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Four ways your institution can enlist global graduates in your strategic plans

By Gretchen Dobson


John Lund/Blend

In 2012, SOAS, University of London (the institution's School of Oriental and African Studies), encountered a challenge. The U.K. government had raised the cap on university tuition and fees from £3,290 to £9,000 per year. With prospective students and their families still recovering from the Great Recession, the decree increased pressure on institutions to provide greater financial aid for students.

Many U.K. colleges and universities facing similar circumstances are turning to alumni for contributions to scholarship funds. But success in higher education fundraising generally requires an existing strong relationship between the graduate and his or her alma mater—and therein lies the rub for SOAS. Of its more than 50,000 alumni, around half live outside the United Kingdom, and international alumni relations hasn't been a front-burner issue—until now.

Institutions that are seeking ways to engage graduates beyond their borders can find notable examples of successful programs in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The following case studies provide insight into how four institutions have enlisted their international graduates to assist with admissions, study-abroad, fundraising, and international expansion projects.

University of Toronto

Deploying alumni as student recruitment ambassadors
University of Toronto

The challenge: Nearly 14,000 University of Toronto graduates live in the Asia-Pacific region. But engaging them from the Canadian campus—more than 12,000 kilometers away—poses an obstacle.

The solution: Since 1996, U of T has invested in a brick-and-mortar advancement office in Hong Kong, home to the largest concentration of U of T alumni outside Canada (about 10,000 graduates) and a short flight from many major Asian cities.

Team players: Although the U of T Hong Kong office carries the advancement tag, its director, Michelle Poon, focuses on more than fundraising and alumni outreach. She plays a vital role in U of T's recruiting and marketing operations, supporting a large prospective student outreach program for the Asia-Pacific region called Next Stop U of T.

Signs of success: Next Stop's debut in 2000 drew 40 attendees to one event in Hong Kong. Last summer, Poon managed seven events attracting 1,200 prospective students and alumni in countries such as China, South Korea, and Singapore. And if U of T enrollment statistics are any indication, Next Stop is helping: In fall 2012, students from Asia accounted for nearly three quarters of the university's international enrollment.

The how-to: Poon emails alumni in the region about upcoming Next Stop events and invites them to attend or serve as volunteers. The number of volunteers needed varies by city. If U of T's alumni presence is smaller in a certain location, fewer than 10 volunteers may be needed. In places like Hong Kong, where the alumni and prospective student population is large, graduates make up about 20 to 30 percent of the event attendees. For areas where U of T staff members don't speak the local language, Poon tries to secure enough alumni for a 1–4 graduate-guest ratio to ease communication. Graduates provide an authentic voice at these events that prospective students and parents can relate to, answering questions such as: How do you secure a student visa? Find a place to live? Assimilate to the culture? (And perhaps the most important: How do you pack appropriately for the Canadian winter?)

Worth the investment? Many institutions send ambassadors around the world, but hiring a full-time local representative like Poon has value. She understands the cultural nuances between countries—protocol details that can make or break events. For example, a recent Next Stop event in Beijing required an upscale reception and a theater-like seating arrangement for the presentation. The same event in Hong Kong called for a more casual afternoon social. An added bonus: She can manage volunteers without tackling major time differences.

University of Queensland

Partnering with an alumni-led organization in the United StatesUniversity of Queensland

The challenge: Many international institutions with large alumni populations in the United States—such as Australia's University of Queensland—have graduates who want to give back to their alma maters, especially financially. Yet the United States doesn't allow citizens to make tax-deductible donations to non-U.S. entities. And remaining actively involved with an institution a couple oceans away is no easy task.

The solution: UQ teamed up with an alumni-led 501(c)(3) organization—the University of Queensland in America Foundation. The foundation allows graduates in the United States and Canada to make tax-deductible contributions to the Brisbane-based institution, and its board organizes events and programs for UQ alumni throughout North America. A few other non-U.S. institutions, including the U.K.'s University of Cambridge, have established similar entities.

Alumni in charge: The foundation's board works closely with the university's U.S.-based advancement officer, Khatmeh Osseiran-Hanna, who also serves as the foundation's executive director. But alumni leaders living in several major U.S. cities, including New York; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco, run the show.

Opening doors (and wallets): Board members handle varied tasks, taking considerable work off the UQ staff's hands. Last year, the treasurer helped bring a UQ Global Leadership Series event to New York University, where the alumna works. Another board member hosted a dinner at her Seattle home that brought together a visiting UQ vice chancellor and representatives of several area organizations, including the University of Washington and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. UQ in America Foundation board chair Andrew Liveris is the president, chair, and CEO of Dow Chemical Company, and he has brokered a philanthropic relationship between UQ and the corporation.

It's not all about the money: The contacts that the vice chancellor made during his visit to Seattle led to deeper relationships between UQ and institutions such as Boeing, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and UW.

But the money helps: After the foundation was established, UQ received several major gifts from North American alumni. Dow made a $10 million commitment to build an engineering innovation center on UQ's Brisbane campus. An alumnus living in New York made a $1 million commitment to the university, becoming the first UQ graduate in North America to make a seven-figure personal gift.

Be inclusive: Fortune 500 CEOs are great assets to any board, Osseiran-Hanna says, but graduates without lofty titles who have energy and love for the institution are valuable and should be just as heavily recruited. "An engaged board is a board that gives," she says.

University of Nottingham

Leveraging alumni connections to help open a branch campus

The University of Nottingham, Kuala LumpurThe challenge: In the late 1990s, the University of Nottingham announced plans to build a branch campus in the fast-growing Southeast Asian country of Malaysia. Administrators at the U.K. institution, however, needed insights about local politics, customs, and business norms to successfully establish the new campus. 

The solution: Malaysian students have been studying at Nottingham for more than 60 years, and more than 7,000 of them have returned to their homeland after graduation. The institution's historical ties to the island nation made it a prime target for Nottingham's expansion plans. Developing close relationships with Malaysian alumni, especially those highly placed in the country's government, helped bring the campus to reality in 2000.

Tapping the Nottingham network: Christine Ennew, the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus' provost, says comprehensive alumni records didn't exist for Nottingham's Malaysian alumni when planning for the branch campus began. Administrators relied heavily on personal contacts with graduates and word of mouth to find alumni ambassadors. They were in luck: Malaysian Nottingham graduates had organized their own alumni association, providing a concentrated and well-connected pool of local expertise for administrators to draw from.

Help from high places: Members of the alumni community include current and former government officials, such as Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the minister of education when plans for the Malaysian campus began, and Sultan Azlan Shah, Malaysia's agong, or king, from 1989 to 1994. Another alumnus, Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen, had connections to Boustead, a contractor in Malaysia that eventually helped build the campus.

Hardly a science: Advancement leaders and administrators engaged selected alumni representatives in informal discussions, usually on a one-on-one basis. The Nottingham staff member and talking points assigned to each interaction differed based on the graduate. Conversations addressed local laws, permit regulations, and basic expectations the Malaysian government has of foreign institutions doing business in the country. While taking a personal approach to each alumni ambassador was time-consuming, Ennew says, "something of this political nature is very much a case of being adaptable, flexible, and trusting."

Keeping connected: Since the Malaysian campus was built, the university has developed ways to keep alumni involved. Rithauddeen, the alumnus who helped recruit the contractor, is the chair of UNMC's board of directors. Others have joined the campus's staff and faculty. Today, UNMC is building a program to recruit local alumni to serve as mentors for undergraduates.

The template works: In 2004, Nottingham opened its second branch campus in Ningbo, China, using its Malaysian blueprint. The institution, which enrolls about 6,000 students, was the first foreign branch campus to be fully approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Why now? Colleges and universities worldwide are following Nottingham's lead, according to research from the State University of New York's Cross-Border Education Research Team. The group has identified 178 international branch campuses in more than 50 nations with an additional 11 currently in development. Those institutions—which include North Carolina's Duke, Texas A&M, and Virginia's George Mason universities—may consider adopting some of Nottingham's international engagement strategies in the process.

Tufts University

Planning engagement opportunities around visits from students and administrators
Tufts University

The challenge: Nearly 150 Tufts graduates living in Spain's capital city make up the university's Madrid alumni chapter. About 50 students leave the Massachusetts campus to study abroad in Spain each year through the Tufts in Madrid program. Previously, neither community interacted with—or even had much awareness of—the other.

The solution: In 2012, the Madrid chapter chairs—a married couple of Tufts graduates who had lived in the city for more than a decade—approached the university's alumni and international relations office with an idea to host a panel discussion about expatriate life for the study-abroad students. The duo worked with Tufts staff to plan the event and recruit speakers: two alumni and a representative of the American Club of Madrid, a professional networking organization. Conversation topics included applying for work visas, tackling tax questions, and exploring careers other than the stereotypical English teacher.

Bang for its euro: Aside from a nominal catering fee for some tapas refreshments, Tufts didn't pay for a thing; the venue and speakers all came free.

Signs of success: The event drew all the study-abroad program's students as well as 20 alumni chapter members—more than the typical turnout of previous Madrid alumni programs. Attendees told Tufts staff that they thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but for Marjan White, the 1982 alumna who helped organize the event, it was extra special. Hearing the students laugh was one of her favorite parts, she said. "The years I spent at Tufts were very important to me, and by staying connected I feel I never left."

One and done? The inherent challenge in alumni-driven events: If the organizers find there's no longer room in their schedule to orchestrate a program like this one, the initiative often stalls. The panel discussion didn't recur in 2013, but alumni are interested in resuscitating the program in 2014.

Other opportunities: The Madrid chapter twice has capitalized on high-profile Tufts visitors in the past two years. In October 2012, Tufts invited alumni to meet the university's new president during a reception at the U.S. Embassy; the ambassador at the time was a Tufts graduate. Last year, alumni gathered for a symposium and a reception during a visit from the dean of Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

A start for SOAS

When the advancement team at SOAS, University of London, began preparing for the school's 2016 centennial campaign several years ago, it took a laser focus to the United States. The country represents SOAS' largest international market, where about 3,000 alumni live. To better engage that population, SOAS—like UQ—opted to establish a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) organization. Staff members at the American Friends of SOAS, which launched in 2011, organize alumni events, facilitate fundraising, and recruit prospective students as SOAS brand ambassadors.

Zeba Salman, SOAS' deputy head of development and alumni relations, says in three years AFSOAS has seen its greatest success in fundraising. Events and outreach initiatives in the United States have raised $25,000 toward the John Loiello AFSOAS Scholarship, which honors one of the organization's founders. Salman says she's hopeful that bodes well not only for the forthcoming campaign but also for admissions initiatives.

"In 2014 we plan to engage our international alumni even more intentionally in student recruitment activities, building our alumni ambassadors to raise SOAS' profile in the United States," she says. "It's the perfect time to celebrate the great achievements of the school's first 100 years on a global scale."

About the Author Gretchen Dobson Gretchen Dobson

Gretchen Dobson is the principal of Gretchen Dobson LLC, a global alumni relations consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass., and the author of Being Global: Making the Case for International Alumni Relations.




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