International Alumni – a Gold Mine for Many Reasons

Happy Chinese New Year to friends at home and abroad. The Spring Festival is upon us (actual date is February 19) and I wanted to share a few thoughts in response to a recent post on Inside Philanthropy:
The contributor writes about what I agree is often an untapped resource: our international alumni. The post is about the experiences of an Indian-born student who attended UCLA and earned his master’s and doctorate degree in engineering. The alum had such a positive experience he made several large gifts which, over time, has resulted in the most recent gift of $2.5 million to build a semiconductor lab. Good for the alum and good for UCLA!
However, we know gifts of this kind are not the norm and that we are aspiring to broaden participation beyond giving to international alumni volunteerism in the form of student recruiters, regional chapter leadership, event hosts, internship sponsors and career advisors, and alumni association board members.
Yes, current donors will be more likely to donate again but current volunteers could also be likely to sustain their participation and, when it is a good experience, the idea of making a contribution may take on more meaning and relevance in their lives.
The key is for universities to remain relevant in the lives and hearts of alumni abroad. I’ve written before about the linkage between international student satisfaction and international alumni engagement. UCLA’s story here is a case in point. So, relevance should begin as early as possible with students. Alumni can help create a better student experience and, in turn, feel more involved than ever in the life of their alma mater.
It could be a win-win.
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Assessing Readiness: the International Travel Barometer

My new book, the International Travel Handbook: Engaging Constituents Abroad (Academic Impressions, 2014) does not assume that all readers and their institutions are poised to jet off tomorrow to advance their agendas. Indeed, that is one of the goals of the Handbook but a more important outcome for readers is to acknowledge their overall readiness to embark on more global initiatives and travel.

There are more resources and relationships to leverage than a budget and a locale when working abroad. International academic, admissions and advancement officers must look beyond their own functional domain and think about the overall international story and how that is projected today with key stakeholders.

A key tool in the book is the International Travel Barometer. The Barometer assesses readers’ preparedness by scoring responses to a set of 10 questions that reflect on the international sources of information and resources. The cumulative score is discussed using a sliding scale developed to highlight areas for further development and discussion. Here are some of the questions:

Can you describe roughly the international demographics that define your student and alumni body?

Are you aware of what other offices are doing in terms of international engagement?

Do you know which staff members are working abroad, what resources they have and the nature of their relationships?

My hope is that the Barometer is shared across staffs and planning committees. I believe it will elicit some new conversations across departments and academic divisions. International travel and the importance of advance and thorough planning cannot be underestimated!

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Alumni as Brand Ambassadors

This October I will return to Beijing to attend the China Annual Conference for International Education – or CACIE ( I am returning to speak at CACIE’s Forum on International Student Mobility (ISM). The Forum theme is “International student mobility and study-in-China — a global perspective”. More than 400 professionals from international offices and faculties will attend the forum.

The International Education Exchange Journal is published by the China Education Association for International Exchange.   ( with a readership of 2000 people across China. CEAIE has invited CACIE speakers to submit comments in advance.

I am excited to partner with Mr. Wang Yong, Deputy Director of International Office from Peking University another representative from UIBE (University of International Business and Economics, China).

For the Journal, I have submitted the following session description and am asking participants to think with me about some important considerations:

  “Alumni as Brand Ambassadors: the Advantages of an Exuberant and Connected Network”

International outreach can be much more successful when institutions involve their most genuine brand ambassadors – alumni. Their personal history with the academic institution is of incredible value to prospective students and families. The session will help institutions develop a strategic process to leverage international alumni abroad for student recruitment. These steps include developing relationships with not just alumni but regional alumni organizations, institutional student recruiters, community organizations, and more. Learn about best practices abroad and assess your institution’s next steps.

In advance of this session I am asking participants to step back and consider some key considerations that impact an institution’ ability to develop alumni-student networks:

1) Demographics

What do your demographics show? Where are your target markets for international student recruitment? Is there a correlation (or a growing correlation) between an increase in prospective students and engaged alumni poised to help? Why does this matter?

2) Current levels of Satisfaction among Alumni and International Students

A recent article captured the key findings of a new survey completed by 60,000 international students representing 48 institutions in the US, UK and Australia:

“…While students were by and large satisfied, the data show variations by country of origin. Students from Europe report higher rates of satisfaction and willingness to recommend the institution as compared to their peers from Asia: ‘It is notable that China ranks #1 in terms of number of international students, but #26 among the thirty largest nationalities on overall satisfaction, and #21 on recommendation’ (that is, willingness to recommend the institution).”

The report suggests possible causes for these variations: “for example, greater familiarity with English may help explain higher satisfaction rates for students from India compared to students from East Asia, and particular cultural traits such as comparatively open-minded or critical outlooks could also affect student ratings.”

Other key findings reported and important to consider:

“Beyond country of origin, the analysis also found variations in satisfaction level according to level of parental education: the higher the ratio of first-generation college students within the international student population, the lower the overall satisfaction rate. The report states that first-generation international students — who at some institutions in the sample make up nearly 50 percent of the international student body – are more likely to be culturally, academically and financially disadvantaged, which may lead to a less rounded and more problem-beset experience, and lower satisfaction.” These students and families may not have access to sound information or be “more susceptible to suspect recruitment practices.”

The report states that students are generally very satisfied with the academic experience and quality of teaching. But outside the classroom, satisfaction levels are a bit lower: “making good contacts as far as career prospects are concerned, friendship with domestic students, organized social activities, and visa or immigration-related advice.”

As I read the above findings I believe institutions have an opportunity (and a responsibility) for developing structured programs that will foster relationships between international alumni and current international students.

But, first, how satisfied do the international alumni feel about their own experience? How do they view the brand of their alma mater and the value of their degree?

Therein lies an equation: satisfied international students = greater likelihood for satisfied alumni. Alumni must be engaged today. Identify who they are, where they reside and work, and invite them to participate in creating more satisfying experiences for their younger counterparts who are university students today and those who desire the same opportunity to study abroad.


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Fielding Foreign Donations

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked me to comment on the controversial aspect of foreign gifts. The motives of benefactors may be questioned when large governmental gifts to universities coincide with or follow major foreign policy conflicts in their region. Likewise, gifts from one individual or a family may be questioned when there are several perceptions about the original motives of their donation(s).
Universities strive to be transparent, ethical and mission-driven in their academic and advancement practices. Advancement officers and leadership should accept gifts only when they meet a campus priority and not just because there is money on the table. Donors may have their own ideas about what “win-win” means when discussing a potential gift. Advancement officers can minimize controversy by doing the following: 1) research the region and know the political climate; 2) conduct due diligence on prospective donors or foreign entities such as corporations and foundations; 3) determine if there are any political dimensions surrounding the gift; and, 4) always rely on reasoned decision-making based on sound motives of both the donor and the institution.


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International Travel Management – not just for Advancement Officers!

I am writing a series of monthly articles for Academic Impressions. Each article focuses on an aspect of international constituent relations and program development. In December 2013 I began to focus on the fine details of working abroad and wrote about the importance of knowing key international holidays to best inform staff or a delegation about when (and when not to travel). Once those parameters are understood, the planning can begin  — but it’s important to have adequate time to create a successful advancement initiative based on strategic outcomes.

I suggest working from nine months out. This advance planning with the academic year is necessary and intentional for several reasons:

  • First, budgets will be accessed for the same fiscal year for your advance work, travel and volunteer management needs. This creates a systematic way to fiscally plan and manage resources.
  • Second, the international initiative is competing for time with other priorities and travel for busy volunteers, donors and institutional leaders. Plan ahead and confirm your spot on their calendars!
  • And, third, international travel is not inexpensive, and the extra time will afford ample opportunity for advancement staff to shop for the travel deals and to negotiate with venues.

Advancement officers are not holding the responsibility alone for reaching out to constituents abroad. It is critical to keep the institution’s entire international agenda in mind and that requires a coordinated effort from alumni, development, special events, communications and marketing, and other departments such as admissions and graduate schools’ external relations offices. Advancement officers will also need to communicate with campus leadership and with volunteers abroad on a regular basis to best manage the expectations for everyone’s participation and support.

Everyone involved is a “brand manager” and will have a piece of the promotional timeline.

For two examples of how to best utilize a nine-month planning effort see:


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Sharing a Bit of “Home” for the Holidays

Seasons greetings, friends —

It’s been a few months since my last blog post. Instead of blogging I have been writing new pieces for CASE’s CURRENTS Magazine (see Nov/Dec issue and watch for March 2014 feature article) and am now contributing a monthly column about International Travel Management for Academic Impressions. Every since our Thanksgiving in the U.S., I have been thinking about my own holiday card: when would I write it? when do I send it? should I send it before December 25 or right after New Year’s?

I’ve decided to send my card in the New Year as a wise friend and colleague cautioned me last week to wait on emails until early January (“they will just get lost in everyone’s inbox”).

Have you sent your holiday card to your constituents? I’m sure many of you have signed a stack of holiday cards affixed with the interoffice routing slip or have approved the e-card or holiday newsletter that was sent to members of your on-line community.

What about your international alumni? Whether your institution spent time with alumni abroad in 2013 or if you are planning an international visit and/or event in 2014, a special edition holiday card is one way to bridge the distance and build stronger relationships with these valued former students.

When I was at Tufts every January we sent a Lunar New Year card to our contactable alumni, parents and friends in Asia. We featured several iconic images of the snowy campus and international students. Knowing how strongly images resonate with alumni abroad, holiday or New Year e-cards are one way of sharing a bit of alma mater, their former “home.”

There is still time to create international holiday cards. Draft up language and create a collage of campus images. Collaborate with other international advancement officers, admissions recruiters and the international student services area to send a collective wish from your campus. Little gestures like this will be remembered and appreciated.


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COACHING: One step to move from readiness to action

Coaching GraphicYour institution or organization has committed the necessary leadership, staffing and budgetary support to begin to engage international alumni and, potentially, families. What’s next? Building a corps of alumni volunteers – the loyal and supportive brand ambassadors – should be one of the next goals. I recently guided Franklin College of Switzerland as their new alumni and parent ambassador admissions program moved from conception to reality. We did this in three one-hour sessions.

What if you find yourself having to prepare for your first international trip where you will be staffing the Vice Chancellor or President along with your supervisor or other deans and faculty? My recent work with UC Berkeley’s Law School included some travel management tools; my new client, SOAS (University of London), wants to focus on preparing for trips to Dubai, Doha, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. I’m glad to spend part of each of the next five sessions discussing contact and special event reports, ways to maximize time with volunteers (planning meetings, training, cultivation visits), and how to best decipher all the notes taken from the field and make meaning for you, the alumni, and, just as important, your supervisor and the institutional leadership.

Whether the challenges are being new to your role, short staffed, or not knowing how to prioritize next steps once given the “green light” to engage international alumni, I feel there is tremendous value in working one-on-one. My coaching is customized, personal and, ultimately, I want one thing: I want clients to succeed in meeting their objectives while also showing others the value of their work measured in many ways.

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The Relationship between Public Funding & Private Support

An excerpt from the panel presentation, Trends in Higher Education Financing, Eurasian Higher Education Leaders Forum, hosted by Nazarbayev University

Another global trend is the relationship between public funding and private support for higher education. Decreased public funding requires institutions to attract and retain new sources of private support in the form of individual giving, individual and family estate planning, and corporate and foundation philanthropy.

What are the trends in education costs in the United States? According to the National Center for Education Statistics (of the U.S. Department of Education), for the 2010–11 academic years the annual current dollar prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $13,600 at public institutions, $36,300 at private not-for-profit institutions, and $23,500 at private for-profit institutions. This is not the universal story for the U.S. as each of the 50 states sets their own rates at public institutions.

In the United States and Canada private giving to college and universities has been institutionalized in the 20th century with the formation of alumni associations, the promotion of capital campaigns, and the attractive charitable tax benefits afforded to both the donor and the beneficiary. More students are attending colleges and universities on scholarships, grants and financial aid.

The story is different in the UK. Academic fees are accelerating the pace of change for what is expected across England’s higher education system. Once a public good provided at no cost to students, economic austerity measures introduced by ruling governmental parties have created new price tags for higher education institutions. The cost of education has grown exponentially since the inception of the first fees of £1,000 in 1998. Along with the most recent tuition spike of £9,000 come new requirements of universities to better serve underrepresented students. Access Agreements require universities to sponsor programs and initiatives that help students in lower socio-economic brackets get financial aid for higher education.

The culminating impact of these changes in England has raised two key questions: Will more bursary support offset the perception of an unattainable university education with a 200% increase in tuition and fees? Will institutions be able to raise more money from private sources to support a growing number of needy students? The majority of higher education institutions in England (excluding historical icons such as Oxford and Cambridge) have nascent alumni relations programs and this may affect fundraising. Have institutions invested enough in alumni relations “up front” to weather the forces produced by the newest era of tuition and fees?

A note on corporate and foundation philanthropy: corporations and foundations have succeeded in helping advance higher education goals within the country of origin, on behalf of a particular region, or by way of a wider internationalization agenda. Not all attempts, however, have been without controversy. In some cases, an equal share of negative attention has balanced an assumed expectation that all outside money is a good thing.

Finally, shifting more of the financial burden from the state to private sources created a new consumer relationship between institution and its undergraduates or future alumni. Across the world, students and alumni are more intentional than ever about how their degree impacts their employability. The university degree must bear utility. Universities must respond by creating more resources for both students and their recent alumni.

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The Four Pillars of Engagement

Does your institution want to strengthen its academic presence abroad? Are there goals for diversifying the student body by recruiting more international students? Is a primary goal to encourage more giving from alumni overseas?

These goals are often intertwined as this figure illustrates. How do the “four pillars of engagement” fit into your institution’s goals and strategy? Is the strategy to develop and support admissions efforts, alumni communities, academic programs and partnerships, all in an effort to build a strong case for support? Can the three “A’s” (admissions, alumni and academics), and their relevant activity abroad, provide enough evidence to institutional leadership, prospective students and prospective donors that they should support a strengthened presence in a particular region of the world? Can the three “A’s” lead to an increase in participation?

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International Alumni Relations is about Relationships

Alumni relations has the opportunity to facilitate “Brand Management 101” by building relationships with alumni who want to give back their time, talent or treasure to different areas of the institution. We recognize that managing the institutional brand abroad is a high priority for schools, colleges and universities worldwide. International alumni volunteers play an important role in helping maintain their alma mater’s reputation. Whether international alumni volunteer to help organize chapter events, interview prospective students from their region, or mentor students studying abroad in their home city, the volunteer management cycle has three distinct stages: recruitment, retention and referral.

The recruitment process may be different based on the activity, as volunteers are often referred by their peers or are selected based on their personal or professional backgrounds.

Much time and attention goes into the retention stage: training, mentoring, skill-building, rewarding efforts and time for regular evaluation and reflection. Volunteers succeeding in their efforts may want to become more involved as regional leaders.

The referral stage is highlighted when alumni volunteers share their positive experience with others. At this point in the process, alumni have been through the volunteer cycle and want to share opportunities with others.

Throughout each stage it is important to provide incentives for alumni volunteers to continue their interest in assisting the institution. They should feel valued and empowered to continuously improve the experience for themselves, the staff and others involved or served.

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Download summary whitepaper on alumni relations.  Listen to a podcast conversation with Gretchen Dobson.

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International Alumni Relations as a Facilitator of Change: forecasting for the next decade

International alumni relations is about building unique and personal relationships with alumni based outside an institution’s home country. The relevance of international alumni relations in light of demographic changes, economic trends, and globalization cannot be underestimated. How can we envision international alumni relations to be different than it is now? How do you imagine global engagement being realized at your institution? How can we create innovative partnerships with alumni that address student mobility, employability, and strengthened presence abroad for the academic and external relations agendas?

AIEAIn February, I will be addressing these questions in my presentation at the annual conference for the Association of International Education Administrators ( The session, “International Alumni Relations as a Facilitator of Change” looks ahead to 2020 with a discussion of two trends: 1) growing number of alumni with nontraditional affinity and 2) increased interest in operating satellite offices serving the needs of one or more institutions’ admissions, academic and advancement agendas.

With the increase of international community college graduates, more short-term international exchange programs and executive or corporate learning programs and a growing number of institutions “exporting” their campuses to other countries and continents, the opportunities for nontraditional affinities will increase in the coming years. The first part of the program reviews this trend and discusses ways to remain proactive and leverage what may become a new “norm.”

Part two of the program focuses on branch offices. Institutional investment and/or personal philanthropy from international stakeholders may be driving the satellite office topic. I believe international alumni should also play a role in developing regional presence. Paying careful attention to culture and how it impacts alumni affinity will be key to engaging lasting participation and support.

With this posting, I wanted to begin the dialogue about these and additional trends that involve alumni abroad. What else should we be thinking about?

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