Starting an International Alumni Relations Programme From Scratch

International alumni relations

A range of global changes and challenges mean that our leaders have an increased expectation that every institution should be implementing and investing in a comprehensive international engagement strategy, regardless of their team size, budget, and resources.

This is not only understandable, but also admirable—education has a powerful role to play in reaffirming the core values of our global society, and it is right that our leaders are looking for ways to step up and play their part. In fact, I have often referred to international advancement professionals as the ‘diplomatic corps’ of their institutions, with successful fundraising having a direct impact on advancing the mission, ethos, and vision that define our Schools and Colleges.

But in fulfilling our responsibilities, there is also a need to be realistic. It is not feasible, or indeed beneficial, for every organisation to develop and implement bespoke strategies for every corner of the globe. Just as the needs and interests of every donor varies, there is not a one size fits all approach to international advancement, and much can be achieved by simply refocusing your existing programme and interactions.

If you are unable to invest in the comprehensive international programmes that are often celebrated as sector-wide best practice (despite their reliance on large teams and even larger budgets), the temptation is to undertake some general ‘Development Tourism’ so that you have ‘warmed up’ a community of friends and created a network of potential supporters.

Yet this inclination often results in a shotgun approach, with no guarantee that these efforts will align with your domestic fundraising programme, institutional vision, and engagement opportunities. At best, time and resources would have been misdirected, but at worst, you will damage relationships by being unable to join them up with your confirmed priorities and model.

My advice is to leave Development Tourism to one side, and instead focus on the following:

1. Target your prospect research and SHOUT about it!

Asking your existing local prospects about their international connections, interests, and networks demonstrates your commitment to global opportunities and can help to identify key markets, and even new prospects, that warrant further investigation. You will never be able to effectively research the whole world, so instead focus on utilising your existing interactions to identify leads and opportunities—less like finding a needle in a haystack, and more like empowering your network to guide you on where to start digging.

Knowing where your initial prospect opportunities are and developing market insight into global philanthropic trends and patterns will not only help your fundraisers to hit the ground running, but should also get you a seat at the table when your organisation is planning its international strategy and priorities.

2. Support the international student experience

All students are alumni of tomorrow, and emphasising global values and ambitions in your existing student engagement activities will:

  • Create a community of happy former students, who will naturally begin to advocate on your behalf and seek out informal opportunities to maintain connections to your organisation via forming their own networks and communication channels that can be leveraged at a later date;
  • Increase your knowledge of key markets and create a list of unofficial ambassadors that you can call upon to provide valuable local area knowledge when entering a new market; and
  • Instil global values in your community, and reaffirm your commitment to creating an international network among local and overseas constituents.

3. Map connections and interests of internationally mobile faculty and administration

A few successful donations in the early days should only help to motivate your organisation’s commitment to international engagement. Mapping out opportunities to ‘piggy back’ on existing international activity being undertaken by admissions colleagues can be an efficient way to gain some ‘quick wins’ in identifying:

  1. Regions where your colleagues can assist you in meeting with alumni and parents; and 
  2. Countries where you can support your colleagues by promoting volunteer opportunities, such as attendance at recruitment fairs, interviews, and information evenings—all of which of course have the dual purpose of providing cultivation opportunities to engage alumni in a meaningful way.

So yes, international advancement is something that should be on all our radars as our institutions seek to find opportunities and solutions in a challenging and ever-changing world. But before you dust off the passport and ask for substantial increases in travel budget, consider how you can first focus on embedding global messages in your existing work. 

Victoria Barthram

Victoria Barthram serves as a Senior Consultant of Graham-Pelton Consulting, a leading global fundraising and non-profit management firm. You can read more of Victoria and her colleagues' insights on the Graham-Pelton blog.