Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong | Part 4: The On-Campus International Advancement Model

This article is the fourth in a series. Read more about this topic in the series introduction, Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong; part 2, Counting Your Alumni; and part 3, Events Great and Small.  


There are over 28,000 universities worldwide, yet fewer than twenty overseas institutions have advancement staff in Hong Kong. For the vast majority of universities with global advancement programs, staff are based on campus and travel to Hong Kong three or four times per year for meetings and events. What are the success factors for programs like these? What are their challenges? I spoke with six international advancement staff for some insights.

The London Business School (LBS) has around 500 alumni in Hong Kong and has been active in the region since at least 2005. Nina Cohen Bohn, Director of Principal Gifts and External Relations, covers the Asia Pacific region and is typically in Hong Kong four times a year, spending a few days in the city before going on to mainland China, Singapore, and/or Australia. She has over 12 years of experience at LBS and has served in a variety of roles, all with some focus on Asia Pacific.

According to Bohn, that longevity has been instrumental to her success in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. “Relationships take longer here than in the US or UK,” Bohn explains. “You need to show up again and again to demonstrate that your organization is invested in the community. The first £5 million gift I closed in Hong Kong took four years. That donor has said countless times how grateful he is that I took my time. He feels that, throughout the process, I was teaching him how to be a philanthropist and he was teaching me how to be patient and to understand Chinese thinking about philanthropy.”

Bohn recognizes the challenges of travelling far from campus for donor meetings in a foreign country:  the fatigue of frequent long-distance travel, the difficulty of scheduling meetings when you have only a dozen days in a country per year, and staying on top of business issues that don’t make the news in London but are top of mind for LBS graduates living and working in Hong Kong. Yet there also are advantages. “Because it’s a novelty when I’m in town, people will make time for meetings,” says Bohn. “They like to hear what’s going on back on campus from someone who is actually there, and they enjoy showing off their town to a visitor.”

Hedda Paisley, Director of Campaign and Principal Gifts at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, echoes this sentiment. “When you are based on campus, you’re not saturating donors with your presence,” Paisley explains. “They want to see you because you are not there all the time.”

Macquarie has nearly 7,000 alumni in Hong Kong, predominantly graduates of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM), which has offered postgraduate programs in Hong Kong since 1994. Although MGSM has some full-time staff in Hong Kong, those staff do not work on development. Macquarie has only been focused on fundraising in Hong Kong for around four years with Paisley at the helm. Prior to this, efforts were focused on engaging the alumni network, which is seeing rewards.

Paisley, like Bohn, notes the importance of longevity at an institution. “Most of the principal gift level donors and prospects I work with in Hong Kong are not alumni,” she says. “They are individuals I’ve connected to over the years and the connections those individuals have introduced me to and so on. You need to take the time to lay the foundation for authentic relationships and do it from the heart, because donors can tell. These relationships are not transactional; they are deep. They want to be partners with the institution.”

Even when she’s across the ocean, Paisley is in regular contact with her prospects in Asia. “My WhatsApp and WeChat don’t stop,” she admits. “My donors know I’m accessible to them 24/7, and because of that it doesn’t matter where I am physically. What matters is that we follow through and deliver on our promises.”

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia also has a centralized fundraising program and, like Macquarie, has 7,000 Hong Kong alumni. It has been active in the region since at least 2005. Over the years, UNSW has experimented with various international advancement models, including in-country staff and in-country consultants. Under the leadership of Jon Paparsenos, Vice President of Philanthropy and CEO of the UNSW Foundation, and Ivan Shin, Executive Director of International Development, UNSW, all international advancement was moved back onto campus in 2016.

“We felt that you have to be on campus to build strong relationships with faculty-based colleagues, operations staff, and others and to really have your pulse on what makes UNSW distinct,” Shin explains. “This depth of knowledge about the university would be hard to replicate if someone is based in Hong Kong and on campus only a few times a year.”

The mobility of UNSW’s Hong Kong alumni was another important consideration in UNSW’s advancement model. Many of the university’s alumni in Hong Kong are only there for short-term assignments and then move on to other locations. As such, Shin finds that managing those relationships through on-campus staff allows the team to think about their engagement holistically, planning and preparing for wherever these alumni move to next.

Like Bohn and Paisley, Shin is in Hong Kong around four times a year and focuses on principal gifts. He reiterated some of the same challenges that Bohn and Paisley describe, adding, “many of the people we’d like to see on a trip are in roles that require a great deal of travel, so even when we are in Hong Kong quarterly, we may not be able to catch up with them for a year or more.” Given UNSW’s vast alumni base here, they recently hired an additional international advancement officer who will be in Hong Kong more frequently, working primarily with prospects with a giving capacity under $1 million AUD and helping connect with those hard-to-reach travelers.

At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, international development is a central service, and Mimi Fairman, Executive Director for International Development, covers a vast territory, including Greater China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey, and beyond. She passes through Hong Kong at least four times a year.

“What people love are the conversations we have about faculty research and the photos I share,” she says. “I don’t use stock photos but instead go around campus and take photos on my phone—real, impromptu photos of what’s happening right then. Donors love seeing these and hearing that I’ve just been to the Tepper Quad Opening or that I attended a conference on campus. Alumni are often nostalgic about their time in Pittsburgh, and parents are curious to know more about this foreign city, so it also helps that I’m a native Pittsburgher and know the city inside and out.”

The University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, Australia has around 1,800 alumni in Hong Kong and has been actively fundraising in the region for several years. Recently, UQ established a centralized portfolio for Global and Institutional Philanthropy to help better manage its more decentralized fundraising activities.

Tara Turner, Director, Global and Institutional Philanthropy, is based in the central office, providing strategy and support to staff across the university. Depending on their individual prospect pools, some UQ fundraising staff in the faculties and institutes travel to Hong Kong anywhere from once a year up to five times a year. Turner helps further the donor relationships these staff manage by traveling to Hong Kong herself two or three times a year, meeting with donors and prospects on behalf of the university as well as the faculties and institutes.

In considering the benefits and challenges of the campus-based international advancement program, Turner adds, “Our main advantage is that we are dialed into the culture of the university. We are there on campus with the researchers and students. We know what’s happening and what’s going to be the next big thing. It does limit how often we can see our donors and makes prospect research more challenging, given that we aren’t as familiar with the region as someone on the ground would, but the trade-offs are worth it for us.”

The University of Cambridge has over 2,400 alumni in Hong Kong and also has been fundraising successfully in the region for several years. Joanna Tong is Senior Associate Director, International and supports campaign priorities and initiatives across Collegiate Cambridge. Tong travels to Asia every six to eight weeks, and Hong Kong is a stop on nearly every trip.

“The frequent travel is a challenge,” Tong admits, “but it is important to be based on campus. When I’m in Cambridge, I spend a lot of time building relationships with a wide range of colleagues within and outside the university development office. In order to collaborate closely with colleagues and fundraisers across Collegiate Cambridge, it’s vital to be there.”

If universities can have such great success with staff based on campus, why would any consider hiring in-country staff? The next article in the series will feature a few of the overseas universities that are on the ground in Hong Kong and the benefits and challenges of their models.

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