Over the past twenty-four years that I’ve been working with international donors, there have been some distinct changes. For years, the prevailing opinion was that, as a general rule, the philanthropic culture outside of the United States was such that fundraising overseas would not provide sufficient return on investment to make it worthwhile. A week overseas couldn’t match up to a day in New York.
However, the world is a different place: Increased globalization has begun to have an important impact on our profession. There is a growing class of global philanthropists: They live and work all over the world. Their children are educated in the USA, the UK, and other countries. They have great exposure to established philanthropists. Some have signed the giving pledge. This is reflected in the growing number of advancement professionals whose roles are primarily or entirely focused on working with donors outside of the United States. I recently attended a CASE conference on International Fundraising in San Francisco which had close to 150 participants from US institutions, as well as others from Asia, Africa, etc. In recent years, we have seen some very significant gifts from international donors to US institutions including:
- $150 million from the Government of Abu Dhabi to National Children’s Medical Center in Washington, DC.
- $50 million from Ratan Tata to Harvard Business School
- $40 million from Ratan Tata to Cornell University
- $35 million from Rajan Kilachand to Boston University
Certainly, an international development effort of any significant measure is not going to be possible or viable for every institution. As my long-time mentor, Scott Nichols, says, it’s not for the faint of heart nor faint of budget. There are a few obvious critical factors that an institution must consider. First, what is the number of international alumni and are there critical masses in certain locations. Second, it’s important, too, to look at parents and families of current and recent students. Third, what is the prospect pool like among the international alumni and parents? This, of course, brings up the question of research, which is another major topic unto itself. I am not an expert in research, but do know that it’s often more difficult to discover information on international prospects. The intrepid international development officer is likely to spend a good deal of his/her own time in front of a Google screen. Fourth, it’s necessary to consider the budgetary and time commitment of international work, both for DAR staff and for the president, dean, head of school, etc. International work is expensive and time-consuming.
In San Francisco, I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of international development for advanced programs, and I think we all quickly realized that there was so much to the topic, that it easily could have been broken down into three or four sessions, each focusing on different aspects such as staffing and budgets, parents and families, regional tax deductibility and currency controls, and so forth. As this article is meant to be somewhat broad-brush, I’m going to hit briefly on what I believe to be a few key points:
- International fundraising is still, I believe, primarily a major and principal gift proposition. In the USA we tend to work programmatically beginning with annual giving and, from there, growing into major and principal giving, it often can be the opposite overseas. It’s not uncommon in a country or region actually to begin with securing a significant gift from a major or principal donor. That gift, in turn, inspires others in that region to make major gifts, and this continues to radiate to the broader alumni/parent community.
- Focus on regions: Even for the largest and most sophisticated shops, there generally is limited staff dedicated to international development. There often is a temptation to keep opening up new regions; however, as with anything we do, it is well to focus attention on where there is the greatest potential ROI. Traditionally and statistically, some regions most likely will have greater opportunity than others. So far, the regions that have been the most successful for many programs have been Asia and the Middle East, where, in both regions, there is vast wealth, a culture of philanthropy, and a history of significant gifts to institutions outside of these regions. Also, India appears to be emerging onto the scene, and a number of universities, especially, are seeing success with gifts at the seven and eight figure level.
- Brand-building is important. Many overseas donors like to associate themselves with a strong brand name. When an institution determines its focus on a specific region, it is well to do whatever possible to make a splash in that region. Utilize alumni networks. Identify the most prominent alumni and parents in that region. Announce the institution’s presence with some fanfare – perhaps a 24-36 hour extravaganza, featuring panel discussions as well as social events. Involve the media. If there is a chance of gaining an audience for the institution’s head with one or more prominent members of the government or a ruling family, take advantage of that, and make sure that it receives press coverage.
- While the focus in any region may primarily be on major and principal gifts, it is very important to collaborate closely with alumni relations, as well. The largest potential donors may not become deeply involved (or they may) in the larger alumni community, but they like to know that it exists and it’s organized. Also, they may often agree to host or sponsor larger events, and they often like to be seen as leaders within the institution’s regional community. The development and alumni strategies for any given region should be very closely aligned.
- The prevailing thought used to be that donors from outside the USA wished only to make gifts that directly would promote or benefit their home countries or students or scholars from those countries. In my own experience, I believe that holds true in many cases, but not as much as before. International donors often are looking for the best ideas that will help to advance society globally. When working with international donors, an institution would be well to think of and promote “the big ideas.”
- Establish an international advisory board. The most successful of these that I’ve yet seen has been the IAB created by Boston University President, Bob Brown. The group of about twenty-five was put together slowly and very carefully, and this remains true for any potential new members. The board meets twice a year always outside of the USA. President Brown bucked traditional wisdom of bringing potential donors back to campus, realizing the incredible bonding potential of travel. Members are asked to host the board in their home countries. Trustees are invited to attend as guests, and, finally, around each meeting, there is both a VIP event for others in the region, as well as an all-alumni event. To date, in BU’s current $1 billion campaign, the IAB members have contributed about fourteen per cent of the total raised.
- There is probably a greater chance of raising significant gifts from parents and families of current and past students internationally than there is domestically. This should be a major area of focus.
Again, there is an enormous amount to discuss about this fascinating and increasingly important aspect of our work, but for now, I will end on this note: At a meeting last year of international officers from about ten universities, we all agreed that, for those institutions that are not able to make a significant commitment to various regions around the world, there are three key cities on which to focus where a great deal can be accomplished, given the work and living habits of the largest potential donors: New York City, London, and Miami. I might also add Hong Kong to that list. I would be happy to answer any questions or expand upon any of these points. Please feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher (C.J.) Menard has over twenty years in development much of which has included working with donors from around the world, first for Harvard Law School, where he served as Director of Leadership Gifts, and subsequently at Boston University, where he served first as Associate Vice President for Development, and then as AVP for Global Leadership Development. Because of BU’s extraordinary success with seven and eight-figure gifts from outside the United States, International Giving was incorporated with Principal Gifts, thus forming the comprehensive GLD Team. C.J. also has worked in development for Trinity College, Colgate University (his alma mater), and Northwestern University. In addition, C.J. took an eight-year hiatus from the profession and founded and ran First Productions, a film production company in Cape Town, South Africa. In fall, 2013, CJ left BU to open his own consulting practice focusing on international and principal giving. He currently is working with universities both inside and outside of the United States. Should you wish to reach him, his contact details are: E-mail – email@example.com / Mobile: 857-383-1977.