#TextGen Episode 4 Interview with Stacy Buono

James Martin
Published on | 
March 16, 2021
#TextGen Episode 4 Interview with Stacy Buono


In this episode, we visit with Stacy Buono of RWJBarnabas Health, a network of independent healthcare providers in New Jersey. She shares her story and experience overseeing annual giving and donor relations for a network of hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We LOVE talking with people who support our heroes, like Stacy, and we are so grateful she is part of the #TextGen Community.

#TextGen Podcast

James (00:08):

Hello. Welcome back to #TextGen. This is James. Today, I am super excited to interview Stacy, who has become a good friend and the client of Rally. She is on the frontlines, working with a group of hospitals along the New Jersey coast, right in the center of our pandemic throughout last year. Really enjoy getting to know Stacy and watching her under fire. As you can imagine, lots of hard work to support the heroes on the frontlines. With every good hero, we need not only an origin story, but really the support around them as they do the work that they do. Stacy is that person. Often in fundraising and philanthropy work, as you know, it can be a very thankless job and we can lose sight of the actual work. Not so with Stacy. I can see in her consistent work over the last years that we've worked together, and in her communications with our team, and her passion for her service, just the kind of dedication that she has just to be really tireless to confront challenges and opportunities, and to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and really support those who provide relief and life-saving measures for our community. Join me today as we get to meet Stacy Bruno from the RWJBarnabas health groups out of New Jersey. Very excited for you to get to meet her, so let's get started.

James (01:33):

Hello. I'm James with #TextGen. Today, I'm super excited about being with a client and a new friend that we've got to know -- or I don't know, Stacy, how long we work together now. It's been a little bit of time. But really enjoyed getting to know you. I want to introduce you to the #TextGen audience and for them to hear a little bit of your story. I'm today with Stacy. Stacy, I'll ask you on onset so I wouldn't butcher your last name, and I'm going to do it anyway.

Stacy (01:58):

[Laughter] Okay.

James (01:58):

Are you ready for this?

Stacy (01:59):

Do it.

James (01:59):

It's going to be painful. All right. Stacy Buono. Good enough?

Stacy (02:04):

It's good enough.

James (02:04):

With RWJ Barnabas Health. One of our amazing heroes through COVID, who's been on the frontlines right there in the pandemic. Very grateful, Stacy, for you both as just the person that you are, the work that you do, and just love to spend some time getting to know you. Tell us who you are. Let's get your origin stories since you are the superhero.

Stacy (02:31):

Of course. I'm not the superhero. To be clear, I wasn't on the frontlines. I'm just sitting at home, doing the fundraising for the real heroes that are out there every day treating people the past year. I can't take any credit for that.

James (02:44):

Fair enough.

Stacy (02:44):

I'm home, in my house, while they're at the hospital.

James (02:49):

Fair enough.

Stacy (02:49):

I'm Stacy. I'm not even going to try to correct the last name. I'm going to leave it out there the way it is. It's good. The non-Italian version, I like it. [Laughter]

James (03:00):

[Laughter] For sure.

Stacy (03:00):

I live on the Jersey shore with my family. My husband, he's a professional musician. My sons are 16 and 18, so the house is chaos all the time. It could become chaos in the next half hour. I can't guarantee any of that. The dog will bark because I order everything online now. There could be stuff happening. I'm not sure what's going to happen here. We are in close quarter the past year. I'm working from home. The kids are doing college and high school from home. Here we are. I mean, normally we enjoy being on the Jersey shore. We love the beach. We love to travel. We love animals. We're the typical New Jersey family, I think. Not the Jersey shore family, but the normal New Jersey family.

James (03:47):

The normal New Jersey. I'm glad you made that distinction because I was starting to wonder.

Stacy (03:49):


James (03:49):

But thank you for that. That's awesome. Stacy, tell me a little bit about what you now. What do you do for work?

Stacy (03:58):

I am the AVP of annual giving and donor relations. I never say, I'm not a title person, but that's my big title at RWJBarnabas Health. We are currently in 11 hospital healthcare system in New Jersey, potentially soon to be bigger. I do all of the annual giving for all 11 hospitals and our behavioral health centers. All the direct mail, all the online, giving all the emails, everything that has to do with annual giving is, is me and my one other staff member, Carly. Just the two of us.

James (04:31):

Just the two of you. All the annual fundraising. That's amazing. How did you come to do that work? What led up to that?

Stacy (04:39):

It's hard to describe. I actually was a journalism major in college. I went to Rutgers University. I was a newspaper reporter by trade for the first several years after school at a time where newspapers already back then -- I'm not going to say what year -- were already bought up and changed. I was with a paper here called the Asbury Park Press. A big company came in and started kind of taking over. All of us, the younger reporters, started to scatter. We didn't know what to do. I took all kinds of weird writing jobs. I would like to tell my kids, "If you can write, you can do a lot of things." I wrote vitamin labels. I wrote computer manuals because computer people don't know how to talk in real people language, all these different jobs.

James (05:29):

I know what they are.

Stacy (05:30):

Yeah. Exactly. Then I fell into a fundraising consulting firm. I was writing the appeals for all these different organizations -- the University of Texas, a ballet organization, the Betty Ford Center. I was kind of part of the process of doing annual giving for all these different clients and then started working for institutions. My family, we moved up to Massachusetts. I worked at UMass in Amherst for a couple of years. My husband was a professor at Berkeley College of Music. We move around a lot. I've always kind of landed at a different nonprofit. [Laughter] Eventually, I made it into healthcare. Not even really sure how. I've been here at RWJBarnabas Health for the past six years.

James (06:18):

Wow. Six years. What a journey. It's so funny, because when we started out as kids, I think we think we know what we're going to do, right?

Stacy (06:26):

Right. Oh, yeah. I have two of them in the house that know everything. Yes, we did.

James (06:29):

I heard somebody speaking -- I attended a an online event -- and they said something that I just had to write down. It was brilliant. He said, when he's planning his calendar, he says, ''Three days is firm, three weeks is a little fuzzy, and three months is fiction.'' I thought, ''That's it.'' How often do we try to play in the quarter? Get a 90-day plan. And we should. We should certainly plan, but just have some flexibility. But life, man, takes us in a lot of directions, doesn't it?

Stacy (07:00):

It does. It definitely does.

James (07:03):

Stacy, one of the things that, I think, we do in fundraising really well -- and I'm going to throw this out there and see what'd you think about it -- but one of the things I think we do is, we tell our story to allow other people to kind of enter in how they see ourselves in their story. We enter into the story, if you would. You mentioned UT, University of Texas. I graduated from the University of Texas. As soon as you said that, I sparked, ''Oh, there you go.'' There's some similarity there, right? The second thing, you mentioned Massachusetts. I grew up in Acton and Littleton. I don't know if you know where that is.

Stacy (07:34):


James (07:34):

That's 26 miles west of Boston. I'm a Massachusetts boy and a UT grad. It's not about me, it's about you. But the point is, it's just neat to see how our stories kind of overlap in ways. That's cool. Very neat.

Stacy (07:48):

Yeah. When I moved to Massachusetts, I was doing a lot with parents and students and traveling around a lot. I lived in the Amherst area. Luckily, I had a friend from Southie. Before I traveled anywhere, I would ask him how to say the name of the town. Because you people don't say all the letters, it's very confusing for a transplant to move to New England. It's very confusing.

James (08:12):

It is, especially if you have an Italian last name.

Stacy (08:15):

Oh, yeah.

James (08:15):

I can say Worcester, I cannot say Buono.

Stacy (08:21):

Yeah. I can say Worcester now, but I couldn't when I moved there.

James (08:25):

We can always tell when people from out-of-town, and they say, ''How do you get to Worchester?'' I'm like, ''Ah.''.

Stacy (08:31):

Yes. Worcester, Haverhill. It was a lot of information for me. But it was a good lesson. Good lesson.

James (08:35):

That's great. Stacy, if you think back over your journey to get to where you are today, what along the way do you feel like have been some of your bigger a-ha moments? Some of your learnings that you would like to share with our audience and community here?

Stacy (08:47):

That's a great question. For me, being an annual person and also being a professional writer, I love to hear people's stories. That's where the healthcare connected for me in a way. I never thought it would because it's a little different than hearing an alumni story about their college days. You're literally hearing people's life and death journeys. I'm talking to people whose lives were saved in these hospitals. It's overwhelming sometimes to become a part of their story. They're really sharing their life with you. That part is my favorite part. I love talking to grateful patients. We'll call them grateful patients because there's the ones that aren't so grateful, but I don't get to talk to them [laughter]. I'm not a major gift person, so when I get to see the $25 check come in from the patient who writes a little note, ''I wish it could be more, they were angels'', that's so meaningful. The amount is what matters with annual giving, as we all know, and also it just speaks to people's level of commitment. They just want to help on whatever level it is. I kind of love that part.

James (10:03):

I would imagine. What a rewarding experience just to open the mail time after time and story after story and see the gratitude pouring in. That's amazing. That's great. With every great opportunity comes some challenges, some leveling up to the next level. What have been some challenges that you've had to deal with, both either personally, professionally, along the way in your role with annual giving?

Stacy (10:33):

I think, professionally, I've been pretty lucky. I'm a very open person. I don't pretend to be someone I'm not. If I have to wear a suit, I'm uncomfortable. I'm very casual. To your point, I don't try to plan too much, because personally, we've had to deal with some big stuff. We moved back to New Jersey and then literally got our life wiped away by Superstorm Sandy, not long after we came back to New Jersey. Lucky for us, we have family members that could take us in, but we watched a community struggle. Those are the things that have really shaped my life more than professional experiences and also taught me not to get so hung up on the professional let downs. Things are going to come your way and you just have to go with the flow. I meet now with the VPs of each of our foundations monthly, mostly now on the phone. Every month, I present them with the plan and every month we throw out the plan and start over. I think that some of those personal experiences have taught me to do that in my professional life. And just being a mother, too, especially to teenage boys. You need to just accept that you have no idea what's going to happen from one minute to the next. You don't ask too many questions and you just move forward.

James (11:55):

Yeah. Control is such an illusion, isn't it? It's not even real.

Stacy (11:58):

Yes. You learn that pretty quickly when you literally have to put the contents of your life to the curb, literally. You kind of start to really appreciate the experiences that you have, the people in your life, especially your work colleagues -- you spent so much time with them. When they come through for you on a personal level, that means so much. That shapes your experience with your employer, for sure.

James (12:25):

It would seem to me then, Stacy -- what I hear you say is that your own suffering, your own pain, if you would, has really fostered more empathy, right? More compassion in the service of others. We're working with people that are in life events. I've been hospitalized. It wasn't something I planned for. It's not like I woke up and said, ''You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to go spend a couple of nights in the hospital and go check into the ER. That's a great idea, right?'' That's not what I wanted to do. I think that you're meeting people in their worst moments and you bring with that your worst moments and your experience in that, and that brings compassion. Maybe not you necessarily in the emergency room with them in presence of a body, but certainly in presence of spirit and thoughtfulness and the way you conduct yourself in your eight to five experience with the hospital, right? It takes everybody behind the hospital. It makes it actually work at the street level. What an amazing ability to take that past and to shape that into empathy to serve. I love it. That's great.

Stacy (13:34):

Yeah. It teaches you. My children learned very early on that you don't know someone's past or their experiences and you don't know where they've come from, so it's always important to listen to their perspective because you'll start to figure out not the ''Why it's important'', but you'll start to figure out that people feel differently about things. Especially now, political issues, I don't even like to talk about. But, at least, being able to empathize and understand that you don't understand where someone's coming from. You know what I mean? You don't get what they went through to get where they are, so just respect their opinion.

James (14:15):

Yeah. No, I couldn't agree more. I think that at the end of the day, we're all humans. It's in our humanity -- when we show up the most human is when we're most compassionate and kind to ourselves, of course, to our family and to others. I think as agents, if you would, of love, which is what philanthropy is, you're enabling people to get on board and opportunities to annually really ride that wave with you to be in that service. What a tremendous opportunity for your givers and those who support the the hospital as I do. But also for those that have experienced it. You mentioned the $25 checks. It seems to me that if you've gone through suffering, if you've been in a situation where you're looking up at a group of angels caring for you, as you said, those are definitely, I think the people that have the gratitude, and they'd rather give a little bit of anything, right? [Laughter].

Stacy (15:07):

Yeah. True.

James (15:07):

I think it's absolutely amazing. As you think back on your experience -- we talked a little bit about the lessons learned, the opportunities that you've had. If you could go back, I don't know, I'm going to say 10 years ago and coach Stacy on something, knowing that a lot of people who listen maybe newer to the roles or newer in their journey, what do you wish somebody would have told you that they hadn't told, that you had to learn the hard way?

Stacy (15:40):

You don't know everything, even if you think you do [laughter]. I think just being open -- that's not always easy to admit -- being open to experiences and being open to other people's experience. Even if something professionally, even if it doesn't seem like the way you might do something, try it. Listen. Listen to every different perspective and just honestly work hard. I know there's days even now where I feel like, ''This is insane. How do they expect me to do all this in one day?'' You have those moments of, ''Oh my goodness, I can't drink enough coffee to do this'', but you can. Yeah, you can. It is overwhelming. This past year, has proven to us that you can get through a lot. I mean, you have to adapt. Just not being rigid and being willing to listen to other people's opinions and being able to listen to critiques of yourself. That's always tough.

James (16:39):


Stacy (16:39):

I mean, I remember sitting in that first formal review when I started working in healthcare, because when you work at colleges, nothing's formal, right. You're sitting in a weird library on campus with partitions, and it's crazy. I mean, people are in jeans and people are yelling over walls. There's not a lot of structure. But then, you go to healthcare and you kind of have to take out the nose ring and pretend to be a little different, which is kind of what happened to me when I came back from hippie, Massachusetts. Then I was in corporate New Jersey. It was a little bit of an eye-opener. But I think sitting in that first formal performance review as someone in their thirties as a parent and feeling like I knew a lot, I realized I didn't know all that much and that I needed to take criticism better. I needed to listen to other people's feedback on what I was doing and not feel like I just knew it all. That was tough. But then once I got to a point where I was able to do that, I think it really shaped who I am as a person and enabled me to move on in my career to a place that I really enjoy being in now.

James (17:47):

I love it. I heard you say, ''Be open to new ideas, open to new experiences, and then, of course, open to some hard things to hear, even if they're about ourselves.'' As I've listened to you, it's really about how you leveled up, isn't it, Stacy?

Stacy (18:03):


James (18:03):

How you've been able to not internalize the criticism and go down and closed off and have scarcity, but to be more open to say, ''Hey, you know what that was helpful. Then this is how I can show up now.'' To be a bit aware of our context and the change with the times and the organizations that we serve, right? [Laughter] For sure.

Stacy (18:24):

Yeah. Absolutely.

James (18:24):

Good. Well, that's outstanding. One of our first conversations, Stacy, that struck me, and I was asking you when you first started working with Rally, what are the challenges that you're facing daily? I remember you said something that really struck me. In fact, I later tried my hand at creating little cartoon in Canva. I'll send it to you. It's easy. They have a little cartoon tool. I was like, ''I'm going to figure this out.'' I cartooned our conversation. It was the idea of people showing up at the emergency Room with a bunch of pizzas or sending pizzas to the emergency room. You remember that conversation?

Stacy (18:58):

Yes. I lived that for several months last year.

James (19:04):

Yeah. Stacy, right now, we all have an overwhelming sense to help our first responders. I'm seeing it in all these YouTube, TikTok videos. Everywhere I turn, I'm seeing healthcare and first responders and all this love pouring out because we recognized that it was out of control, and we were very concerned, a lot of us, and I'll speak for myself. The thought that there were people just down the road from where I live ready to take care of me if the need should arise, because it was all scary and new, as our first global pandemic. I don't know how many you've lived through, but this is my first one [laughter], so I don't know what to do. Anything you do for the first time is a little scary, right?

Stacy (19:43):


James (19:43):

But the outpouring of love really expressed itself, as I recall, in people showing up with pizzas. You said, ''Yeah, we're very grateful, but we need to rally the community in a way where they are really helping us with things that we need.'' It's really hard to take off the face shields and all the material that we're in to serve these patients and then eat a pizza that's been passed around by, who knows, how many people in the state that we're in?

Stacy (20:11):


James (20:12):

Do you remember that conversation? I'm just wondering how you navigated that and what your experience was through that. I think our audience would love to hear kind of some frontline stories on that.

Stacy (20:24):

Yeah. I do remember because we had spoken a couple of times, and that's when we decided to pull the trigger on a texting program. Because being in the healthcare is a little different than some grassroots organizations. We don't have a ton of online traction when it comes to giving, but we clearly have websites. People are going to our websites to look for doctors and look up health information. They're not really thinking about philanthropy at that point. But we also knew that we were in a situation where it was our version of a natural disaster, if you will. I mean, we were in the middle of a situation where, right, the community, all they wanted to do was help us and they didn't know how. Buying food for the staff, of course, seemed like the logical thing to do. These people are in the hospital.

James (21:13):

That's right.

Stacy (21:13):

They need to eat, they need a break and it was lovely. But we also needed to try to help them understand the actual needs. I mean, there was situations where we didn't know if we had enough PPE. Did we have enough masks for nurses to not have to re-use one for more than one shift? Do we have enough gowns? Unfortunately, we had situations where family members were communicating some really tough conversations via iPad. Do we have enough of those devices so that anyone who needs one will be able to use one? That's horribly sad to say, but there was a lot of final conversations that happen through technology. I'm getting a little choked up and I wasn't even there. But those were tough. Yeah, those were tough. It was hard as a fundraiser to hear those needs coming in from the frontline people.

Stacy (22:07):

So then we had to try to figure out how do we communicate this to the public? What's the best way to do that? We wanted every channel available. We were blasting out emails. We had more response than we've ever had before. Anyone who ever was afraid that I was sending out too much email, all of a sudden they didn't care if I was sending out too much email. Our direct mail pieces, we switched topics and we sent them out earlier, and we did everything we could do. We figured, ''We've got to get texting out there, too, as a channel for people.'' We really just tried to hone in on the fact that we actually needed things. It's a lot harder with the hospitals because the things we typically need are huge ticket items.

James (22:49):


Stacy (22:50):

We can't say, ''Hey, we need a new radiation treatment'', or ''We need a new CAT scan machine.'' No one can afford that, right?

James (23:00):


Stacy (23:00):

Whereas some organizations can equate it better. Like, ''If you give $20, you can feed a person for a day. ' We actually finally had that. We had, ''If you give $20, we can provide X number of masks to make sure our nurses are safe when they're helping COVID patients.'' That's kind of what we had. The biggest thing, I think, was just being able to have the vehicles available and being able to get a clear message to the public. It wasn't giving. All of a sudden, everybody wanted to give to the hospital. That was fantastic. But it was just kind of channeling it the right way, away from the pizzas and more for -- I mean, those were wonderful gestures. But if you took the money you spent on the pizza and you donated it to the hospital, we could buy a lot of protective equipment that we really truly needed at that point.

James (23:52):

I love it. Our tagline with #TextGen -- we call it #TextGen because it's a play obviously on next gen, right? We want you to use texting whether you use Rally or not, to be clear. Of course, we'd want to work with you. I wouldn't have built the company if I didn't feel like we were really good at it, right? [Laughter] But I just want people using texting because it's where the people are. It's the one device that we all carry with us all the time. It's just such an obvious thing. We texted our friends and our family. We should text. But this isn't a plug for texting as much as it is, but our tagline at #TextGen is to mobilize non-profit leaders and mobilizing their mission. Of course, mobile phones is a play on that. But really what you're describing, Stacy, hits the nail on the head. That's that you need to channel people on a channel that they're on, meet them where they are, and then move them to the desired action, mobilize them for our cause, rally them around your work. If we show up at a crisis and we all show up with the right heart but the wrong thing, it's beautiful but it's not as helpful. If we show up with the right heart and then the right thing in our hands, whatever that is, that's fantastic. I know I did a home build with a non-profit. I showed up with my little rinky-dink toolset. They smiled. They're like, ''That's cute, James.'' Like, ''Use our tools please.'' You want the people showing up with the right stuff to be able to get the job done. I think that's best realized in how we communicate. Would you agree with that?

Stacy (25:23):

Oh, absolutely. To your point, I got off a call this morning. Now, each of our affiliates wants their own texting program. I've been doing demo after demo with RallyCorp.

James (25:33):

I appreciate it.

Stacy (25:33):

Because our hospitals are very different. We span New Jersey, so we have hospitals in more rural areas. We have larger hospitals, we have hospitals in urban areas, and they all want to use it for different things, and it's very interesting. But to your point of kind of getting people where they are, we've always had a challenge. I think all healthcare organizations do with getting donations from physicians. I think part of it is that we just can't get the right vehicle to get to them because they're busy, they're not opening their mail. We don't know how to really get in touch with them. However, they're on the phone. We've been kind of throwing around the idea of doing a text campaign to doctors around Nurses' Week in May, which I kind of find brilliant. I'm kind of very proud of myself.[Laughter]

James (26:18):

I love it. You should be proud. It's a great idea.

Stacy (26:21):

We'll see how proud I am after the results. But I think it's a really cool example of what you're saying, is we have to think about everyone's got their phone on them. My 16-year-old never leaves without the phone and my 68-year-old mother never leaves without the phone either. She's texting me all day. We have a captive audience to send them the messaging. It doesn't necessarily have to be a plea for a gift, but you can direct them to different things as an organization. You can direct them to information. You can direct them to an event or a specific need that you have. It's been really interesting to listen to each of the hospital foundation staff and the different ways they want to utilize the technology.

James (27:05):

Sure. Yeah. No, I get it. We work with a lot of hospitals and they all use it just slightly different. Some are of the same ideas. But absolutely I think at the end of the day, it's about meeting people where they are and communicating with them and whatever that is. Some organizations' just direct mail. There's not one magic bullet in one channel. What the goal is, is to meet people, communicate clearly and then move them to action, move them to act in the right way, to shape that action, of course, so that they're most impactful.

Stacy (27:33):


James (27:33):

Stacy, I really enjoyed our time. I know we're right at the limit. I told you, as a busy mom and a busy a philanthropist, all of the work that you're doing, we need to honor your time. How do people get in touch with you? I know you're in the various groups, either Facebook or LinkedIn, I'm not sure which platform you prefer. How do people find you and connect with you? Then, of course, since you're on Rally, if you want to give the short code that people can text in to donate if they want to get involved. How do they do that?

Stacy (28:06):

Sure. Well, currently our system level account is you text RWJBH to 24365, but we're about to have several others. I'm not sure exactly what they're going to be yet.

James (28:19):

We'll publish them when we have them. How's that?

Stacy (28:19):

Exactly. I work from home now, so I have no office information. Social? I should be better with LinkedIn. I concentrate on the stuff that my kids are on. I got to do a little spying. I warn you now that if you look for me on Facebook, I will friend you. However, my goal on Facebook is to make people laugh because I think it's a little too serious. I don't want to hear about politics. I want to see pictures of dogs and funny things. Mildly offensive, funny stuff is my style. If you're into that, you can clearly find me by just using my name.

James (28:57):

If not, don't worry about that. That's right. I love it.

Stacy (28:57):

Yes. If that's not your thing, don't friend me on Facebook.

James (29:01):

I'm with you. I signed up for all the new social apps because of my teenagers. Like you, I'm a spy. You got to watch that. What's fun is -- I mean, I'm not a spring chicken and it's just really fun to get in there and be like, ''Oh, this is how that works.'' [Laughter]

Stacy (29:19):

That's how I felt about texting when we started last week.

James (29:24):

I know, right? That's great. Yeah, it's so funny. Stacy, I really appreciate your time and the energy you bring to your role. I know our team really enjoys the conversations that we have. Thanks for being both a client of Rally, of course, but more importantly, the work that you do and being behind the frontlines people and making sure we all stay safe, so thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Stacy (29:48):

Thank you.

James (29:48):

All right.

James (29:49):

Okay, that's a wrap. Thank you, Stacy. I really appreciate it. Now again, you can connect with Stacy on Facebook and then, of course, to get involved with our first responders and heroes in New Jersey, text RWJBH. That's RWJBH for Barnabas Health at 24365 -- 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Those are our heroes. Thank you , everybody, again for tuning in and have a fantastic day. 


That's a wrap! Be sure to check out our other episodes and join our private #TextGen Community here.

Join the #TextGen Community