Philanthropy – Making rich universities richer?

Fears have mounted that, in the competition among South African universities for third-stream income from philanthropists and international donors, the richer institutions are getting richer, while the poorer ones are falling further behind.

Although the practice of ‘Advancement’ – the mobilisation of resources and relationships to support long-term sustainability at an educational institution – has developed rapidly across the country’s universities, the new spoils have largely gone to the wealthier, historically advantaged institutions.

More than ZAR1.63 billion (US$113 million) in philanthropic income was received in 2016 by 12 universities participating in the Annual Survey of Philanthropy in Higher Education. This compares with a mere ZAR659 million reported by a sample of 10 universities three years earlier.

However, the lion’s share – 95% of the income – went to six of the 12 institutions, with five of them recording negligible incomes of only a few million rand a year compared with the leading institution which received almost ZAR370 million.

The present distribution of philanthropic funds among the universities tends to perpetuate inequities within the system, a recent Leadership Retreat convened by Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement was told.

The meeting, which was held in Cape Town, was in large part convened to reflect on a 12-year national project initiated by Inyathelo and funded by the United States-based Kresge Foundation to promote Advancement within eight universities and one non-governmental organisation (NGO), as well as more broadly across the tertiary education sector.

Re-prioritisation of funding

The findings come at a crucial time for the country’s higher education system in South Africa, with many universities feeling the pinch as the bulk of new government money for the sector continues to be allocated to subsidising student fees.

In addition, foreign aid for higher education has been cut back, according to Ghaleeb Jeppie, chief director: international relations, Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

In straitened circumstances, the importance of third-stream income can be magnified, although as British educationalist and former vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, Sir Eric Thomas, gave warning: “It is important to acknowledge that philanthropic funding … is unlikely to have a significant impact on the university’s bottom line – the institution’s surplus and deficit. Rather, the money will go to special projects and infrastructure that will add value to the university’s offering.”

The point was emphasised by William Moses, managing director: education at the Kresge Foundation, who noted that such funding mainly serves to establish a “margin of excellence”.

Within this context, limited baseline capacity among historically disadvantaged universities has hampered the evolution of the relatively new field of Advancement at these institutions, said Wilma Wessels-Ziervogel, senior consultant at Southern Hemisphere Consulting and Development Services.

Improved understanding of Advancement

Nevertheless, Wessels-Ziervogel noted, there had been significant improvements in the understanding and practice of Advancement. It was widely understood that the practice entailed more than securing immediate financial returns and that it sought to forge longer-term relationships.

New structures and plans for Advancement had been established and aligned with institutional strategies and the number of advancement staff had grown from 20 to 45 between 2013 and 2018. Management of donor and alumni data had been introduced and-or improved, while continuous efforts were now being made to nurture prospective donors and steward those who had already given.

In addition, the frequency and extent of engagements with external stakeholders had increased at all the universities supported by the Kresge-Inyathelo Advancement Initiative. Annual individual giving funds had been established and the number of individual donors to universities had more than doubled. Vice-chancellors had increasingly becoming champions of fundraising efforts.

Meanwhile, a certificate course has been implemented by Rhodes University with Inyathelo. The university is now seeking to convert the course into a postgraduate diploma as part of a larger drive to professionalise the practice in South Africa and share the lessons learned so far.

In conclusion, it was found that the Kresge-Inyathelo Advancement Initiative had offered a useful model for developing Advancement within institutions, including by championing the practice and establishing a framework for its evolution. As one advancement officer noted: “The [Inyathelo] model can be implemented anywhere, at any university.”

Perpetuating inequity and elitism

However, despite the significant progress in advancement efforts across all the universities in the Inyathelo programme, concerns were raised at the meeting that the practice should also address how it may be viewed as perpetuating historical inequity and elitism within higher education.

Although some universities have built significant advancement capacity, others, such as historically black institutions, rely almost solely on the national government for their funding, Jeppie noted.

At a structural level, it was argued that existing relationship networks among funders and recipients have tended to privilege relatively well-resourced institutions.

As one vice-chancellor at the meeting noted, donors often respond to the fundraising efforts of historically disadvantaged institutions with the claim that they are “already funding other universities”.

The priority should thus be to democratise Advancement across the system.

In this regard, the terms of the relationships between the universities and the philanthropists have shifted since the #FeesMustFall protests spread nationwide in 2015. Some institutions struggled to make their case for additional philanthropic funding amid the destruction of buildings and property on campuses.

“At the same time, the contestation gave rise to an authentic dialogue among students and efforts to transform the complex institutions within the sector to meet their needs more effectively,” said Lorenzo Davids, chief executive officer of Community Chest.

Subsequently, the invitation has been for funders to adopt a different perspective and to collaborate in adapting the system for a new generation. In response, donors have increasingly shifted their funding away from subsidising tuition fees. Instead, they have offered increased holistic support to enable students to enter university, complete their courses and become employable.

New strategies

In this regard, it is important for the government to understand the kinds of roles that philanthropists can adopt and thus the benefits that can accrue from engaging them more effectively, said Jeppie. To this end, it was recommended that a forum or management arrangement be established between the government and philanthropists, perhaps sited in the National Treasury.

A further step that has been taken by DHET to address inequity within the system has been to seek to direct foreign aid to build capacity across the domestic higher education system, including among historically disadvantaged institutions.

At the institutional level, the retreat noted that Advancement as a practice also needed to address the disenchantment among many black alumni with their alma maters, which can impede fundraising efforts. The extent to which students identify with their universities shapes how likely they are to give back as alumni.

The establishment of a more open and listening environment as part of the institutional culture of universities and greater efforts to promote the happiness of the cohort may help to produce students who will be ambassadors for their alma maters in future.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a wide range of non-governmental, government and academic organisations.