love learning what makes them tick. What makes them passionate? What makes their eyes light up? That’s my goal at every networking event, is to talk to someone and find out what… And ask that one question that’s gonna make their eyes light up, because now I know, you know, something about them that’s gonna actually help me connect with them in some way and help me remember them down the line.

[00:29:38.990] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. You know, I’ll share this with your audience. There’s a white paper that some group in the UK put out where they analyze the top 3% of major gift fundraisers, because I think the field is just, like, it’s not formalized, right? You can’t go to school necessarily be a fundraiser. I mean, you can now. But, like, it’s not really been seen as a legitimate profession for very long. Anyway, they analyze the top 3% of performers and the ones who really are the top of their field, they call them curious chameleons. So they’re curious but they’re also able to adapt the approach and the conversation to the donor. So I think we should all strive to be curious chameleons.

[00:30:26.930] – Boris
I’m gonna write that on my desktop somewhere and say, “be a curious chameleon” because it’s a great analogy. It’s similar to what makes someone a successful salesperson, someone who actually makes you feel like, you know, they care about you and they’re not just trying to get something out of you. It’s the same exact thing.

[00:30:43.070] – Rhea Wong
It’s even better because it’s like legit. I genuinely like people. I find people to be interesting and I can find most… For most people, I can find something interesting about them.

[00:30:58.370] – Boris
I think it’s also important to note that these are skills that anyone can learn just through practice. I know a lot of people think, I am not a people person or I am an introvert or you know, I’m too shy. I hear you. I used to be similarly shy, and I still think… I think I’m actually a shy extrovert now, but these are all things that you can learn. And with practice it becomes much more fluid and easy. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t think that you are a curious chameleon right now, just get out there and talk, right?

[00:31:32.750] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. Well, here’s the thing. Actually introverts, I think actually do better because in conversations it should really be 75% of them talking, 25% you talking. So if you can ask good questions… All right, now I’m giving up all my secrets. But literally at a party, all I do when I walk in, I don’t know anyone, I just ask good questions and people think I’m like the best conversationalist in the room because I just stop talking and I listen to people. And I think it’s so rare, especially now. We’re just like inundated with everyone tweeting out at us. How often do we actually have someone who is a good listener?

[00:32:11.870] – Boris
Yeah. So when I was on the dating scene years ago now, I actually once or twice got accused of being an interviewer on dates. And honestly, that was because I was trying to find that thing. I was trying to find what makes someone more loquacious? What makes them more excited? And the people whom I couldn’t find that with, that’s where it really started to feel like an interview because I would just keep asking questions and they rarely had anything to ask back.

[00:32:38.870] – Rhea Wong

[00:32:40.730] – Boris
I think that’s a great analogy. Rhea, I wanna be sensitive of your time and our listeners time. So let’s kind of wind this up a little bit. I think you’ve given us a lot of great value. We’re gonna summarize it all and make it as clear and actionable as you presented it in bullet points for everyone in our show notes, along with links to everything that you’ve talked about. Are there any tools or resources, books, perhaps that you recommend to people who are interested in delving into this further?

[00:33:08.390] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So I’m a big nerd. So I love reading books, and actually, that’s the other thing I would say for major gift fundraisers. So interestingly, my husband is a bartender. He owns a bar, and he and I find a lot of interesting parallels in our work. He reads widely. I read widely because you have to be ready to have a conversation about anything. Current events, sports, fashion, art. You don’t know what people are gonna wanna talk about. So it’s important to have a wide breath of knowledge. But a couple of books that I really love, Travel Leadership, Brave New Work, The Soul of Money and The Generosity Network. And The Soul of Money, I will flag particularly because I think a lot of the reason people are nervous about major gift fundraising is that they have a lot of stuff about money that they bring to the table. Either they’re like somehow people with money are different, better or worse, like evil. I don’t know. We make up a lot of stories about people with money. People with money just have more money than you. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do. Right? And so I think we just have to be really aware of the narrative that we bring to the table that stands in the way of us connecting as humans and as individuals.

[00:34:24.710] – Boris
Absolutely. Absolutely. So if people have been listening so far and I hope they have and they’ve been engaged because you’ve really helped to see what the problems out there are, what the possible solutions are. And so like every good story, now it’s time for that call to action. What do you want our heroes to do to take the next step, whether it’s with you or in their own journeys?

[00:34:48.650] – Rhea Wong
Yeah. So definitely check out my website, I think you put it in the show notes, and I have a weekly newsletter where I offer weekly tips and tools and resources and it’s a good time. Plus, you know, there’s cute pictures of my dog. So who doesn’t want that in their inbox every week.

[00:35:07.190] – Boris
I love pictures of dogs. Unfortunately, that’s all I’ve been sharing lately in my own social media because everything else, you know, you mentioned several topics that people should be prepared to discuss. The one thing that everybody’s discussing is the one that I don’t wanna discuss right now is politics, but dogs are awesome and …

[00:35:27.650] – Rhea Wong
Dogs are awesome. There’s always people who will argue that cats are better, so you know, can’t believe all the people all the time.

[00:35:35.090] – Boris
I don’t wanna say they’re wrong because I don’t wanna offend them. Between you and me…

[00:35:41.910] – Rhea Wong
Don’t be afraid to have a point of view. That’s the other thing I’ll say too. Don’t be afraid to have a point of view. I think sometimes and I think you’ll probably see this in your work that we’re so afraid to offend that our stuff is just boring. I think it’s worse to bore people.

[00:35:59.190] – Boris
Absolutely no. I teach… You need to have heroes and villains, now that villain doesn’t have to be a person, but it could be a certain mentality. It could be something that’s happening out in the world. You should be able to identify that. And you should have a point of view. And a point of view means you prefer one thing over another. You see a future that other people don’t necessarily. So no, I do think it’s good to have opinions as long as you’re not turning off the people that you want to actually engage.

[00:36:27.810] – Rhea Wong
Right. Right. Have a personality, I think is more of the point. Don’t be afraid to have a personality.

[00:36:34.410] – Boris
Rhea, thank you so much for joining us on the show today and sharing all your wisdom around being curious in nonprofit fundraising and especially when it comes to major gifts. I’m excited to share all the show notes and everything, all the resources that you’ve mentioned with the audience and I hope they will take you up on it. Subscribe to your newsletter. Follow up with you. Maybe connect with you on LinkedIn if you’re into that.

[00:36:56.490] – Rhea Wong
Absolutely. Yeah, connect with me on LinkedIn. That’s basically where I live. That’s my main social media platform.

[00:37:03.070] – Boris
Perfect. And so thank you, everybody who has listened to us today, who has watched us today. If you liked this episode, if you feel like you learned something I know I did from Rhea today, then please, please, please subscribe. Leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite platform. And frankly, just share it with others like you. Because if you like this show, chances are your fellow fundraisers, your fellow nonprofit communications and marketing folks will like the show too, and they can tell two friends and they can tell two friends. And pretty soon we’ll change the world and help more people activate more heroes for their cause.

[00:37:37.930] – Rhea Wong
I love it.

[00:37:39.490] – Boris
Thank you, everybody. We’ll see you soon.

[00:37:41.830] – Rhea Wong
Thanks Boris.

[00:38:01.750] – Outro Video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, we hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think, by leaving a review.

Concepts and Takeaways:

  • 69% of all philanthropic gifts came from individuals, accounting for $75 billion. And 80% of funding tends to come from 20% of donors. (5:52)
  • High-net-worth individuals ($30 million in assets and above) are the largest growing wealth demographic in the world, growing 30% last year alone. (6:49)
  • You can build a base for momentum from a small group that is passionate about your cause. (9:17)
  • Defining a “major gift” can be different for each nonprofit depending on budget and sources. Look at your own range of gifts and see at what levels you can segment. (11:45)
  • Major gift fundraising is not as clearly laid as some other types of fundraising. It’s more about people, who are less predictable, and therefore more improvisational. (13:46)
  • Major gift fundraising strategy, step 1 is to identify your prospect pool. Your best prospects for a major gift are people who have given in the past, not wealthy individuals with whom you don’t have an existing relationship. (15:04)
  • Step 2: Evaluate your list on four metrics (16:24)
    • Affinity – Do they care about your cause?
    • Capacity – Can they afford to give a major gift?
    • Relationship – Do they have a relationship with your organization, board or staff?
    • Recency – Have you been in contact with them in a reasonably recent time frame (six months or less).
  • Try to get a list of around 20 prospects, and then start picking up the phone or emailing and engaging them in conversation. At every stage, you should be looking for opportunities to cultivate the relationship, not just ask for money. If they don’t respond after three attempts, take that as a signal and move them to the “B” list of prospects. (18:39)
  • Major-gift donors are people. You need to be curious about them as people, interested in their thoughts, their preferences and their interests. Ask them questions. Develop two or three cultivation touchpoints before asking for a gift, but don’t wait too long. (20:04)
  • After you get a donation, you need a stewardship strategy to retain your donors. Rhea recommends seven touchpoints of gratitude before you ask for the next gift. (20:57)
  • When it comes to affinity and capacity, those items should be key in creating your major-gift donor avatar. Avatars consist of demographics—things that you can see and measure, and psychographics—such as values, goals, and other things that go towards affinity. (22:22)
  • Be fearless about asking people about themselves and what they value. Pick up the phone or send a survey, but find a way to interview your donors. (23:37)
  • Interviewing your donors is also a great way to find more people like those current donors. Everyone wants to feel like a human being, not a checkbook. (24:38)
  • The big secret to major-gift fundraising is this: learning how to have a conversation with people. It can be difficult, but people want to feel like they’re a valued person in a relationship. Curiosity means asking questions, and then listening to the answers to strengthen the relationship. (26:34)
  • An analysis of major-gift fundraisers determined that the top 3% are what they called “curious chameleons.” They’re curious, but also able to adapt their conversational approach to each individual. (29:42)
  • Anyone can get better at conversations and become a curious chameleon with practice. And introverts might actually have an advantage because they should only be doing 25% of the talking (i.e., asking questions) and then listening the other 75% of the time. (30:58)

Action Steps: What Now?

About this week’s guest

Rhea Wong

Rhea Wong

Founder, Rhea Wong Consulting

Rhea helps nonprofits raise more money. 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. FRhea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and the World’s Most Spoiled Dog Stevie Wonderdog. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast Nonprofit Lowdown or onstage as a newbie stand-up comedian in downtown Brooklyn. For more information, check out

Connect with Rhea Wong