International Advancement Planning in a Time of Uncertainty

On June 9, 2019, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people took to the streets to protest a controversial extradition bill. At the time of this writing, the protests are now in their thirteenth week. In light of this tense and uncertain climate, international advancement staff are grappling with whether and/or how to adjust their plans for travel, meetings, and events in Hong Kong. In GG+A’s recent informal poll, 67% were undecided about whether to cancel or continue with upcoming plans in Hong Kong.

With the situation still evolving, there are no clear answers for how best to proceed. Best practices, however, can guide your decision-making process in a time of uncertainty, whether that be deciding how to proceed in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

Be informed and speak wisely.

In order to make an informed decision about travel and event planning, you need to understand what’s happening in the place you intend to visit. Learn about the current situation from news sources that are local to that market, and talk to alumni, friends, and volunteers who live there.

The South China Morning Post, RTHK, and Hong Kong Free Press are a few English-language news outlets that will paint a fuller picture of the situation in Hong Kong than you might be hearing on the morning news half a world away. Not only will a better understanding help you feel more confident in making your decisions, but your overseas alumni, donors, and friends will expect you to have some knowledge of the core issues.

Acknowledge the situation.

The current political crisis in Hong Kong is making headlines around the world and is not something you can ignore. You do not have to turn over the entire conversation to talk about politics, but don’t let it be the elephant in the room either. Acknowledge what is going on and be sensitive to the many ways the situation is impacting your constituents’ lives. Bring your best listening skills and a spirit of empathy.

Plan in advance how you will respond.

Difficult times will produce difficult conversations. A donor might ask you for your personal stance on an issue, question your institution’s policies as they relate to the current political climate, or vent their frustration with others in your community of friends and supporters. At an event, an alumna might ask a question during Q&A that is controversial or that some might find offensive.

While examples like these might happen anywhere at any time, they are far more likely in a climate that’s already tense, so be prepared. Talk with your institutional leadership, public affairs office, and event speakers about the issues that might come up and how you will respond. Engage some of your trusted local volunteers in that conversation, as no one will have a better gauge of what issues might arise than someone on the ground.

Choose your words and visuals wisely.

Was that a riot or a protest? A protest or a demonstration? Words matter. They can place you one side of an issue or another, whether you intended it or not. You also need to be attentive to any pictures or other images you choose and how those might look in the light of the current political situation. Again, trusted local volunteers can be invaluable in reviewing such materials.

Ensure your event is the right “fit.”

Think about the emotional temperature of your alumni, friends, and donors in the market you will be visiting and whether the nature of the event you’re planning is a good fit in that environment. If your community is feeling anxious, worried, and heartbroken about what’s happening in their home, a splashy celebration may seem tone deaf. If you will have a speaker, be sure to review their talking points and understand in advance how the topic will be received in light of the current environment.

Prepare for potential travel contingencies.

Think back to the first time you ever traveled abroad. It felt like a huge deal, didn’t it? You probably prepared your itinerary in meticulous detail, knew precisely where your hotel was located and what was around it, booked refundable tickets and hotel rooms, and maybe even took out travel insurance. Over time, it’s typical to get more lax in your planning, especially when you go to the same cities time and again. But when planning travel in a time of uncertainty, it’s good to get back to the basics.

  • Book refundable or flexible tickets and hotel rooms that can be changed easily and with no/minimal cost, and bring printed copies of all reservations as well as the after-hours phone number of your travel agent.
  • Register your trip with your country’s overseas travel registration program. This will enable your government to contact you easily in the event of any official advisories, everything from severe weather/typhoon alerts to potential airport disruptions. Nearly every country offers such a program, including: Smartraveller (Australia), Registration of Canadians Abroad (Canada), SafeTravel (New Zealand), Foreign & Commonwealth Registration (UK), and Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (US).
  • Allow ample travel time. For example, the Hong Kong International Airport has implemented access control measures requiring all outbound travelers to show their boarding pass before entering the terminal. In light of this additional step, the airport currently recommends arriving at least three hours in advance.
  • Have local currency on hand. Don’t assume you will be able to get by with credit cards alone or that you’ll be able to find an ATM on arrival. While Hong Kong merchants accept a range of digital currencies, the taxis are cash-only.
  • Before heading out from your hotel, check the local news to know what is going on and whether it might impact your plans. Download news apps like the South China Morning Post onto your phone so that you can access updates while you’re out.

Plan events that mitigate your risk.

Events require more advance planning than a standard business trip and therefore come with greater risk during a time of uncertainty. But if you want to continue building relationships with your donors, alumni, and other friends abroad, you don’t necessarily want to drop all future plans or cancel upcoming events, particularly those that are recurring and have come to be expected by your community.

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks, including:

  • Piggyback on other major events, particularly if your event is intended to draw a regional crowd. For example, you might piggyback on an art fair, expo or conference that draws international audiences and will give your event invitees more than one reason to be in town.
  • Partner with a local institution, such as a local university, museum, chamber of commerce, or consulate. With a local institution as your partner, you can be better assured that the event will go on even if something happens and you yourself cannot attend.
  • Avoid dates that seem likely for protests or other potential disruptions, such as certain public holidays, anniversaries, and elections. For example, October 1, 2019 is National Day of the People’s Republic of China, the 70th anniversary of the PRC, and a Hong
  • Kong public holiday; and HK District Council elections will be held on November 24, 2019.
  • Choose a day and time that is less likely to be impacted by any disruptions. Given that the vast majority of the protests in Hong Kong, until now, have taken place on weekend evenings, a weekday breakfast or lunch is less likely to be disrupted.
  • Consider the “hotspots” and choose your venue accordingly. Certain locations are almost universally more likely to be sites of demonstration and protests than others, such as government offices and parks that offer large open areas for gatherings. Research the “hotspots” and identify lodging and venue locations that will avoid these areas.
  • Plan smaller events. They will allow you to plan on a shorter timeline, will be less likely to require a nonrefundable advance deposit, and are easier to change or cancel if needed.
  • Have a local volunteer “on tap” who can serve as a backup host if you are suddenly delayed or unable to make it to a planned event.

Re-calibrate your fundraising strategies.

If fundraising is part of your trip’s purpose, consider how the current environment of uncertainty is likely impacting your prospect and their feelings of financial security. Unless a gift conversation was already in progress, now may not be the right time to ask for a donation.

The US-China Trade War, tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China, and forecasts of a potential recession in Hong Kong do not bode well for philanthropy. Furthermore, with accusations of foreign interference in the news, some may be disinclined to make a major gift abroad, particularly one that might garner media attention. While these factors may not be important to some donors, you will want to approach gift conversations carefully and be prepared to re-calibrate your strategy, timetable, or both.

In Conclusion

When political tensions, economic crises, or other upheavals create an environment of uncertainty, it can be tempting to retrench and “wait it out.” In many situations, however, there is no obvious resolution in sight and you will have to make a decision, one way or the other. By following the guidance above combined with the counsel of local volunteers, you can feel confident that you are making the best decisions possible given what you can and cannot know about the future.

To learn more about how GG+A can assist with your institution’s international advancement program, contact aparker@grenzglier.com.

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