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Gillian Mitchell


In 2005, as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) was applying for a five-year advancement grant with the Kresge Foundation, Gillian Mitchell was asked to help the university to find a new director of advancement.

“Clearly they weren’t finding the right person,” Mitchell says. “So they said, ‘Will you take the job?’ And that’s how I became the advancement director for CPUT.”

At that time, CPUT was going through tumultuous change and faced very different challenges than the other mainstream universities in South Africa. As part of a nationwide strategy to transform South Africa’s “Technikons” (technical colleges) into full-fledged and deracialized universities, the government had merged the formerly white Cape Technikon with the formerly coloured Peninsula Technikon to create the brand-new CPUT. The transition wasn’t smooth.

“2005-2006 was really the time of trying to make those mergers work,” says Mitchell. “So they (CPUT) were struggling with many things. It was internally difficult because (Cape Technikon and Peninsula Technikon) were two very different institutions. They were culturally different, they spoke different languages – one was English-speaking and one was Afrikaans. And also the two Technikons had been forced to merge – it wasn’t done willingly. There was a lot of student unrest at the time.”

In many ways, fundraising was the last thing on the minds of the CPUT leadership team. And yet raising money was essential to quickly ramp up the university’s capacity to serve its students.

“There wasn’t an institutional plan,” Mitchell explains. “I think when I got there, CPUT was raising really not very much – about 3 or 4 million rand ($225,000 or $300,000) a year.” The advancement office was very small, and was headed on an interim basis by the director of communications and marketing.

“There really was nowhere to go except up.”

Strengthening Advancement at CPUT

The Kresge grant provided the CPUT advancement office with much-needed support, flexibility and room to grow during this chaotic time at the university.

“The Kresge grant did a whole bunch of things,” says Mitchell. “Firstly, it freed the department to be able to go out and get the resources that it wanted without getting tied up in all kinds of bureaucracy. I could hire staff, I could get consultants in – I could do all sorts of things that could build that up quite quickly.”

Just as important were the subtle shifts in attitude among the advancement staff, who suddenly felt their work was meaningful.

“I think (the Kresge grant) gave the people who were the fundraisers a very different lease on life. It allowed them to suddenly be able to do or think about the things that they’d not really been able to do before. … I think they got quite excited about it.”

The Kresge grant established the foundation of CPUT’s advancement program, helping to show the team was what possible in the future.

“A lot of my job was not so much in raising funds, as it was just building an infrastructure and an environment in which people thought they could do their jobs,” says Mitchell. “And to see that there was more to the job than what they were currently doing.”

The program had a huge quantitative impact on CPUT, as well. During Mitchell’s three-plus years at CPUT, annual fundraising increased from 3-4 million rand per year to about 27 million rand ($2 million) per year. CPUT also mounted its first successful alumni fundraising campaign, something many university leaders had thought would be impossible at a school like CPUT.

Building “Sectoral Capacity”

Mitchell points to the other great benefit of the Kresge program: the new spirit of collegiality that developed among advancement leaders at different universities. This collegial spirit fostered more collaboration and creativity.

“The members of the Kresge program – there were five of us – found that for us to work together was just the most incredible thing. Because none of us had ever done it before,” Mitchell explains. “(The program) brought a kind of collaborative focus, certainly for the five of us, that made it so much easier to … actually build something that was more than just institutional capacity – a kind of sectoral capacity,” says Mitchell.

“It took us away from thinking of ourselves just as unique individual universities struggling along, and turning it into something that was a little bit more collegial, but certainly sectorally better.”

From a personal growth perspective, Mitchell describes her involvement with the Kresge program as “an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary privilege. I’m thankful for that kind of exposure, and being shown that there was something so much broader and wider and just the potential of what could be done.”