Diversifying income streams in African universities

In order to be sustainable, successful tertiary institutions around the world have found ways to diversify their income streams so as to reduce dependence on public funds which are often tied to economic and political factors. How can this work in Africa?

According to higher education veteran and fundraising expert from the United States, Paul Ventura, African universities could benefit by learning all they can from global fundraising experiences and strategies, and adapting such lessons to suit their own needs and circumstances.

Ventura spoke at a webinar last month on the topic of “Strategic fundraising for African higher education”. The webinar, which attracted high numbers of participants, was organised by the Association for Development of Education in Africa through its Working Group on Higher Education, and was hosted by the Association of African Universities.

A former dean of the School of Business at Marylhurst University in the US, who has also taught several courses in fundraising for graduate students and conducted training in fundraising for educational and non-profit organisations in several countries, Ventura said Africa’s burgeoning list of universities – reaching over 2,000 in recent years – meant that its funding challenges were more significant.


But, he said, African universities could save themselves the nightmares that come with inadequate funds by coming up with strategies for income generation which seek to diversify their income through grants and contracts, alumni contributions, and partnerships with business, among others.

According to Ventura, African universities faced the challenge of a trend towards heavy reliance on student tuition and other fees for most revenue. Such funding was used not only for daily operations but to support innovation and growth.

“A culture of giving to education on the continent is not well established,” he said. Furthermore, the absence in some cases of reputable infrastructure for giving and receiving funds – who manages the funds and monitors it – scares away would-be givers, he said.

According to a Foundation Center report entitled US Foundation Funding for Africa 2015, there was also low priority given to tertiary education among major US and European donors.

Success stories

Donors want to support success, so reaching out often to potential donors with information about key accomplishments, successes and milestones is an important strategy for universities seeking to raise funds, he said.

Ventura advised universities to target funding opportunities carefully and exploit what best suits the circumstances of that particular institution.

Among the kind of targets available, he listed bilateral and multilateral donors, private foundations, community foundations, philanthropic organisations, corporations and government. Knowing what kind of programmes they support was critical, as was being alert to requests for proposals.

Donations could come in many forms, including contracts and fees for services and grants for executing projects, programmes and capacity building. There were also in-kind contributions, sponsorships and cause-related marketing in the form of materials, services and equipment to be considered, he said.

“Make a fundraising plan which describes the funding mix you desire and take steps to achieve this mix,” he said. “In the mix say how much you want from tuition and fees, grants, contracts and philanthropic donations.”

He said setting a goal to build or expand endowments, either with explicit appeals, planned giving, or setting aside funds from other sources, as done by the University of Cape Town in South Africa, could turn out to be handy.

Students and alumni

Students too were a source of funding as tuition paid through funded scholarships and fellowships could find its way into institutional coffers. Ventura said students could also be used on external projects, for example, for volunteer work contracted to the university. “Donations of expertise from students must be utilised,” he said.

Alliances can be formed so that students can be excited to go and work in another country, while students from that country do the same.

The faculty could bring in cash through fees charged for extra work or sale of merchandise they produce.

University alumni can be roped in through special rates for travel programmes. “There is always room for career development and networking opportunities for alumni,” he said.

Ventura said some universities such as Willamette University in the US offer free courses for life to its alumni. “While this does not bring in cash, it builds goodwill which means that these individuals will always be willing to give their time to the institution,” he said.

Diaspora funding

Annual appeals by current students as well as appeals to expatriate alumni – representing 'diaspora funding' – were important, he said, citing the example of the University of Cape Town’s regional office in Canada.

Ventura said ensuring that individual donors renew their donations every year was a good idea.

Fundraising events such as phonathons, auctions of staff members with particular skills, the hosting of concerts, fundraising dinners, sporting events and community-led events such as a local food summit could be used.

Ventura said naming opportunities targeting business or corporate partners could contribute towards the construction of a building or the launch of a new research programme. In a similar vein, it was important to give public recognition to any individual donors either at a groundbreaking event, or by means of a list of contributors in annual reports and other documents.

Ventura said identifying potential university, NGO and government partners for joint programmes was yet another opportunity for universities to exploit.

Another innovative suggestion to boost university coffers was reducing the university salary bill by allowing researchers to do consultancy work outside the university, he said.

Ventura said in order to implement fundraising strategies, a team of students, alumni, faculty and staff was needed to support the work of professional fundraisers if the university had any.