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World-Class Annual Funds

Here's how to take your appeal abroad to tap some of your best prospects

By Robert G. Hummerstone


When Drake University sent an annual fund mailing to international alumni and parents for the first time in 1995, "we didn't know what to expect," says Dawn Price, director of annual fund programs. "We hoped to cover the cost of the mailing."

That small effort was well worth it. Of the 100 parents' solicitations sent, Drake received three gifts of $1,000 and two of $500. That mailing covered its costs, as have subsequent ones. The return rate for international alumni has been lower, Price says, but individual gifts are larger. And just like the first time, each solicitation has produced a handful of standout gifts.

Savvy fund raisers at Drake and other campuses are realizing the fund-raising potential of international alumni and their parents, as well as other alumni living abroad. Though your annual fund staff may have ignored these prospects in the past, their growing numbers—and frequent willingness to give generously—are putting them on the fund-raising map.

Today, in the words of Christine Smith, director of development for Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, "if you're not global, you're not a player." Here's how to get in the game.

How do I start?

How many alumni should you have overseas before you start? "How about just one?" says Jay Frost, editor of the World Fundraising Council's newsletter International Philanthropy. "The cost of mailing to that person might be slightly higher than mailing in the United States, but what's the harm?" Drake's above results came from only 100 solicitations.

If you have more than a handful of international prospects, follow these guidelines.

1. Target those countries where your alumni are most concentrated. Many institutions have large numbers of both American- and international-born alumni in Asia. While for Drake they're mostly in Malaysia, Long Island University builds on its heavy alumni concentrations in Japan and Korea.

LIU alumni in those countries had started their own alumni associations by the time Walter Mathews, LIU dean of academic affairs, visited on a Fulbright scholarship in 1993. To take advantage of this enthusiasm, the university has begun a vigorous effort to strengthen those relationships. It has set up Korean and Japanese centers on the LIU campus that offer tutoring, cultural programs, and student advocacy, as well as raise scholarship funds.

The university is also helping to create an association of Korean LIU alumni in New York, entertaining visiting delegations from universities in these countries, and establishing faculty and student exchange programs.

2. Follow your campus's strengths. If you have an especially strong department in, say, Latin American studies, it makes sense to target Latin American alumni and enlist faculty members with expertise in those languages and cultures to help you build relationships there.

3. Focus on parents. Many independent school development officers find the parents of international students their top international prospects.

"Parents' allegiance is strongest while their girls are here," says Joy Moore, director of development at Dana Hall School. "That's when we start to build our relationships."

Dana Hall holds an international student orientation one week before classes begin that includes a host family program organized by the parent association. The school then solicits parents in the fall. Through its parent's class agent program, parent chairs in each class host phonathons, mail or fax solicitation letters, and ask other parents to give in person.

At West Nottingham Academy, where 20 percent of the 135 students are from outside the United States, Director of Development Vince Watchorn takes a similar approach. "Our challenge is to show parents how the American high school experience will serve their children well for the rest of their lives, and how giving is part of that experience," he says.

They achieve that through multiple communications to the parents and the students' U.S. guardians that detail the students' positive experiences. "We try to let them know when a student's success is being celebrated," because the students often have little contact with their families.

Also, Watchorn adds, "we make sure the genuinely multicultural flavor of the school is conveyed through our publications" with photos and attractive layouts that tell a story even if the readers don't know English.

In the several decades West Nottingham has been soliciting internationally, Watchorn says overseas gifts have been few but large. "Our American families make gifts starting at about $25. We rarely have an international parent give less than $500. Even though the percentage yield is extremely low, the dollar figure is high."

If you're not sure how to appeal to parents of international students, talk to the students themselves, Frost says. Find out why they chose your institution and what they hope to get out of their experience at your campus.

How can I keep prospects connected to the institution?

You can't count on your overseas prospects to just catch wind of your latest successes. To stay in their thoughts, make sure your fund-raising efforts are part of a broader international effort coordinated with other parts of the institution.

  • Overseas student and faculty activity. Development officers are not the only people from your campus who travel overseas. Make sure your international constituents know what your institution is doing in their part of the world.

    About 6 percent of Smith College's 36,000 alumnae live outside the United States—and their numbers are increasing. But Smith's 73-year-old junior year abroad program maintains a Smith presence in many countries, says Cynthia Woolbright, director of alumnae and parents' funds.

    Add to these students and faculty the college's strong European alumni associations, and Smith's overseas alumni are well primed to receive annual fund solicitations.
  • Alumni volunteers. Volunteers can help you navigate the shoals of local customs, write letters, and run the alumni associations that are often your most prominent presence abroad.

    "Our success in Europe is mainly due to our volunteers," says Ann Hurd, director of individual and annual giving at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Wharton started an executive advisory board in Europe more than 10 years ago and now has two more boards, in Asia and Latin America, and a network of 46 alumni clubs covering the globe. International giving now constitutes about 8 to 10 percent of Wharton's unrestricted annual fund.

    Alumni volunteers are "the business leaders who advise us," Hurd says. "They open the doors; they speak the language." The MBA alumni write letters and also make joint or solo visits to other prospects overseas.
How should I communicate the importance of philantropy?

First, distinguish between natives of other countries and U.S. expatriates. "They're two distinct groups that require different approaches," says Price at Drake.

For the alumni and parents from different cultures, "you may have to explain the need for private support more fully," says Mary Carrasco, a partner in SERAPIS Consulting in Washington, DC, and former campaign director for Aiglon College in Chesierès-Villars, Switzerland. "I've never met a family that didn't have experience with philantropy and charitable organizations," she says, but many had never thought of education in that context. Outside the United States, educational institutions are often for-profit businesses or receive substantial government support.

Because it's best not to take families' knowledge of your institution for granted, give them an overview of the campus finance and governance structure. Explain that the campus is a nonprofit organization governed by a volunteer board, that the school head or president is CEO of the organization, and that giving may offer certain tax advantages.

Carrasco says she finds that families welcome this information communicated to them in person or in writing, especially considering the significant amount of money they're paying in tuition.

If you're soliciting international parents, you should start the cultivation process when you recruit their children to your campus, Carrasco says. For instance, one independent school client of hers devotes a page of its admissions information to "voluntary support." It makes the case for support and volunteer service and presents half a dozen giving opportunities.

Regardless of cultural differences, your appeal must be right for your campus's unique relationship with its alumni and friends. Dana Hall School bases its appeals on the loyalty of its 2,000 alumnae living overseas. Director of Development Joy Moore explains that many families send their daughters to Dana Hall to give them an American experience and entrée to a U.S. college. Once students graduate, "we try to emphasize in our contacts and literature that they'll be giving back to a place where they had a good experience," she says. Although international alumnae are just starting to buy into this message, Moore says she has seen an increase in annual fund support.

The Wharton School creates separate annual fund letters for alumni in different geographic areas that highlight the regional benefits of giving. A letter might point out Wharton seminars or conferences held in the area or how part of the money raised goes toward scholarships for that region's students.

With American expatriates, it's easier to make your case—but don't just put your domestic appeal in an air mail envelope. "Our international alumni are less likely to have visited the campus recently," notes Tracie Christensen, director of annual giving at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We try to give them more updates on what's going on to help them recall their time here."

What language should I use?

That depends on your audience and your writer. "For an annual fund piece, I think it's best to use the language of the writer," Carrasco says. "If it's from your institution, you teach in English, and you're writing to alumni, the letter should be in English. But if it's from a parent or alumnus in Paris to other people in France, logically that person would write in French."

Carrasco notes that some people might be insulted to receive a letter that's not in English if they believe their English is good, "but Grandfather may be the decision maker, and he may not speak English." She suggests sending the same letter in both English and the recipients' native language.

Here's another opportunity to ask international students for help, Frost says. They can translate a note from your dean or annual fund chair to their parents or to other alumni from their country.

How do I make the ask?

Once you've established a connection with overseas prospects, mail remains a popular form of international solicitation.

UCLA mailed an appeal to both international and domestic nondonors. Two percent of international prospects responded, compared to 0.71 percent of domestic prospects—and the average international gift was 34 percent larger. Christensen thinks the mailing worked because it "rekindled positive feelings about UCLA" among its constituents.

At West Nottingham, international mail solicitations have been similar to domestic ones, but with a greater emphasis on the importance of the annual fund. Watchorn says the head of school has found that "a direct, succinct request is more effective than a general, philanthropic approach."

The school has tried several different twists on its appeals, such as translating the letter and sending a photo of the student with the school head. The most effective, Watchorn says, was adding an annual fund line item to the tuition deposit form.

Most international first-class mail gets delivered in three to five days. And you should have no trouble getting changes for international addresses as long as the envelope gives your return address and says "address correction requested."

Although the popularity of e-mail is growing fast, many campuses only use e-mail to keep in touch with alumni. They still make the ask on paper, either by mail or fax. Price at Drake uses regular mail to solicit donors. Those that give at the President's Circle level she then acknowledges and thanks by e-mail. One especially loyal alumni couple living in Australia even sent a message to campus saying they hadn't yet received the annual appeal.

Carrasco says she sees nothing wrong with online solicitation, so long as you have a secure server. "Many schools take admission applications this way, so it's only natural to extend this form of communication to the development program."

And don't forget the World Wide Web. Long Island University is setting up a Web site in part to stay in touch with alumni overseas, says Karin Porinchak, LIU's international Webmaster. It will be a source of information on educational exchange programs, available courses, clubs, cultural and social events held on campus and elsewhere, and the annual fund.

"In the past, a lot of this information was available only by word of mouth," Porinchak says. "We want to have it all accessible and in one place."

International phonathons are still relatively rare. West Nottingham's Watchorn notes that if they're not the norm in a particular country, the person you're calling might find your request odd, if not offensive—which is "not a good impression to make." And he adds that in some cultures, particularly Asian ones, directly asking for money is considered impolite.

Language is another consideration. The person who answers the phone might not speak English, even if the people you're trying to reach do. When in doubt, send a letter.

While technology has made many forms of communication between countries swifter and cheaper, face-to-face contact is still expensive—but also highly effective. Every year, Dana Hall's Moore travels among Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo with the head of school and director of admissions. When the families see the school head and two administrative team members travel that great distance to visit them, "they believe we're committed to them, and they in turn commit resources" to the school, she says. "There's huge sense of comfort when you know the people who are caring for your daughter."

Georgetown's Smith agrees that there's no substitute for face-to-face contact. "It's important to cultivate people in person and let them know they're important to the university," she says. "Several years ago I walked into a room of 12 great prospects in Southeast Asia and they said, 'We wondered when someone from the university would get here.'

Open a new window

If you're wondering whether to dabble in international annual fund solicitations, think about this: 16 percent of Wharton MBA alumni live outside the United States—and right now a full 30 percent of its students are not from this country.

In the past three years, total unrestricted annual fund giving to Wharton by international alumni has doubled. In 1997 alone, the number of European annual fund donors increased 40 percent. And out of the school's 53 top unrestricted annual fund donors, eight are from Europe and Asia. Successes like these have inspired the campus to increase its efforts.

"International fund raising is difficult," Hurd says, "and it's not a short-term thing. It takes time to see results.

"But our international alumni are often our youngest alumni. They're our future."

About the Author Robert G. Hummerstone

Robert G. Hummerstone is a free-lance writer based in Riverside, Connecticut.




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