Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong Part 6: Recruiting the Right International Advancement Staff

This article is the sixth 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; part 4, The On-Campus International Advancement Model; and part 5, The In-Country Advancement Officer.

As the world becomes more globalized, the number of international advancement positions is growing. Find the right candidate goes beyond hiring a talented fundraiser who is willing to travel. Let’s take a look at what qualities and skills those who have been successful share.

Many of these job postings relegate the most obvious criteria to a small bullet with an overused catch-phrase, “requires frequent travel.” While that vague notion might sound appealing, a candidate’s definition of “frequent” may not match yours. When creating a job description, it’s critical to be as specific as possible about travel expectations. The interview is an opportunity to probe this more deeply, helping candidates understand the reality of dozens of 17-hour flights, 12-hour time zone differences, and ten-course Chinese dinner banquets when your body thinks it’s time for breakfast.

Another practical concern is logistics. Overseas travel entails transactions in foreign currencies, receipts in foreign languages, and different forms of payment than the university might prefer. Visits to China, for example, can be especially challenging, as so much of the Chinese economy operates on digital payment platforms that are inaccessible to foreigners. Outside of the central business districts of the larger Chinese cities, many merchants do not accept Visa or Mastercard. Transactions may need to be done in cash, or with the assistance of local volunteers who have access to digital payments.

Many institutions, especially those new to international fundraising, are not equipped to handle the administrative side of such transactions. Because many international advancement positions are the first of their kind at their universities, they are the ones encountering these issues for the first time. Of necessity, they become part of the process of resolving them. Not everyone who is an excellent fundraiser has the attention to detail and patience required to work through issues like these, and this also should be considered at the hiring stage.

On the ground, international advancement staff need excellent problem-solving skills and the ability to think on their feet. On my first trip to Shanghai, for example, I neglected to exchange my Hong Kong dollars to Chinese yuan in advance, thinking I’d do this at the Shanghai airport or just withdraw yuan from an ATM there. But my flight was delayed, the money changers were closed, and none of the ATMs would accept my foreign card. It was late, so I figured I could resolve this problem in the morning and got into a taxi, only to realize that the taxi driver did not know the English name of my hotel or the road it was on. Thankfully I had a SIM card that worked in both Hong Kong and China and was able to find the name and address in Chinese (using Bing, not Google, of course, as Google doesn’t work in China). On arriving at the hotel, I realized that I could not pay with any of my foreign credit cards, and lacking WeChat pay or AliPay on my phone, I had to work with a helpful bilingual member of the hotel staff to find a way to settle the bill. So many lessons learned!

That experience was stressful, but I was there on a personal trip, so the stakes were low. Now imagine that you are the international advancement officer traveling with your university president at your side and trying to get to an important donor meeting when all of those things went wrong. See what I mean about problem-solving skills and thinking on your feet?

Aside from these practical considerations, it’s also essential for international advancement staff to be culturally dexterous. The majority of those interviewed for this article have studied and/or lived abroad as expats. Through this experience, they have learned to closely observe and to better understand and respond to a donor’s cultural context.

For example, Nina Cohen Bohn, Director of Principal Gifts & External Relations, Asia Pacific, at London Business School is American but has lived and worked in the UK for many years. Rolf Dietrich, Director of International Development for Penn State University is from the US but has a degree in Asian Studies and previously worked in Singapore and Beijing. Joanna Tong, Senior Associate Director, International for the University of Cambridge is from the UK and spent several years working in Canada.

While prior international experiences like these are not a prerequisite for success, they are a strong indicator that the person has the flexibility and adaptability that international work requires. For those who lack such experiences, it is especially important to develop thoughtful interview questions to tease out a candidate’s cultural dexterity. Specific knowledge of the country or region where the staff member will work is helpful, but it is less important than the ability to perceive and adapt to cultural nuances, whatever they may be.

Mimi Fairman, Executive Director for International Development at Carnegie Mellon University is a great case in point.

“I worked in Europe for most of my career and also did some work in the Middle East. CMU hired me thinking I’d focus on the Middle East, but by the time I came on board, they decided I should focus on China instead. I’d never even been to China! But I’m having a lot of success there now and learning so much. If you go with an open mind and are respectful, the donors will teach you.”

Whether based on campus or in-country, international advancement staff are physically removed from people who are essential to their work, either the donors or the other university staff and faculty. Either way, they need to be skilled in maintaining relationships remotely. This can mean everything from waking up at odd hours to be on a conference call with colleagues in order to maintain connection and rapport, to keeping up with a donor over WhatsApp or WeChat. Fundraisers who have excellent in-person skills but are accustomed to working only with donors closer to home may need some guidance and mentorship in order to find ways to translate those skills into more written and digital communications.

Hiring local staff who will be posted in-country, far from their overseas university’s campus, poses its special own challenges. Establishing and maintaining a sense of connection to the institution is chief among them. Michelle Poon, Associate Director, Asia-Pacific Advancement Office, for the University of Toronto, explains, “You have to find the right person, someone who has connections to both the institution and to the local environment. They need to be able to work far from the institution but also need to know it inside and out.”

Most of the time, this means hiring an alumna/us, whose personal association will lend instant credibility, and/or someone who has prior work experience at the institution. Poon, for example, not only graduated from U of T, but also worked on campus for three years before moving back home to Hong Kong and taking on her in-country role. Joanna Chan, Advancement Officer in Asia for the University of Alberta, worked on campus in Edmonton for five years before starting her current role in Hong Kong. And Mei Mei Yiu, Director of Development and Alumni Engagement in Asia for the University of British Columbia, completed a master’s degree at UBC.

David Cashman, Senior Director, Chicago Regional & International Advancement, at the University of Chicago, reflected, “It’s important for our staff who are not based in Chicago to be very credible representatives of the University. An alum’s credibility comes from a much stronger place than someone who has no prior experience at the university. We have some staff overseas who are not alumni, and they have found success in their roles, but they struggle at times with credibility and connection.”

When hiring someone without a prior university affiliation, it is essential to invest in an on-boarding process that includes ample time on campus to experience the institution first-hand as well as a regular schedule of return visits. For example, Simon Phillips, Head of Philanthropy (Asia), is not an alumnus of his institution, the University of Manchester. He did, however, graduate from the University of Leeds, just an hour away, and spent time on the Manchester campus during his university days visiting friends there – both factors that contribute to his credibility and help him foster “a cordial connection” with alumni he meets today. As part of his onboarding process, he spent two full weeks on campus meeting with faculty and staff, attending events, and getting a feel for the culture of the institution today. He also returns to campus quarterly, with visits timed to coincide with important campus events and meetings, further strengthening his bonds.

Another unique challenge for in-country positions is that the majority are blended roles that can include everything from recruiting, marketing, and programming to fundraising and alumni engagement. Funding for the position may come from multiple departments, which complicates hiring decisions, reporting lines, and performance evaluations. And with job responsibilities crossing so many areas of expertise, it can be hard to find staff who are comfortable with, let alone skilled at, all these different areas.

That said, most of the in-country staff in blended roles do not manage a donor portfolio or have personal performance metrics for visits and proposals. Instead, they support the advancement efforts of their campus-based colleagues, providing insight, connections, planning, and follow-up support that increases their colleagues’ effectiveness and efficiency when traveling to Hong Kong.

This is important to keep in mind when recruiting, as “textbook” fundraising experience often is not necessary for success. Those who excel at in-country roles are more likely to have diverse work histories that gave them experience in several different areas. They tend to be self-starters who have an entrepreneurial attitude and broad connections in Hong Kong or wherever they are stationed.

“Your local staff need to be proactive and willing to go out and make things happen,” recommends Catherine Leung, Director, Hong Kong Global Centre for the University of Notre Dame. “If you hire an introverted person who is just sitting around waiting for direction from campus, they simply will not succeed. These roles are what you make of them.”

International advancement positions are increasing around the world, and best practice is only beginning to be defined. Yet it’s clear that those who possess certain qualities and skills are more likely to succeed in these roles. They are entrepreneurial self-starters. They are flexible, adaptable, and patient. And they are culturally dexterous.

Recruiting the right talent is key, but what else should a university consider in their journey of international advancement? In the next and final article in this series, I will share some final words of wisdom from those in the field.

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