Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong | Part 3: Events Great and Small

This article is the third installment in a series. The series introduction, Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong and part 2, Counting Your Alumni, are on our website.

One of the great things about living in Hong Kong is that so many interesting people are always passing through. In the last few months, I’ve attended a dinner with American author Cheryl Strayed, listened to a talk by Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of the famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton, and learned about Bhutan’s political history from anthropologist Françoise Pommaret. Hong Kong brands itself “Asia’s World City,” and experiences like these exemplify that motto.

Overseas universities have become particularly adept at using Hong Kong’s migratory nature to their advantage by building events around faculty who are passing through the city. Nearly everyone I interviewed for this series cited these faculty events as an important part of their engagement strategy. Although the way such events come about may be opportunistic, the strategy around them is anything but.

The University of Chicago (UChicago) has a distinct event planning advantage with its new Hong Kong campus, where they host a robust series of local programs, many of which leverage faculty visits. “We find that events featuring our faculty work best,” says David Cashman, Senior Director, Chicago Regional & International Advancement. “Our constituency cares most about the intellectual content, so we try to organize a lecture whenever one of our high profile faculty members will be in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong is one of the cities where UChicago regularly hosts its flagship faculty speaker series, the Harper Lecture. The January 2019 Harper Lecture in Hong Kong will feature a faculty member from the university’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, who also will present in Shenzhen the following day. Harper Lectures also are recorded and posted on UChicago’s YouTube channel, extending their global reach.

While some of these programs come together with rather short notice, UChicago also does long-lead planning around faculty who are scheduled to teach on the Hong Kong campus in the months to come—they already know, for example, which faculty will be in Hong Kong in the winter of 2020. This kind of advance notice can be a great advantage, allowing for more strategic event planning.

For universities without a campus, office, or local staff in Hong Kong, planning an event across the planet can be overwhelming, especially if you are new to international advancement. The key to success is identifying on-the-ground volunteers who can help host and plan. Hong Kong is a “club city,” and it’s likely that some of your alumni and donors have memberships at The Hong Kong Club, China Club, American Club, Aberdeen Marina Club, Cricket Club, The Helena May, or others. These are great event venues, as the experienced multi-lingual staff can help with every detail, easing the burden of event logistics.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which has around 400 alumni in Hong Kong, has developed a brand for its faculty visits, the “Twelve Tartan Lunches.” These informal, intimate lunches focus on each faculty member’s area of research, creating a diverse program throughout the year with topics ranging from Tibetan art to biomedical engineering. Because the visiting faculty are often here to speak or conduct research in Hong Kong, or elsewhere in Asia, there’s also a local connection that appeals to alumni. CMU’s events come together through the help of a vibrant alumni network that makes arrangements and identifies a short list of invitees who would be interested in the topic.

When it comes to larger events, the city’s hotels are usually the best option. In March 2018, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) hosted The Future of Asia alumni summit at the Conrad Hotel. This full-day conference presented more than 20 speakers on topics relevant to the region, from “Asia in the ageing century” to “Accessing contemporary art in/from China and its near neighbors.” Sessions featured UNSW faculty in conversation with local leaders and experts, with plenty of opportunities for networking built into the program. For UNSW, Hong Kong is the city with the largest number of alumni outside of Australia, around 7,000, and the event’s scale reflected the size of this alumni presence in the region.

Other large events are driven by a university milestone or campaign. In spring 2018, CMU celebrated 50 years as Carnegie Mellon University at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, as well as events in Shanghai and Beijing. Unlike the smaller Twelve Tartan Lunches, these were large events with over a hundred attendees and multiple staff making the trip just for this celebration. The University of Queensland’s big event in Hong Kong this year was a kick-off for its $500 million campaign, Not if, when, and annual Hong Kong events are planned going forward as well.

In addition to all of this university-driven activity, most institutions that are active in Hong Kong have local alumni chapters that plan and organize their own events throughout the year. And many have one particular annual event that their alumni have come to count on.

For more than a dozen years, the London Business School (LBS) has hosted a World Alumni Celebration with multiple events in cities around the world. What started as a 24-hour event has morphed into a month-long celebration with events in 90–100 cities. In addition to the on-campus event in London, LBS selects five other key cities to which the Dean will travel, and Hong Kong (where there are 500 alumni) is often on that list. Even in the years when the Dean doesn’t make it to Hong Kong, the local chapter self-organizes. Nina Cohen Bohn, Director of Principal Gifts and External Relations, Asia Pacific, says that many alumni report the World Alumni Celebration is the one event they attend every year.

Graduations are universities’ grandest-scale events, and a few ambitious universities have found ways to host these celebrations here in Hong Kong. The University of Toronto (U of T), for example, has been hosting a graduation in Hong Kong every other year since 1995.

“There was a large group of alumni in the region that wanted to participate in convocation in Toronto, but a lot of their family weren’t able to make the trip,” explains Michelle Poon, Associate Director for U of T’s Asia-Pacific Advancement Office. “Maybe they were the first in their family to attend university and don’t have the financial resources. Maybe their parents or grandparents are a little older and can’t travel. Or, maybe they’ve finished their last semester in May but can’t wait around for convocation in June because they have a job offer in Asia. We started the graduation in Hong Kong to allow students like these, along with their families, to be part of the U of T experience.”

The last U of T graduation ceremony in Hong Kong had 150 graduates from all divisions, hailing from eight different countries in the Asia Pacific region. Total attendance, with guests, was over 750. As Poon points out, it’s a lot of work but well worth the effort. “The president or chancellor always attends, we recruit alumni volunteers to serve as ushers, and we ship gowns, hoods, and even the mace from Toronto,” she explains. “It takes about a year to organize the event, but it’s such a strong connection to be able to make.

An event as grand as that likely would not be possible without U of T’s Hong Kong office and its three staff. But does that mean your university should hire staff in-country? The next two articles in this series will explore the benefits and challenges of campus-based international advancement programs and those programs with staff on the ground in Hong Kong.

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