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Lil O’Rourke on International Fundraising

Lil O’Rourke President University of Rhode Island Foundation

Despite some recent declines in international student enrollment in American colleges and universities, the most recent IIE Open Doors study reports 1,094,792 international students were enrolled in 2017/18.* As our campuses have become increasingly international over the past decade or more, with students who study “abroad” flowing both ways—American students studying outside the U.S. and foreign students coming to America—it is incumbent upon Advancement professionals to continue to think globally.

But because educational philanthropy is viewed very differently outside the U.S., as Lil O’Rourke made clear in our discussion about the topic, navigating that terrain is a very different game than here at home. First and foremost, fundraisers must educate themselves on a range of subjects including customs and etiquette, cultural attitudes about fundraising and philanthropy, foreign regulations, registration requirements, and more.

Gaining a foothold outside the U.S. requires a different mind-set, careful planning, smart resource allocation, and an abundance of patience. According to Lil, unlike domestic fundraising, an international strategy is dependent on building a foundation by connecting with alumni and parents of foreign students living abroad, as well as connecting them with one another. Building “communities” of people who share a connection with your school is an important first step. Once a network has been established, Lil advises that you need a strategy for being consistently “present” to make people feel valued and keep the connection you have worked so hard to establish alive and dynamic.

There are many hurdles to international fundraising. Data accuracy is one of them. Name spellings can get corrupted, making it very difficult to locate an individual. During her tenure at Syracuse University, Lil recalls hiring a Chinese student to examine the Shanghai database name by name before sending an email in Chinese to get updated alumni information. Another hurdle: social media. On Mainland China there is no Facebook or LinkedIn. The Chinese use WeChat and Weibo like we use Facebook and Twitter. And Singapore uses an entirely different social media platform than Mainland China. Yet using social media is an important link in the chain, so navigating that outside our borders is imperative.

Travel is another challenge. When alumni and parents live all over the world, how do you prioritize? Travel costs can really add up. One solution is to set up advisory councils. Lil recalls that Syracuse established a European council for alumni and parents that met in London. People with means travel to London often. Some even have second homes there. So London is relatively easy to get to from across Europe. The initial meeting was intended to connect people with one another. A fundraising strategy had been developed for each attendee to give them purpose. And a new student send-off event at a private home brought everyone together in a very positive way.

Incredibly, some alumni don’t wait around for their alma mater to establish the network. While at Syracuse, Lil’s team discovered alumni groups in Asia that were self-generating and self-governing. In Korea, alumni had organized a small golf tournament to benefit the University. In these cases, Advancement staff needs to tread carefully before inserting themselves into an established group due to delicate hierarchical boundaries and channels of communication.

Don’t forget that your students and faculty studying and working abroad represent an opportunity to connect with alumni, Lil advises. American students studying in China might welcome an introduction to a member of his or her university “family” while so far from home. A faculty member teaching or doing research in India could benefit from an introduction to an alumnus with local connections. Your students and faculty will nicely supplement the activities of the Advancement staff and broaden the network in a very organic, mutually rewarding way.

Despite the challenges, international fundraising is no longer a question of “should we?” but of “how.” Be mindful, Lil advises, that this is a long-haul commitment. Make sure your chancellor or president, senior VPs and others are fully aware that growing an international network takes years—even before the gifts start to flow. Philanthropy is new to many countries so that is an educational process unto itself. It takes up front investment in travel, hosting, publishing materials into other languages, and studying and practicing cultural norms. International fundraising is a challenge on every level, but a challenge with great payoff and benefit to the institution, students and faculty on many levels.

If your institution is at the beginning stages of starting your own program, be sure to talk with people at schools where this has been in practice for a while, Lil recommends. The University of Chicago, Northwestern and Boston College all have well-established programs and are willing to share. CASE is a great resource too. The CASE conference on international fundraising is highly recommended and there is lots of literature on the subject as well. In October there is a four-day CASE Asia-Pacific study tour that will be held in Hong Kong and Beijing. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) will hold its annual conference in New Orleans April 15-17, 2018.

* (2019). Enrollment. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Mar. 2019].

Lil Breul O'Rourke became President of the University of Rhode Island Foundation in March of 2016 assuming responsibility for all fundraising and endowment management activities on behalf of the University of Rhode Island. Prior to this appointment Ms. O’Rourke’s career in higher education advancement had been at Syracuse University and covered a broad range of responsibilities including alumni relations, central based regional development, principal gifts and college-based advancement. Her key leadership roles while at Syracuse University included service as Vice President for Development and Chief Development Officer, Secretary to the Board of Trustees and most recently as the Senior Vice President for International Advancement and Principal Gifts.

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