How to advance your university’s advancement office

A major challenge facing universities in Africa is supplementing government funding of higher education with other sources of income. Private philanthropy can help institutions, which is why the establishment and strengthening of advancement offices are becoming increasingly important.

Advancement is a multilayered approach that encourages institutions to work in an integrated way to build and manage relationships with key stakeholders and to attract resources for long-term sustainability.

The non-profit trust Inyathelo, established in 2002, with the support of The Kresge Foundation in the United States, has been building the capacity of advancement offices in the higher education sector.

In addition, its latest and 7th edition of Annual Survey of Philanthropy in Higher Education (ASPIHE), has shown that the more fundraising, alumni relations and associated support staff an institution has, the higher its philanthropic income.

According to the latest ASPIHE, the 10 participating South African universities reported that they employed 174 full-time and part-time staff in fundraising, development and alumni relations on 31 December 2019. This was up from 136 staff in the sample of 10 universities in 2013.

During 2019, 42% of staff were involved in fundraising and development, 25% in alumni relations, and 33% in relevant support functions.

Local and international philanthropists donated ZAR1.55 billion (about US$93 million) to these universities in 2019 – and when income from Sector Education and Training Authorities, or SETAs, is added, total giving increased to more than ZAR1.94 billion. This funding represents a ZAR30 million increase on the previous combined total of ZAR1.91 billion received in 2018, and can be largely attributed to some universities investing in professional fundraising, alumni relations and support staff.

What then is involved in setting up an advancement or development office, and what are the types of skills and human resources needed?

The advancement operation

The roles and responsibilities in advancement are many and varied. How these are configured into portfolios and job descriptions depends on each institution.

A higher education advancement operation under the leadership of the vice-chancellor includes a number of basic aligned components: a strategy and planning function, a development (fundraising) operation and a marketing, communications and public relations focus.

Elements of a successful office

Inyathelo has worked with several institutions in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. As such, it recognises the extent to which available resources will limit the size and shape of an advancement office. However, there is minimum functionality required to establish a successful office:

• A strong executive director reporting directly to the vice-chancellor. The executive director would be part of the vice-chancellor’s or institutional executive team and would sit on senior university committees relating to planning, finance and strategy.

• Evidence of, or a willingness for, council, board or foundation involvement in giving and asking.

• A demarcated institutional advancement office budget.

• A research component to undertake prospect research and provide prospect profiles in preparation for fundraising meetings.

• Proposal writing capacity. This should be more than one person who can work nimbly and flexibly with academic faculties, the research office and the executive team in developing grant proposals and who will ease the heavy administrative requirements that are included in the submission of grant proposals.

• An understanding of the importance of information management in effecting good donor management, and the capacity to implement good systems where these don’t exist.

• A senior fundraising officer who has the ability to produce proposals, to engage in face-to-face meetings with donors, and to establish a bequest or legacy programme (particularly among alumni).

• A donor stewardship function – ensuring ‘thank you’ letters are sent out; reporting to donors is expedited; recognition policies are developed and implemented; and appropriate functions are held.

• An annual funding campaign to promote individual giving, or at least the will to support the implementation of such a campaign.

• Appropriate financial management to ensure financial reporting and to manage the advancement office budget and expenditure.

• An alumni relations office headed by a senior alumni relations officer.

• A close link with communications, marketing and public relations to ensure that these are led by advancement priorities. Alternatively, communications, marketing and public relations should fall within the ambit of advancement.

• Upgraded office facilities for the advancement office, to support a growing advancement function.

• The will to implement a system for the strategic prioritising of projects (possibly through a fundraising projects committee within the vice-chancellor’s or institutional CEO’s office); and a system of prospect clearance would need to be implemented. For instance, a university has a prospect clearance management system to ensure that the university’s fundraising efforts are coordinated.

An effective advancement operation combines marketing, communications, development and alumni or friends, in a coherent unit. In many institutions and organisations, advancement and marketing are separate components.

Often, the marketing component is well-resourced, while few resources are provided for advancement or fundraising.

Real institutional advancement is often stifled when it is subsumed in communications objectives which may not be aligned with the entity’s advancement objectives.

In addition, when there is a buffer between the advancement office and the vice-chancellor, the advancement function cannot operate effectively as a strategic component of the entity’s management system.

In this situation, the advancement work is not appropriately positioned to attract major resources.

Simply put, the advancement functions of an entity must be positioned as part of the leadership structure to ensure that efforts to attract support are strategically synthesised into the entity’s image, marketing, communications, resourcing and positioning.

Human resource needs

But finding appropriately qualified and experienced advancement staff can be hard.

Inyathelo has, therefore, worked for many years to professionalise the philanthropic and fundraising sector, and a notable achievement has been developing a one-year Postgraduate Diploma in Management, or PDM, in African philanthropy and resource mobilisation in collaboration with the Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI) at Wits Business School in Johannesburg.

Institutions wishing to establish or grow their advancement offices can find resources on the ASKInyathelo platform. It offers easy access to articles, materials, guides and tips on advancement and fundraising. For more information, e-mail

Roles and responsibilities in an advancement operation by Shelagh Gastrow; (ASK Inyathelo Pocket Guide).
Components of a fully-functional Advancement Office (Inyathelo).