The inaugural Alumni Relations magazine features Senior Consultant Victoria Barthram as she offers her three top tips when it comes to an international advancement strategy — with a focus on Graham-Pelton’s values of bold, optimistic, empathetic, focused, and authentic. In it, she highlights the importance of engaging with alumni in a transparent, honest, and real way in order to foster engagement opportunities.
As you sit at your desk, the increasing internationalisation of your alumni network can make the world seem like a very big place. Perhaps you have a nagging sense that a lack of prospect research resources mean that a 7-figure philanthropist is hidden deep within your database, or a limited travel budget leaves you feeling that you are failing to meet the needs of your overseas alumni?
Despite an increasing number of schools admirably embedding internationalisation into their mission statements and strategic plans, few alumni engagement programmes have the resources needed to reflect these aims through a separate international engagement strategy. Whilst technology provides us with a lot of opportunities to reach faraway constituents, the sheer potential of your global alumni network can seem overwhelming. It is in these moments I urge you to take a step back and find some perspective with my top 3 international advancement lessons:
1. Take time to listen
Some years ago, I made the mistake of assuming that donors in Singapore would only be interested in supporting a Singapore Scholarship Fund, subsequently spending a lot of time working with admissions to develop a new case for support. I later discovered that this particular group of donors had such an attachment to their School’s local community that they would much rather support an already well-established regional bursary programme.
It is easy to assume that former pupils in Germany would only be interested in reading about the annual choir trip to Berlin, or that supporters in Australia are not opening your newsletter because it has nothing of relevance to them. But without actually asking your alumni about their preferences, interests and needs you will never know if you are quite simply making roadblocks out of assumptions.
Surveying your international constituents is a robust starting point, and whilst you may not be able to implement all their ideas and feedback, simply taking the time to ask them for feedback demonstrates that you value their voice and are curious to learn more about their needs.
2. Acknowledge your limitations
Many of my favourite alumni meetings have been with ‘lost’ overseas alumni, whose unwavering love of their alma mater, sense of pride, and eagerness to re-engage (sometimes after decades of no contact) often left me tempted to promise them the world. But unless you can actually deliver annual overseas reunions, in-country volunteer opportunities and regular visits, it is important to manage expectations.
By all means apologise for the lack of contact, and reaffirm a commitment to improve this, but don’t be afraid to be honest if resources are limited, or a particular country is simply not an institutional priority. Whilst this can be disappointing to hear, transparency not only builds trust (and reassures that their institution is being strategic!), but it opens a powerful dialogue that can impact the strategic direction of your institution.
3. Don’t overthink it…
I have lost count of the number of hours I have spent researching cultural sensitivities in countries ranging from Korea to Mexico. And whilst it can of course only be a positive thing to reflect cultural norms when planning overseas events and engagement activity, it is important to remember that first and foremost your alumni want a relationship with your institution, and you should be confident in ensuring all of your activity consistently embodies your culture, traditions and ethos, and unites all of your constituents – regardless of where they are in the world.
It is great to see a growing focus on international advancement strategies, and I welcome the increased sharing of best practice in international alumni engagement – the recent IDPE/Graham-Pelton US Study Tour certainly provided all participants with plenty of food for thought! But as you consider your own international alumni engagement opportunities, I urge you all to take a deep breath – take what you need from sector research and success stories, but trust that the world is smaller than you think, and you may be surprised at how much can be done with so little.
Victoria Barthram is Senior Consultant at Graham-Pelton and is based in the United Kingdom.