Building an International Program from the Ground Up

world map in coins

Recently, the notion of international markets as a growth opportunity has taken hold across the philanthropic landscape in arts and culture, medical and scientific research, social welfare, independent schools, colleges and universities.

As just two examples, the Freer|Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution routinely secures 10-25% of philanthropic support from outside the U.S., and 10 percent of total funds raised at Teachers College, Columbia University, last year were gifts from abroad, as compared with 1 percent a decade ago.

For an increasing number of US educational institutions, the international parent community is emerging as a cohort of real potential.

“Eighteen percent of our undergraduates come from abroad,” notes Bob Dietrich at Northeastern University.   “These students bring a rich diversity to our campus, and we are committed to their success. If we do our job well, many parents welcome the opportunity to make a philanthropic investment to the University.”

Tim Struthers of the Loomis Chaffee School agrees. Struthers notes the School has received multiple five-figure (and some six-figure) gifts from international parents and anticipates that seven-figure gifts from alumni will follow before long.  Geographic focus has shifted somewhat over time, he adds, although Asia is clearly the market of greatest potential.

That sentiment is echoed by Stephanie Doyle of the University of Washington.  Sustained effort is key: “It can take 15 years to build a strong relationship,” Doyle observes.  “An occasional visit every other year won’t do the job.”

Also driving international engagement are teachers and scholars whose research and interests extend beyond their own borders. President Susan Fuhrman of Teachers College (TC), who herself plays a frequent and visible role in TC’s international presence, credits the cadre of faculty members interested in working abroad and exploring areas of common concern.

“If we can find a way to support local educators in ways that strengthen their own institutions in meaningful ways, that can really resonate with donors,” she says. “It’s not a question of competing with local institutions, but rather about cooperation and helping them build capacity.”

Some organizations, which don’t enjoy access to easily available constituent groups like alumni, subscribers, and parents, must build their programs from the ground up, one prospect at a time.  Peter Taylor of the South Georgia Heritage Trust in Dundee, Scotland, describes the creative strategies that have driven success for an important wildlife conservation project on an island near the Falklands: referrals from its multinational Board of Trustees; positive partnerships with the cruise lines that bring wealthy visitors to the Island; wealth screening in the U.S. and the establishment of a charitable partner organization in Colorado; and a focus on global environmental foundations.

As the Trust approaches its $12 million campaign goal, Taylor emphasizes that this didn’t happen overnight, and advises:  “Think about your plan for a long time before you launch a new effort.”


This article was excerpted from the Summer 2015 issue of the GG+A Quarterly Review (GGQR). Our latest edition focuses on the breadth of cross-national fundraising efforts underway and offers practical advice to those contemplating new ventures abroad.   Download the entire issue. 

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