Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong | Part 2: Counting Your Alumni

This article is the second installment in a series on Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong

“We know that’s not an accurate number.” “We are probably undercounting.” “We expect there are many more.” I’ve heard answers like this nearly every time I’ve asked an overseas university to estimate the number of alumni they have in Hong Kong. On the one hand, this lack of confidence in alumni data is not a big surprise, given that maintaining up-to-date physical addresses is notoriously difficult in today’s global world. As the University of British Columbia’s Director of Development and Alumni Engagement in Asia Mei Mei Yiu put it, “Many alumni believe that if we have their email address, that is enough. But our count of alumni in Hong Kong comes from mailing addresses, and if their mailing address is still listed as Vancouver, that’s how they get classified.”

While institutions like the University of British Columbia, which has 3,000 alumni in Hong Kong and has been working in the region for more than twenty years, would like to have a more accurate count, determining the precise number is not a major concern. When a university is just starting to build its international development plans, however, understanding the number of alumni in a given market is key because it informs strategy and supports the case for increasing staff and program budgets.

Penn State University is a great case in point. In June 2017, Rolf Dietrich joined Penn State as its first Director of International Development. Prior to his appointment, the university’s fundraising efforts were concentrated domestically. With the majority of its 645,000 alumni in the US and half of these in the state of Pennsylvania, there were good reasons for this approach. Yet, like many other institutions, Penn State’s research, faculty, and students are global, and university development has embraced global dimensions, too. Dietrich started by looking at the data. He says that he spent his first few months on the job thoroughly reviewing data to understand how many alumni were located overseas and where.

Dietrich found 200 degreed alumni in Hong Kong plus 180 others who attended the university in some capacity but did not obtain a degree; in China, there were 3,500 degreed alumni and over 13,000 parents and friends. Interestingly, nearly all of Penn State’s “Hong Kong” alumni are ex-pats—either Americans who’ve taken jobs in Hong Kong or alumni from mainland China who are now living and working in Hong Kong. As such, Dietrich has made Hong Kong a stop on every trip he takes to Asia. It’s a travel hub for his multi-city trips, a place that many alumni from China travel to often, and also a convenient regional gathering place. At a recent alumni event in Hong Kong, for example, several car groups of Penn State’s graduates traveled in from nearby Shenzhen.

This fluidity between Hong Kong and China is one of the challenges institutions face when it comes to “counting” their alumni. For example, some alumni are dual residents who spend time in both locations, and others live in one place but do a great deal of business in the other. As Joanna Chan, Advancement Officer in Asia for the University of Alberta, explained, “In Asia, people are far more mobile. They might have a permanent address in China or Singapore, but you see them more often in Hong Kong.”

Even universities with long-established Hong Kong offices can struggle to account for the entirety of their alumni population here. Canadian institutions, for example, have some of the longest-running local offices in Hong Kong, stemming from historic ties between the two regions. (Over 300,000 Canadians live in Hong Kong, the largest group of Canadians outside of Canada.) The University of Alberta’s Hong Kong Alumni Association just celebrated its 39th anniversary, and staff have been fundraising in Hong Kong for at least 15 years. Similarly, the University of Toronto (U of T) has had an office in Hong Kong for 23 years and was active in the region long before that. Yet Michelle Poon, Associate Director for U of T’s Asia-Pacific Advancement Office, finds that counting their alumni here is still a challenge. “We have many multi-generation families of alumni in Hong Kong, where the grandparents, parents, and children all went to U of T, but often they feel that only one of them needs to register with us.”

There’s often a direct correlation between the reach of an institution’s alumni engagement and fundraising programs and the confidence in its global alumni data. Until a university is actively engaged in a given region, the database count of alumni there likely only scratches the surface. Barney Ellis-Perry, GG+A Senior Vice President and Co-Practice Area Leader for Alumni Relations, shared an example from a university where he worked. The institution had 200,000 alumni in its database, but only nine were listed in all of Greater China. When a few quick searches on LinkedIn showed over 500 in China, he knew his database wasn’t telling the full story.

One strategy Ellis-Perry used to fill in those gaps was hiring international student interns and “unleashing” them on local social media. As he explains, “they often find alumni already had groups that you didn’t know about. Soon you are able to mine names and interests of alumni and reach out with personal invitations to local chapters, events, and student recruitment activities in their cities. Your efforts won’t always result in perfect names and addresses for your English-based systems, which most often don’t accommodate international data in the first place, but they will result in more connections and engagement.”

“Having worked with international alumni for over fourteen years, I have always been struck by the power of alumni to build alumni networks that once you show up in their country, authentically and with a strong value proposition around alumni engagement, will open up and provide a rich matrix of alumni relationships.”

Once you find your alumni, what’s next? What kind of events are universities like these hosting in Hong Kong to engage their alumni, parents, and other friends? Stay tuned for part three in this blog series for more.

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