Skilling the non-profit sector

South African civil society has reached a crossroads. Non-profit organisations are facing a serious funding crisis, many have been forced to close their doors and most have had to cut back dramatically on the often essential welfare services they provide.

It is the kind of crisis that has the potential to threaten South Africa’s young democracy and affect the capacity of poor communities to access education, health facilities and other basic services.

In part, these funding shortages are the result of the global recession that began in 2008 and has resulted in international donors cutting back on international giving. But it is also because we are failing to raise the resources we need locally because of a shortage of qualified advancement professionals in the non-profit sector.

It is a stock truism that the stimulus to giving is asking. That said, the ‘asking sector” in South Africa is limited in skills and knowledge. If we want the non-profit sector to develop and become more sustainable, adequate human and financial resources need to be raised and maintained—and that requires a skilled cadre of advancement practitioners.

Talk about ‘advancement” in this context refers to the integration in an organisation or institution of functions such as communication, marketing, public liaison, external relations, governance and fundraising so that they work together to attract and maintain support.

We need to professionalise the work of advancement in the non-profit sector so that practitioners can position their respective organisations for investment and become more adept at tapping into new sources of funding and keeping them flowing.

Those donors willing to put their hands in their pockets and pull out six-figure sums expect time and money to be spent on them so, if we want to mobilise resources, we need to build the capacity in our institutions first.

As a country, we are fast outliving our ‘developing nation” status that has helped to secure significant support from international donors during and after the struggle for democracy. We can no longer rely on past generosity.

Increasingly, we are going to need to win support, in open competition, from donors. And we need to become competitive fast, because our current funding crisis is already threatening critical services to poor and vulnerable communities.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) provide at least 30% of civil services in South Africa and the impact of recent funding shortfalls is having dire consequences, particularly in the areas of education, healthcare and social justice.

The huge sums secured by advancement and fundraising professionals in countries such as the United States are legendary. They understand that the practice of advancement is not just a euphemism for fundraising. It is about building, maintaining and improving support, skills and funds for projects, organisations and institutions.

Advancement is about finding common cause with those who have similar values and aspirations and those who want to give their time, talent and financial resources to worthy causes. And then it is about how those causes can be advanced to yield tangible, sustainable improvements and practically realise common goals. It is really about moving the organisation forward and advancing its goals, which is why everyone who works for an NGO needs to get involved.

Nazli Abrahams is the programme manager at Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement, which will host an autumn advancement academy for non-profits in Cape Town between May 14 and 16. Contact Ruvimbo Gwatirisa at or on 021 465 6981/2

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