Transnational University Fundraising in Hong Kong Part 7: Emerging Best Practices in International Advancement

This article is the seventh and final 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; part 5, The In-Country Advancement Officer; and part 6, Recruiting the Right International Advancement Staff.

It all started with two notable gifts from Hong Kong: Gordon Wu’s $100 million to Princeton in 1995 and the Chan family’s $350 million to Harvard in 2014. Wu’s was the first major gift from a Hong Kong philanthropist to a US university, while the Chans’ gift made global headlines as the largest donation to Harvard in its history.

Gifts like these inspired universities throughout the world to take a second look at how they were (or were not) engaging their alumni, friends, and donors who lived far beyond campus. By putting transnational university fundraising in the spotlight, they helped build a case for international advancement.

Although the number of universities engaged in international advancement has been increasing ever since – and especially since 2014 – it is still a relatively young specialization. Nonetheless, the community of international advancement professionals is starting to coalesce and identify best practices.

In this final article of the series, I share seven tips for organizations just starting to plan their own international advancement programs.

First, do your homework.

An international advancement program requires significant budgetary resources, uniquely qualified staff, and a good deal of time before you will see a positive ROI. Do your homework before making the jump.

Which regions align with your institution’s strategic priorities? (This is a big one… more on this below.) In which global markets do you have significant cohorts of alumni? Where do you already have close friends and advocates who can help with strategy and networking? Where are there existing networks, such as alumni associations or clubs that you can build on? What does the data tell you about your prospects and their potential?

At the same time, don’t get stuck on issues like whether or not you need a local foundation or in-country giving vehicle, as these can be sorted out in due time. While many of the overseas institutions that are very active in Hong Kong have a local foundation under Section 88 of the tax code, most launched their foundations only after their programs had established some traction. Many other institutions ask their donors to make gifts to the institution directly and find that this is sufficient, particularly if they are focusing only on major and principal gifts.

Involve your institutional leadership.

To succeed in international advancement, you need to focus on markets that align with your institution’s strategic priorities. You should be able to answer the question, “Why are you focusing on Hong Kong [or anywhere else]” with a rationale that reflects back on your strategic plan. Without this, you risk the perception that you’ve chosen the region only because there are wealthy alumni who you want to solicit for initiatives that have no resonance in the local market.

No matter how skilled and charismatic your international advancement staff are, they cannot do this work alone. The physical presence of your institutional leadership is vital to your success. Your university president, vice chancellor, provost, and/or deans need to visit the region regularly, helping forge connections that will advance the institution’s strategic goals in the region as well as its fundraising goals.

For example, one institution with an exceptionally strong advancement program in Hong Kong shared that they owe their success in part to their university president’s active presence in the region. While many institutions’ leaders through Asia once every 12-18 months, their president is in Asia multiple times a year with at least one visit to Hong Kong every year. Another institution’s president demonstrated his commitment to the region by traveling to Hong Kong just two months after assuming his post.

Determining the right pattern and frequency of leadership visits should be one of the earliest steps in building your international advancement program. What’s right for one institution is not necessarily right for another, but it’s safe to say that if a region is a clear priority for your institution’s leadership, your institution is more likely to be a priority for those donors.

Make a long-term commitment.

If you haven’t yet started your international advancement journey, you may be tempted to start out with a small pilot program, e.g., hiring a single staff person on a 2-year contract to see what progress s/he can make and then determining whether to continue the program based on that person’s success. Those in the field, however, strongly advise against the “pilot” approach.

Michelle Poon, Associate Director for the Asia-Pacific Advancement Office of the University of Toronto, explains, “Our alumni and donors want a deep, long-term engagement with the university, and those relationships take time to build. If donors know you are committing to two years only, they will be less likely to get engaged at all. On the other hand, if you have some small successes in those first two years but back out because it was not as much success as you hoped, you will have to do serious damage control.”

Ivan Shin, Executive Director of International Development at the University of New South Wales, adds, “If you are going to make Hong Kong a priority, you need to commit for the long-term. Building relationships takes time, especially in Asia. The institution has to be authentically committed. Current and prospective donors don’t want to feel like you are testing the waters and might pull back at any moment.”

This is especially true if you are considering a local/in-county hire. Joanna Chan, who is posted in Hong Kong as Advancement Officer in Asia for the University of Alberta, advises, “You can’t think short-term if you are placing someone in an international market. Business in Asia is based on relationships. Donors want to get to know you and need to trust you as a person. If they know you are only temporary, they won’t want to invest in building that long-term relationship with you.”

You will need your volunteers more than ever.

“Find great volunteers. You will need to depend on them,” advises Tara Turner, Director, Global and Institutional Philanthropy for the University of Queensland.

Volunteers will prove helpful in all the usual ways—networking, advising, event planning, fundraising—and their value will be further amplified by their overseas location. They are the experts you can tap for advice about the local market. They can be your cultural liaisons, helping you navigate cultural nuances and making sure your materials and messages are appropriate. They can help with logistics that might seem insurmountably difficult from afar, such as finding an appropriate venue for a lunch meeting in a city you’ve never visited to arranging an alumni event that might involve coordination with venue staff who speak a foreign language. If you will have staff in-country, your volunteers might even be able to provide low or no-cost office space, legal advice, or other in-kind support.

Volunteers also provide essential knowledge about your prospects’ networks, interests, and values – insights that simply are not available through research alone. Their introductions can open the doors to meetings you would not be able to secure otherwise.

Tune in to cultural difference.

“Don’t make assumptions,” cautions Joanna Tong, Senior Associate Director, International for the University of Cambridge. “Hong Kong is very westernized, but don’t take it for granted that donors are thinking the same way you do.”

When you and the donor both speak English, it can be especially easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you both see a conversation the same way. It’s important to tune in to non-verbal clues that indicate when you are saying one thing but the donor is hearing something different. Because of the importance of “face” in Asian cultures, a donor might prefer to let a misunderstanding slide by rather than directly state that they don’t understand you (or that you aren’t understanding them). Listening carefully, asking questions to ensure shared understanding, and restating important ideas in a few different ways can help ensure you both walk away with the same impression of the conversation.

One especially sensitive area where this comes up is around the question of whether a donation might help a donor’s son or daughter gain admission into the university. Despite policies against “pay for play” admissions, some donors, especially those who are new to philanthropy, still wonder if their gift might open a door. Few will ask the question outright however. Instead, they are more likely to bring it up indirectly and will expect an equally indirect answer from you. In cases like this, it is essential to bring the question to the surface, address it head-on, and leave no room for interpretation.

You can’t rely on sweeping generalizations.

It’s natural to look for generalizations, especially when trying to make sense of a new and unfamiliar situation. Unfortunately, they are rarely accurate or helpful. Each university has its own strategic priorities, a distinct culture, and a range of different individual personalities it brings to the table. This makes it difficult to compare different institutions’ fundraising experiences in Hong Kong or any other market.

For example, when I asked institutions which giving priorities were most attractive to their donors in Hong Kong, answers were all over the map. Some said that scholarships were far and away the most popular giving opportunity among their Hong Kong donors. Yet others spoke just as strongly about faculty support, medical research, entrepreneurship initiatives, or capital projects.

Answers were rooted more in each institution’s priorities and how long it had been working in the region than in any “rule of thumb” about donors from Hong Kong. Scholarships, for example, are often popular among first-time donors the world over, as they provide a modestly priced way to have a direct and easily understandable impact. They are great “entry” or “test” gifts. As a result, those institutions that are newer to fundraising in Hong Kong are more likely to see a lot of interest in scholarships, whereas those that have been active in the region for a longer time might have donors supporting a more diverse array of giving priorities.

Over time, you will uncover some commonalities among your own alumni and donors, from which you might make generalizations that will help new staff understand the environment. But until you really know your own community, be wary of formulating strategies based on sweeping generalizations about the market.

Hong Kong Is/Isn’t China

At Hong Kong’s recent Art Central fair, artist Ko Siu Lan presented the artwork New Territories, Old Territories, an interactive piece made up of three rotating pillars with the word pairs “Hong Kong/China,” “is/isn’t,” “China/Hong Kong.” As I looked at the piece, I thought, this is perhaps the best possible way to sum up the complex relationship between the SAR and the PRC. Hong Kong is part of China. And it also is not.

In this blog series, I’ve focused on Hong Kong because this is where I live and work, but the reality is that every institution working in Hong Kong also is engaging its alumni and building relationships with potential donors in mainland China. The reason is simple: China is the world’s largest source country for international students and likely will remain so for years to come.

In 2017, there were over 1,450,000 Chinese students enrolled in overseas higher education institutions. In the United Kingdom, Chinese students make up 33% of all non-EU students, and they constitute nearly the same percent of all international students in the United States. In Australia and New Zealand, it’s even higher –43% and 57% respectively.

There is great opportunity in China, but it comes with additional challenges. While no visa is required for travel to Hong Kong from 170 countries, most everyone needs a visa to enter China. While Hong Kong prides itself on freedom of speech and press, Chinese censorship prevents access to websites like Facebook and Google, a huge obstacle for institutions that rely on these platforms. While a donor from Hong Kong can contribute as much or little to your institution as s/he would like, foreign exchange controls limit the funds that can leave mainland China.

And then there’s China’s new Charity Law. Enacted in 2016, the Charity Law prohibits foreign organizations from soliciting donations in China. Its intention was to establish legal regulations that would help build trust and accountability in the country’s philanthropic sector, not to prohibit overseas universities from engaging their alumni in China. Even so, the letter of the law does not make this differentiation.

As is common in Chinese lawmaking, the Charity Law provides a high-level blueprint and the specifics of its implementation and enforcement will be worked out over time. In the meantime, organizations have to make their own assessment of which activities they feel are in line with the law and which are not. Two helpful resources are the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s FAQ sheet, which provide a fairly concise overview of the law, and the United Nations Development Programme’s Handbook of Charity Law of the People’s Republic of China, which gives a much more extensive history, context, and analysis of the law and its implications.

For all these reasons, many institutions use Hong Kong as their home base for fundraising in China.

While they might host cultivation events on the mainland, the actual solicitation will take place in Hong Kong. With increasingly easy access between the mainland and Hong Kong, it’s also common to find more and more mainland Chinese alumni attending events held in Hong Kong.

At a recent event that Penn State University held in Hong Kong, for example, a third of the attendees were from the mainland. Rolf Dietrich, Director of International Development, shared, “The majority of Penn State’s alumni in Hong Kong are expats, either American ex-pats or Chinese ex-pats who are running a business in Hong Kong. Hong Kong today has to be viewed within the context of China and the ‘Greater Bay Area.’ You can’t view your work there in isolation anymore.”

When China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, the principle of “one country, two systems” was put into place with an expiration date of 2047. While there’s no clear understanding about what that date will bring, many Hong Kong residents already feel the SAR’s shift toward the mainland. Last year saw the opening of a new high speed railway station in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge—both of which create faster and easier access across the border. The boundaries are blurring.


International Advancement is a growing industry and has become a critical component of many institutions’ engagement and fundraising strategies. For the advancement professional, navigating evolving political landscapes, learning new cultures, and building connections internationally is challenging, exciting and rewarding.

If you are just beginning to explore international advancement and make plans for your own program, check out the following additional resources:

  • The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) has a wealth of information on this topic, including a collection of articles in their Subject Guide to International Fundraising; multi-day, immersive International Fundraising Study Tours; International Advancement conferences; and more.
  • The Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index and the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society’s (CAPS’s) Doing Good Index provide excellent overviews of the philanthropic environment in countries across the globe.
  • Published in January 2018, the CAPS publication Pragmatic Philanthropy: Asian Charity Explained is a book I wish had been written before I moved to Asia. The chapter on the history of giving in Asia includes summaries of eleven Asian economies that will help you understand the basis for each country’s current understanding of and practices of philanthropy.
  • Many organizations publish global and regional wealth reports, including Capgemini, Credit Suisse, Knight Frank, Coutts, and WealthX. All can be found online and downloaded free of charge.
  • The Hurun Report is best known for its China Rich List but also has many other valuable resources. Lists provides both name-level data and big-picture insights (e.g, half of those on the China Rich List live in just seven Chinese cities, with Beijing and Shenzhen leading the pack). Most Hurun lists can even be exported into Excel.
  • The Hong Kong Tatler also publishes a variety of philanthropy lists, including the recent list of “50 Philanthropists In Asia Who Are Changing The World.

Although this concludes the blog series, I hope you will keep the conversation going by joining the LinkedIn group Fundraising Across Borders, an online community for advancement professionals at universities and other organizations that are fundraising transnationally.

Whether you are just starting your international advancement journey or moving your program to the next level, GG+A can provide strategic counsel, donor surveys in multiple languages, international advancement program benchmarking, in-country donor discovery assistance, and other services to help you achieve your goals. For more information, contact me at aparker@grenzglier.com or write to asiapacific@grenzglier.com.

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