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  • Brian D. Agnew, Ph.D.

World Class Fundraising Isn’t a Solo Sport: The Team Approach to Academic Fundraising: Book Review

Originally Published: October 12, 2017

Written by: Brian D. Agnew, Ph.D. & Meghan Rehbein, CFRE

The authors of World Class Fundraising Isn’t a Solo Sport go out of their way to show the complexity of fundraising within an academic setting. Buller and Reeves present the team fundraising approach in response to this complexity – and go further still, explaining how an “A Team” is best suited to work within the unique environment of academia. Contrasting the “F Troop” approach, Buller and Reeves show the difference coordinated team fundraising can make in any institutional setting.

Written in an easy-to-read style, the book contains multiple mnemonic devices to ensure the principles listed in the book are easy to remember and put into practice. In addition, the authors provide multiple case studies, designed to give teams working towards ‘A Team’ status practical examples to work from, taken from real-life situations, for each of the principles offered. Although best used in conjunction with the companion volume, (Going for the Gold: How to Become a World Class Academic Fundraiser. Buller and Reeves, 2016), World Class Fundraising offers simple principles to put into practice for institutions seeking to elevate their fundraising, institutions coming out of periods of significant transition in leadership, or institutions poised for growth in their region.

Buller and Reeves begin with the explanation of what constitutes an ‘A Team’. Core members usually include an academic officer and a development officer, at a level consistent with the fundraising responsibilities of their team. Institutional level fundraising teams may include the provost as academic officer and the VP of advancement as development officer, while school or department based fundraising teams would include the dean and gift officer, respectively. Ancillary team member should include representation from multiple areas, including academic and other departments impacted by potential fundraising, subject matter experts in administrative areas, including marketing, finance, and legal counsel, and other individuals who might complement the group point of view.

Plan and priorities for the ‘A Team’ should always be set consistently, cascading from the institution’s mission, vision, and values, according to the authors. Working within this rubric, an ‘A Team’ is able to focus their significant efforts on projects that make the institution or department better, rather than simply bigger. Clear priorities, understood by all team members, and tied to mission also help limit the tendency of some individuals to engage in loose-cannon fundraising, securing gifts for programs or projects that are not in the best interests of the institution.

The STARS approach, one of the mnemonic devices developed by the authors, lays out how ‘A Teams’ approach fundraising. Strategy, Teamwork, Awareness, Relationship, and Stewardship are key to a functional team, according to Buller and Reeves. ‘A Team’ strategy includes the team’s understanding of the relationship between the goals of the team and the strategic direction of the institution, as well as the fundraising strategies best employed for each individual prospective donor. Teamwork refers to the work behind the scenes to create a team approach that flows, and focuses on a ‘yes, and’ mentality among team members. All team members should be aware to a certain extent of the skills and abilities of their team members, of the programs and projects in their department or at their institution, of the donors with whom they work, and of the community in which they are situated. Each member should also be skilled at developing relationships – with listening and speaking skills, and the patience necessary to visualize and accomplish long term objectives – and at managing relationships to achieve specific goals, both with donors and internally with other team members. Finally, each member of the team should have an understanding of the stewardship necessary to prudently and respectfully manage donors’ gifts. Donor relations include using funds prudently, providing accurate and timely reporting, providing opportunities for recognition consistent with the donors’ wishes, and offering opportunities to interact with the beneficiaries of their gifts. Diverse team members often produce more robust donor relations opportunities.

‘A Teams’ are particularly poised to avoid or effectively deal with leadership challenges, including incompetent or inexperienced leaders, extended or extensive temporary leadership, or competition within a leadership structure. The authors offer numerous case studies and examples of how an ‘A Team’ approach offer opportunities to perform at a high level in challenging situations. Team members, due to their diversity of viewpoints, personalities, and leadership abilities can help spot situations in advance, delicately steer relationships through conflict, work behind the scenes to maintain consensus, and mitigate the negative effects of personal competition or incompetence. In contrast to the ‘F Troop’ fundraising teams, the authors explain how ‘A Teams’ review and elect fundraising strategies that consider opportunity cost, rely on creative and groundbreaking ideas, and encourage a diversification in both type of income and funding streams. The ‘A Team’ approach ensures there is a right fit, not a right now, focus. ‘A Teams’ are also, according to Buller and Reeves, more likely to recognize a potentially difficult situation early on, and can deal with it in a multifaceted and coordinated approach. Since team members are not working in silos, they are able to identify the issue, attempt to educate those involved, manage the situation to the best of their ability, and mitigate the damage caused.

Taking your team to the ‘A Team’ level is the concluding chapter of the book, and offers a few suggestions for institutions looking to develop effective fundraising teams. Key according to the authors is the core relationship between the academic officer and the development officer, who should meet regularly and often, and have a strong working relationship. Core team members should be provided intensive and extensive training opportunities together, and should be offered opportunities to work on projects as a unit. In addition to the core team, the full team should meet regularly to review strategy and expectations, and to plan future projects and discuss donor relationships. Buller and Reeves particularly emphasize the importance of meeting with the full team regularly, and not just when the team is meeting with a donor.

All team members should commit to principles the author consider exemplary, and in contrast to the ‘F Troop’ approach. These include doing their homework, communicating proactively, being responsive, not resting on their laurels, understanding their loyalty is to the institution and the donor both, seeing the big picture, understanding the importance of the team approach, and routinely spanning boundaries. The idea of boundary spanning is a central notion of the authors’ team approach to fundraising – each member is both responsible for their individual role in the team as well as the team’s overall performance.

The authors’ key theme, that fundraising in a university setting is often complex and best served by a high level team approach is borne out by the many examples and case studies offered in the book. Their central premise, that a well-constructed team with a strong core, can meet most challenges with aplomb, is clearly described, particularly in relation to the ‘F Troop’ examples. The authors seem to go out of their way to ensure that the information they present is simple and easy to remember, which results in rather simplistic contrasts between the two styles of team fundraising. The result, however, is a set of directives that could easily be part of any team meeting agenda, keeping top of mind the principles that keep a team at ‘A Team’ level.

There are a few areas in which the book could expand further. Buller and Reeves rely on case studies, which, although they may be taken from real-life situations, are not all reflective of a team approach, either positive or negative. The authors offer multiple examples of how successful teams could respond to each of the case studies, but don’t necessarily explain why high-functioning individual fundraisers could not achieve the same results. In addition, the final section of the book, on transitioning your team to work at ‘A Team’ level, could be expanded significantly to include more specific tactics for team creation and communication.

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