South Africa: Ahmien Van Der Walt - 'Put Your Weirdness Into Your Work'

To be eligible for the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Vice-Chancellor's (VC) Award for Global Citizenship, there must be, among other things, evidence of community outreach that enhances the reputation and profile of the university, evidence of the sustainable impact of the interventions on the community, and the nominee's engagement with the community must be aligned to UCT's mission and strategic direction.

Ahmien van der Walt, the recipient of this year's Global Citizenship award, has met all the criteria - and then some.

Van der Walt is a fundraiser in the Corporates, Trust & Foundations and Government portfolio in UCT's Development and Alumni Department (DAD), which deals with strategic projects that are set by the vice-chancellor.

"Excellence is such an important quality of our work at UCT that last year we decided to create a special category of award that celebrates how you demonstrate your commitment to excellence in your citizenship, your service and in your creative approach to transforming the UCT environment," said VC Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

"The Global Citizenship award recognises individuals or teams who have demonstrated excellence in living out the UCT mission through areas of service, the pursuit of knowledge, the dignity of the human being and contributions to the common good."

Professor Phakeng's sentiments were echoed by Dr Medeé Rall, who nominated Van der Walt for the award, as well as the supporters of the nomination. This included Dr June Bam-Hutchison, the interim director of the Khoi and San Unit; Sidney van Heerden, the deputy director and head of fundraising for DAD; and Tauriq Jenkins, the chairperson of the A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum.

Dr Rall called Van der Walt "an exceptional member of staff who goes ... beyond what can be expected at all times", while Dr Bam-Hutchison said that he is a "community-driven and socially engaged professional member of staff" who "works with passion and personal selflessness and is admirably committed beyond the call of duty to South Africa's community development and skills training agenda".

Van Heerden, who is Van der Walt's line manager, commended his commitment, "including many hours of work overtime", and his "independent and innovative approaches to court new potential donors". Jenkins added that Van der Walt is a team player whose fundraising "has enabled a process of vital capacity building" for the Khoi and San Unit.

Impact, arts and culture

So, who is Ahmien van der Walt and what advice does he have for anyone who wants to reach similar heights in their career?

He first arrived at UCT when he was 16 years old, working as a part-time usher at the Baxter Theatre Centre.

"After just one month, I realised that I loved working in the field of arts and culture. The creative input into each production had a profound effect on me as I watched the birthing of a creative process develop into a full-scale production - and I was hooked," he said.

Two years later and fresh out of high school, Van der Walt was offered a position in the Baxter's marketing department, assisting with coordinating marketing and sales. This was when his love for the arts really developed.

"Bringing previously disadvantaged and hugely talented performers to the international stage was an amazing feeling."

It continued to grow as he made a move to the Cape Town Opera Company where he engaged with world-renowned classical artists and assisted in bringing celebrated productions to South Africa.

"Being part of the process, which included bringing previously disadvantaged and hugely talented performers to the international stage, was an amazing feeling," he said.

"Furthermore, exposing and bringing children and young adults into this genre gave me a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that [my] work impacted [those] who would otherwise not have been able to access these kinds of opportunities."

From 2013 to 2018 Van der Walt was based at Iziko Museums where he assisted the director of advancement with innovative strategy, helped raise R60 million and managed over 86 partnerships with an annual rand equivalent of R14 million.

He was part of the team that managed to raise R27 million for the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome, and secured R7 million for the São José slave shipwreck project from the United States Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. In 2014 Van der Walt was named one of Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans for his work as a fundraiser in the arts and culture sector and in 2018 he joined UCT.

What it takes

Asked what makes a successful fundraiser, Van der Walt shared the skills and characteristics that he believes are crucial: impeccable integrity; being a good listener, a good motivator and a hard worker who is concerned about others; having high expectations and energy; persevering; being present; and, most importantly, loving the work.

But, he noted, success in fundraising is never just about individual performance. This, he said, is true of his successes, including the VC's award. While he is grateful for the recognition, efforts and commitment, he is equally grateful for the support of the portfolio, department and institution. After all, "fundraising is a team sport".

"We all get a little weird from time to time, but it's how we choose to channel our weirdness that's key."

As for his advice to anyone who wants to follow in his award-winning footsteps, Van der Walt recalled something he heard many years ago from famed voice-over and recording artist Ken Nordine: "Put your weirdness into your work."

"We all get a little weird from time to time, but it's how we choose to channel our weirdness that's key," he said.

To offset what Van der Walt called a "very ordinary life", the super fundraiser infuses every project with "experimental and fluid creations".

"It's what's led to my best work and most successful endeavours. With weirdness and imaginative thinking embedded in all facets of your work, you are free to spend the rest of your time enjoying the little things in life - a balance that is delicate yet so profound."

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