Fundraising: ‘Vice-chancellors need to be out there’

The advancement portfolio at universities is undervalued by the executive management. It is viewed as a secondary function and tends to have inappropriate reporting lines, while staff in this portfolio are usually not involved in strategic planning at the highest levels.

What is required is vice-chancellors who can champion advancement, position the university and build networks that sustain the institution.

This is according to seasoned fundraising expert, Shelagh Gastrow, who was the keynote speaker at the sixth Director’s Symposium of the Marketing Advancement and Communication in Education (MACE) organisation, held from 23-24 August in Cape Town.

MACE represents the marketers, advancement and corporate communication staff of member universities and technical and vocational education and training colleges in Southern Africa.

Hosted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, the symposium was attended by representatives of Nelson Mandela, Fort Hare, Stellenbosch and North-West universities.

Gastrow, who spoke on ‘Key pillars for advancement: Marketing, Communications and Fundraising’, is an adviser to non-profit organisations and philanthropy centres. Having coached vice-chancellors who became hotshot fundraisers, she explained that advancement is “euphemistically referred to as fundraising but it is much bigger than that”.

She recalled a time in 1998, when she was involved in fundraising at the University of Cape Town (UCT) under the helm of then vice-chancellor Dr Mamphela Ramphele who, as part of her legacy, wanted a redesign of the university’s Upper Campus. They had 15 months to raise ZAR75 million (the equivalent of about ZAR1 billion today) and it involved funding a new student centre, library and IT labs.

The team had no idea what to do but “had to use common sense” and, while there were pledges there were matching grants, she said. They hit the target with two weeks to spare.

“The team was exhausted, fed up, resigned and cross with each other” while some vowed never to fundraise again. “Many people do not like fundraising as chasing money isn’t fun. It’s exhausting.”

Gastrow then realised the need to “make fundraising pleasant” and pleasurable as not many people like doing it, while there had to be a way to “attract money rather than chase it”.

Advancement as a safety network

Advancement entails a framework about how an institution engages with its external environment to attract resources it needs to advance its objectives. “It is about building a massive safety network that supports the institution with, not only regular money, but enables the institution to become resilient,” said Gastrow.

This network includes donors, the media, civil society and other organisations that will support the university.

Added to this, a university needs to be clear about its purpose. “Visions and missions are corporate concepts – companies [make it clear they] want to make money.” Universities are a different type of organisation. A university’s social purpose needs to be clearly defined in their visions and missions.

“If your purpose is wrong, then your strategy is wrong” and staff land up doing things that are irrelevant to the world today and might not see it. Furthermore, a university’s purpose should be communicated clearly, with no mixed messages.

Universities are dynamic innovative places of change and need good governance, along with outward-facing leadership, which could all attract resources. Appropriate communication and marketing messaging needs to link the university’s fundraising needs with the voice of the university.

The university needs to be positioned in some unique way and needs to show proof of impact. The role of communication and marketing and alumni relations is imperative in advancement, and they should not work in silos with fundraising.

Helping donors to understand change

For Gastrow, universities need to change in the face of artificial intelligence and climate change, among other factors. Her message was, “They cannot sit in a comfort zone in an unstable, volatile world,” or they become internal looking.

Communication and fundraising have a role in communicating change and need to be clearly connected to thinking on this at the highest level.

“The role of communication in dynamism and change is to assist donors and stakeholders to understand change,” she advised.

Deputy vice-chancellors should be sitting in strategy sessions as well as the heads of communications and advancement staff. They are the ones on the ground who could do environmental scans and provide feedback on risk and threats to the university, despite risk being the domain of council.

Fundraising staff meetings with international aid organisations are important, as staff can find out what the donor sentiment is as well as identify trends that are affecting donor funding – and they can provide feedback to colleagues and institutions’ executive management.

Good governance attracts resources

For Gastrow, good governance attracts resources. “I’m sorry to say the past few years have seen appalling cases of governance issues” in the South African university sector, she said.

Governance entails oversight of leadership, strategy, finance, ethics and values. Poor governance affects fundraising.

Gastrow pointed out that, during times of crisis, the development and communications offices need to align in terms of messaging in order to allay the concerns of donors, among other stakeholders.

A crisis at a university needs to be mitigated and, when things explode into chaos, poor governance spills over and infighting destabilises the institution. “Donors watch, and they park their money,” she noted.

When there are leadership changes and there is succession, donors also park their money and wait. “Donors and other stakeholders want to deal with leadership. Good governance attracts money and the talent you need.”

Gastrow asserted that if a vice-chancellor is not outward facing, the resources and safety net the university needs are not possible. Councils need to find a vice-chancellor who enjoys going out and engaging with people.

“Vice-chancellors provide institutional direction and strategy. They champion advancement and position the university and build networks that sustain the institution.”

She said that vice-chancellors should be the champions of fundraising but, often, this does not form part of their job descriptions.

“Vice-chancellors seem to delegate this to deputy vice-chancellors or deans and they don’t seem to understand advancement …” However, fundraising is “basically the job of the vice-chancellor of a university,” according to Gastrow.

The development office provides back-up. “Nobody is going to give you ZAR50 million if the vice-chancellor is not in the room,” she added.

The ‘visibility’ of vice-chancellors

For visibility in the public domain, vice-chancellors should write opinion pieces for the media, so that the voice of the institution is heard, and this could align with the values of donors. The same applies to vice-chancellors being on television or radio, speaking about a topical issue.

The vice-chancellor opening a building is not a voice. It does not carry the same weight as an opinion piece. Issues raised in opinion pieces might align with the values of a donor who could contact the vice-chancellor for a meeting.

“The power relationship is different” if donors approach a university with funding, said Gastrow. One vice-chancellor told Gastrow many years ago that he wanted to get going on raising ZAR1 billion. She said to him: “Nobody knows who you are.”

To this end, a university’s communication team should assist in building the vice-chancellor’s public profile. If the vice-chancellor is not outward facing, the resources, support and massive safety net universities need is not going to materialise. They need to like meeting people and they need to reflect the profile, image and values of the university.

The communications team should also organise forums with the media, in which the vice-chancellor speaks and then listens to what the media wants.

Vice-chancellors should speak at conferences, thereby extending their visibility and that of the university.

Gastrow has observed that some vice-chancellors are not comfortable engaging with donors and so they need coaching. “Bring someone to sit with the vice-chancellor during fundraising meetings and provide critique,” indicating what worked and making suggestions about what should change.

For Gastrow, meeting people is much more pleasant than trying to chase money. Meeting people builds trust. Donations come from face-to-face meetings.

Hosting purposeful events

Gastrow urged universities to host events with a purpose: Ramphele of UCT, in one instance, hosted a meeting in Johannesburg with 12 corporate social investment officers to find out what they thought of universities and what they would support.

“They provided us with information and connections. The next step was to reconnect with them. Lunches need to be clearly thought through and strategised and targeted. The vice-chancellor needs to be out there.”

Despite a university having student protests, a donor might contact a vice-chancellor and say: “I’m sorry your university burned down. I’m interested in how you are going to rebuild it,” thereby opening the door for a meeting and a funding opportunity, explained Gastrow.

However, universities have internal challenges with a lack of alignment with their strategy and unrealistic expectations of what an under-resourced office can deliver.

The higher education sector has a small group of skilled fundraising staff with a high turnover. According to Gastrow, there is a need for ongoing professional development in this field.