Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong | Part 5: The In-Country Advancement Officer

This article is the fifth installment in a series. Read more about this topic in the series introduction, Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong; part 2, Counting Your Alumni; part 3, Events Great and Small; and part 4, The On-Campus International Advancement Model.

Although I live 8,000 miles from my family, there are a dozen ways we can communicate with one another, instantaneously and at almost no cost. WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WeChat, Google Hangouts… the list goes on. Yet no matter how much we connect with the aid of technology, nothing replaces being together in person.

The same is true in advancement, where in-person meetings and events are key to relationship building, no matter how many letters and e-mails we send in between those meetings. So it’s no wonder that as universities have looked to build their communities of support, a few have decided to hire in-country staff in one or more overseas markets.

In-country/local advancement staff in Hong Kong fall into two broad categories: those focused exclusively on advancement and those whose jobs include fundraising and alumni engagement among other responsibilities. Some are part of a regional office that advances their university’s broader global strategies, while others are part of an office focused on university advancement only. I spoke with staff from seven different universities representing all of these variations to hear their perspectives on the unique value they contribute to their universities’ advancement programs.

Prospect Research and Identification

Gathering research on Hong Kong prospects is often a major challenge for overseas universities. Language barriers, the dearth of publicly available information on wealth and income, and lack of familiarity with the national context are just some of the obstacles. Having staff who live and work in Hong Kong can be a game changer. They can enrich prospect research by providing local knowledge and insights that a university may not be able to gather in any other way.

Catherine Leung, Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Hong Kong Global Centre, is a case in point. Like many in-country staff, she grew up in Hong Kong. “Because this is my home, I know which families have been wealthy for generations and the histories of those families, who has been divorced or remarried, etc. I know this from my own life experience and don’t have to rely on online research, which often doesn’t have this level of detailed information anyway.”

Staff also can help with prospect prioritization. Etta Wong, Director of the University of Southern California (USC)’s Hong Kong and South China Office, explains, “It’s not easy for advancement officers back on campus to know where to start when facing a list of prospects who live in Hong Kong. I can add a lot of value by reviewing their lists and providing insider information that will help them understand who the best prospects are.”

In addition to this targeted support, in-country staff also are constantly building up their university’s databases as they represent their institution at local events, mingle at alumni events in the region, and network with others in the community as part of their regular, daily lives in Hong Kong.

Visit Support

In-country staff can provide invaluable assistance when advancement staff and campus leaders visit Hong Kong. This often includes everything from securing meetings, staffing them, debriefing together, and following up afterward.

Joanna Chan, Advancement Officer in Asia for the University of Alberta (U of A) explains, “My role in the process varies case by case, but in general if I have an established relationship with a prospect, I will set up the meeting, choose the location, join the meeting, and do a lot of the preparation and coordination.”

When USC’s Etta Wong learns that an advancement officer will be visiting Hong Kong, she tries to determine how much they already know and fill in any gaps. “Our role is to ensure they have the information they need to achieve their goals for the trip,” Wong says. “When someone flies 15 hours to have a meeting of 50-60 minutes, they need it to be a very fruitful dialogue. We provide the context that helps maximize the effectiveness of these meetings.”

Staff also can help facilitate events. With their local knowledge, they often are better equipped to choose event locations, avoid dates that conflict with holidays or other major events, and arrange logistics. When local staff manage RSVPs, donors don’t have to go back and forth with someone in a different time zone if they have questions about bringing a guest or how to find the event location. On site, they can manage check-in and other logistics so that those staff traveling from campus can spend their time interacting with attendees.

Cultural Liaison

Working for the university but located on the ground in the local market, in-country staff have a unique insider/outsider role that allows them to bridge communication gaps and facilitate cross-cultural understanding. Staff often find that donors will call them with questions or feedback they’d never share directly with the university’s leadership or advancement staff who visit from abroad. This is partly for practical reasons (like the difficulty of picking up the phone for a quick chat with someone in Canada or the UK in the middle of the day) and partly for cultural reasons.

U of A’s Joanna Chan observes, “No matter how often staff members come to Hong Kong, alumni still view them as ‘just traveling here.’ The dynamic is just different when you are local. They see you as one of them. It also helps that I grew up here, I speak the language, and I’m an alumna myself. Alumni are messaging me on WhatsApp and staying in touch regularly, and so when we talk about the university, they are generally a lot more open with me than with visitors.”

For example, one staff person I interviewed shared a story about a donor who politely told visiting university leadership he “would consider” a gift proposal. When a campus gift officer visited the donor again a few months later, he again indicated he was considering it. Eventually, however, the donor called the local staff member and shared that he wasn’t actually interested in making the gift.

Because Chinese culture emphasizes social harmony and respecting “face,” this donor wasn’t comfortable giving an outright refusal in those meetings but instead had communicated his disinterest indirectly. From his perspective, he was politely saying “no” in a way that would save face for the high-ranking university leader who obviously had expended great time and expense to travel to the meeting. From the university’s perspective, he was saying “maybe.” In the end, it was much easier for him to communicate his “no” to the local staff member with whom he had a more personal relationship and for whom an indirect communication style was second nature.

Hong Kong may seem very westernized on the surface, particularly to those who visit for short periods only and stay along the central thoroughfares of Hong Kong Island. The cultural differences are not glaringly obvious—particularly among alumni of elite, overseas universities. But the differences are real, and it takes time to understand and navigate them. This is one reason universities usually prefer to hire Hong Kongers who were born and raised here for their in-country positions. Yet, that’s not to say that someone who wasn’t born in Hong Kong can’t succeed in these roles.

Simon Phillips, for example, is from the UK and made Hong Kong his home more than six years ago. He’s worked for a local organization and is raising a family here. When Simon joined the University of Manchester as Head of Philanthropy (Asia) in 2018, he knew that his years of local experience would be invaluable. “I have a feel for the fundraising environment as well as the nuances and subtlety of communication that wouldn’t be as obvious to those who are just visiting.”

In-country staff also can shape their institutions’ strategies to be more culturally relevant. The University of Toronto (U of T), for example, holds its annual fundraising campaign in Hong Kong around Chinese New Year rather than Christmas or the fiscal year end. Michelle Poon, Associate Director for U of T’s Asia-Pacific Advancement Office, explains, “We produce lai see (red pockets) with our logo on them and mail them to donors as a thank you for past support and to encourage their contribution for the new year. Our alumni community is very close, and they like having U of T red pockets to give to other alumni during the holidays.”

Although language is rarely an obstacle when engaging alumni of English-speaking universities, it can be a barrier when institutions want to engage parents of current students. Chinese and English are both official languages in Hong Kong, but only 4% of Hong Kongers identify English as their usual spoken language. Local staff who are bilingual (English and Cantonese) or trilingual (English, Cantonese, and Putonghua/Mandarin) can build bridges with parents who may not speak fluent English or may simply prefer to speak with someone in their native language.

Cultivation and Stewardship

Local staff can lay the groundwork for on-campus advancement officers. Notre Dame’s Catherine Leung, for example, spends a lot of time educating parents and alumni about fundraising and feeling out interest and inclination. “The idea of philanthropy is new to many of our donors,” Leung said. “Why do we need the money? How does it benefit the students? I explain the value of donating and determine if they might be interested, or if they may be better suited to volunteering, helping secure internships, or other engagement with the university.”

Because in-country staff typically engage more frequently with prospects and in less formal settings, they often can gain a deeper understanding of giving motivations more quickly than their campus-based counterparts can. As U of T’s Michelle Poon shared, “I work closely with the campus-based advancement staff. When a gift officer talks with me about their donor strategy, I can have an honest conversation about whether I think it will be successful or not. If I don’t think it’s the best approach for that prospect, I can explain why, and we can restrategize together.”

By sustaining relationships between visits from campus leadership, in-country staff also can speed up the cultivation process more than would be possible through visits alone. Mei Mei Yiu, Director of Development and Alumni Engagement in Asia for the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Asia Pacific Regional Office explains, “Sometimes there are a lot of things to do after a first or second meeting with a prospect, and we are the ones who can do that follow through. We also learn what the prospects value and can shape strategies that will help continue the relationship until the next leadership visit.”

In-country staff also can deliver the kind of impromptu stewardship that’s often impossible from afar. “It’s easy for me to reach out to prospects and say something is happening next week, and I have a couple of tickets if they’d like to join me,” says U of A’s Joanna Chan. “With our close connection to the Canadian Consul General’s office, the University is invited to several events throughout the year, and I can easily extend those invitations to our local alumni.”


Located on the University of Chicago’s Hong Kong campus, Prescille Chu Cernosia is Director of Global Advancement – Asia for the Booth School of Business. She finds that “being on the ground is really important in Asia. People expect feedback and resolution right away. They like that they can text someone in the same time zone and not wait through a 24-hour delay. They feel taken care of.”

Cernosia works throughout Asia and spends 40-50% of her time traveling, but the destinations are much closer to Hong Kong than to Chicago. “Because it’s only three hours away, I can plan a last minute trip to Beijing for an important meeting there with only a couple of days’ notice and add some other meetings around it. You don’t have that ease when planning a trip to Beijing from Chicago.”

Manchester’s Simon Phillips echoes this sentiment. “I’ve had donors cancel a meeting on the same day because they suddenly need to fly off to a business meeting in Shanghai or Jakarta. Because I’m based here in Hong Kong, I can just say ‘no problem,’ and we will reschedule it for the next week. Even if that happens when I’m on a trip in Singapore, it’s fine because I’ll be back there in a month anyway.”

Symbol of Local Commitment

In addition to all of these practical advantages, having someone on the ground in Hong Kong is a symbolic act. It demonstrates in a visible way that the overseas university is committed to the region. As Manchester’s Simon Phillips said, “It sends a very clear message that we take this seriously. There is a person in your city who is going to look after your relationship. He is here to work with you and support you, on hand anytime, in your time zone. Our donors and volunteers have responded very positively to this investment in the region.”

The Challenges

The work is not without its challenges, though. Many of the in-country staff in Hong Kong are solo employees, or part of a team of only two or three people. Few people have the drive, independence, and entrepreneurial spirit required to work alone, thousands of miles from their colleagues. It can be isolating and hard to stay motivated, especially for newer programs that are just finding their groove. Professional development opportunities aren’t as abundant as they would be on campus, nor are opportunities for career advancement.

There’s also the constant struggle of time zones and work hours. Because everyone else is back on campus, in-country staff are the ones who typically bend their schedules to accommodate campus work hours, rather than vice versa. Staff often take phone calls early in the mornings or late in the evenings, in addition to keeping regular Hong Kong business hours to accommodate donors’ needs.

And while in-country staff may have deeper relationships with their local prospects, the flip side is that they have to work harder to sustain their knowledge of and connections to the university. They miss out on over-the-cubicle conversations, casual lunches with coworkers, and ad hoc opportunities to get to know faculty and professors.

Having a boss or other point person on campus who can help navigate these challenges is key. As Booth’s Prescille Chu Cernosia explains, “There’s simply not as much access to the networks and resources on campus. Fortunately, my manager is extremely connected in Chicago and can facilitate these relationships for me and help keep me informed.”

Regular visits back to campus are another crucial ingredient, even if they are only once a year, though some staff return as often as quarterly. These are opportunities to see firsthand what’s happening on campus, attend events, meet with academics, and build trust with colleagues through time spent together in person. Through regular visits to campus, in-country staff can ground themselves in the mission and vision of the organizations they work for so that they can bring that excitement back to their alumni and donors in Hong Kong.

Whether international advancement staff are based on campus or abroad, these are specialized roles that require unique skill sets. The next article in this series will explore some of the attributes common among those who excel in these roles.

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