Engaging International Alumni

Engage International Alumni - Image of Eiffel Tower

With the balance of wealth shifting overseas — and with more colleges and universities increasing their international enrollment — international fundraising is likely to play an increasingly larger role in development at North American institutions.

To learn how institutions can get started in such an effort, we interviewed Gretchen Dobson, the past senior associate director for alumni relations at Tufts University and the principal and founder of Gretchen Dobson Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm focused on helping educational institutions, nonprofit member organizations, and consulate/embassy education officers facilitate alumni engagement and advance international programs. Dobson has also authored the book Being Global: Making the Case for International Alumni Relations (CASE, 2011).


After speaking with Dobson, we’re offering these two articles to help you think through some initial steps for getting started with international fundraising:

  • Transitioning International Students into Your Donor Pipeline (click here to read)
  • Engaging International Alumni (read below)

Dobson recommends several steps that make all the difference in launching an effective effort:

  • Craft a story that will be compelling to your international alumni
  • Get a “data dump” of past informal agreements and memorandums of understanding between your institution and individuals or entities in the target region
  • Develop an advisory committee of international alumni representing the target region
  • Seek strategic partnerships with internal and external allies

Telling the Story

As with any fundraising effort, the key to being effective is to tell a story about what your institution can help potential donors achieve with their time and money — not just a story about how they can help you with their time and money. (For a more extensive exploration of this approach, read our articles in Higher Ed Impact on “Making a Compelling Case for Scholarship Endowments” and “Making Your Campaign Successful“)

To start with understanding the international donors’ interests, Dobson suggests listening carefully to how they answer questions like: Did you receive financial aid to come to the institution? Why did you come across the world to go to school here? What was the turning point for you to make decision to come? What would prompt you to maintain ties here? What were the influences in your success while here (faculty, a particular program, a community of fellow students), and would you like to honor that influence with a contribution, by endowing a scholarship?

For Dobson, this approach means defining what she calls “the three As that lead to a D”; Dobson’s three As are:

  • Activities in the admissions office relevant to the region
  • Alumni engagement with the region
  • The nature and extent of the institution’s academic commitment to the region

You can fundraise more effectively in a given country if you relate a clear and compelling message about how time and dollars given will make a positive impact on admission of students from the region, the pipeline to future alumni, and your institution’s contribution to the region. Build the story around the specific ways your institution is investing in a global footprint:

  • Are there real opportunities for your alumni to help pave the way to increasing access for students from their countries?
  • Are there public health institutions for which your institution is proving internships?
  • Are you looking to expand an exchange of faculty or research?
  • Are you looking to establish a satellite campus?

“Be very transparent about why the institution wants to build relationships here,” Dobson suggests, “and tie the ask to a larger story; invite them to see how you can help them make a contribution they value with their time and money.”

The Environmental Scan

When researching a region, Dobson suggests, don’t just pull data on prospects; it’s important that your initial environmental scan also includes asking all the deans about any past history between the academic departments and individuals or entities in the region.

“Find out what informal agreements or conversations have occurred,” she suggests.

Dobson offers this scenario to illustrate the point. Suppose that in the past, a university had benefited from a study abroad program organized and funded by several international alumni. Growing organically over the years, the study abroad program had served to build the university’s name recognition within the region, and in doing so had fed inquiries into the admissions pipeline.

As the study abroad program grew, the alumni eventually approached the chair of the department they’d partnered with and asked the school to take over the program, fund it, and continue to grow it. At the time, the institution was in the midst of a capital campaign, and as study abroad did not fall within the list of the institution’s top priorities, the university did not choose to fund and manage the program. Let down, the alumni have since harbored mixed feelings toward their alma mater. For a development officer planning to reach out to these contacts, it would be critical to know that history.

The Advisory Committee

Tapping the expertise and cultural knowledge of your international alumni is a critical step in assessing your readiness to fundraise in the region. The advisory committee could include public figures or prominent businessmen in the region you are targeting, advisors who have served previously on the alumni association’s advisory board, and parents of current students.

Dobson recommends inviting your advisory committee to assist you in:

  • Networking and connecting with key individuals and entities in your target region
  • Forewarning you of potential blunders in cultural etiquette (such as scheduling an event during a religious or national festival, or neglecting to acknowledge a particular society’s norms concerning age and seniority)

Building the Right Partnerships

Finally, Dobson stresses the importance of investing in the internal partnerships (such as meeting regularly with the international center on campus and international student groups) that can help connect you with international alumni and the families of current students, and the external partnerships (such as the consulate) that can help connect you with key individuals and entities in your target region.

For example, by developing strong relationships with consular staff, Tufts University has been able to make important connections on the ground in India, and has been able to hold events such as one in which the consulate-general was invited to visit the institution. The event honored the university’s Indian faculty, students, and fellows, and the consulate-general helped to tell the story of what Tufts hopes to accomplish in India.