However, traditional universities remained the recipient of 90% of the funding, according to the research conducted under Inyathelo, the SA Institute for Advancement, with sponsorship by the US-based Kresge Foundation.
Twelve of the country's 26 universities participated in this fourth survey and reported a philanthropic income of R1.63 billion in 2016, a boost of R970 million over a four-year period.
The overall amount of R1.63bn was attributed to a total of 9 448 donors across the 12 institutions.
The largest single donation received by an institution in the 2016 sample was nearly R74m and the highest number of South African contributors to a single institution was 2 387 donors.
The 12 participating institutions were the CPUT, UCT, Durban University of Technology, University of the Free State, University of Johannesburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Pretoria, Stellenbosch University, Tshwane University of Technology, UWC, Wits and the University of Zululand.
Inyathelo programme director Nazli Abrahams said: “For the first time, giving by South African donors have exceeded income from international sources.
South Africans accounted for 90% of all donors and contributed 56% of total funding. International donors contributed 44% of philanthropic income but comprised only 10% of donors.”
The research revealed major differences in funding streams. Six traditional universities received 90% of the R1.63bn (R1.47bn) and the other six (such as universities of technology) received only 10% (R156m).
Moreover, R123m of the R156m received by the non-traditional bloc went to just one university.
The top-funded university received R369m from 2 400 philanthropists and the least-funded university received only R2m from 10 donors.
ASPIHE researcher Sean Jones said: “It is deeply problematic that 90% of donor and grant resources flow to traditional universities which are, by and large, historically advantaged, while just 10% of these resources flow to non-traditional universities which are, for the most part, relatively disadvantaged.
“This is an uncomfortable issue which cannot be ignored. It needs to be addressed sensitively, wisely and creatively by philanthropy and the higher education sector alike.”
He added that South African philanthropy was showing signs of “good health”.
“The private sector has increased its contributions dramatically from R94m in 2013 to R235m in 2016, while income from local private donors increased very significantly from R72m to more than R500m over four years.”
Abrahams said they looked forward to sharing their insights with more higher education institutions.
“Research shows that the more fund-raising, alumni relations and associated support staff an institution has, the higher its philanthropic income. And the more that is spent on fund-raising and strengthening alumni relations, the higher the income received,” she said.