Robyn  Kress
EVP, Campaign Readiness  |  August Jackson

I recently attended the CASE conference on international advancement to learn more about fundraising overseas. CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, is the leading professional association for educational institutions and their advancement professionals.

US schools are looking to tap donors from other countries, but the rules are definitely not the same. Charitable giving to major institutions is a uniquely American phenomenon. There isn’t a similar tradition anywhere else in the world. What’s more, there’s no one custom or set of customs that characterizes a “culture of giving back” overseas. Practices are defined by country and region.

There’s a lot we have to learn about international fundraising. Here are my top takeaways from the conference:

The culture of giving varies region to region.

In most countries, a donor gives to their extended family or local community. Major institutions are funded by governments. It can take a long time to educate an overseas community about American-style philanthropy. Social media is starting to change this slightly by increasing awareness of American philanthropists.

Be prepared to make a long-term investment.

International fundraising is relatively new at most schools because it’s expensive and a long-term play. It can take years to warm up a region and close significant gifts, but the effort can yield considerable rewards if handled correctly.

New markets mean new opportunity.

Currently, schools that raise 3-5% of their campaign dollars from overseas consider it a big success, but with the campaign targets in the multibillions trending at top schools, tapping into international donors will be essential.

Research mitigates risk.

Raising money overseas has higher risks—much more research needs to be done to identify the source of the funds. It is also a long process to teach wealthy families that US philanthropy is not transactional and does not come with a quid pro quo.

Events create community.

One point that was repeated again and again is that events are crucial to creating community and value for international donors. Two important takeaways about events: People are clamoring to learn from US faculty, and overseas donors tend to like glamor and fun. There should be an element of education, but these audiences expect exclusive venues and the finest food.

Get your story straight.

Message consistency from all departments and regular visits are also key to success. International fundraising fails when: You don’t have buy-in of top leadership; you don’t fully understand the cultural/tax/business and government nuances of the country you are targeting; you don’t research individuals properly; you don’t capture wealthy parents quickly while you have their attention; or if you start and stop your efforts and never make traction. Without these steps in place, you can do more harm than good.

Recruiting and training the right volunteers is critical.

They teach you cultural nuances and how to navigate “in country.” US volunteers with “star power” are also essential—and can be the reason that wealthy families are willing to take a meeting or go to an event.

Show local impact.

Most institutions need to make the case for how a large investment will help the institution and the cause that the donor cares about, while also doing “some good” for the local community. Schools with international campuses can make this case most easily. Some hospitals are willing to train local doctors as a part of a larger gift to a bigger research initiative, and this naturally has appeal.

Meet people where they already go.

Who are your global citizens and where do they spend their time? There is value in capturing your audience where they are going to travel anyway. You can do a lot of Latin American fundraising in Miami when people are visiting their vacation homes. You can leverage a conference in Paris that will attract people from all over Europe, or a meeting in Hong Kong that draws people from all over Asia.

Nonaffiliated donors are an important target.

You need to find people who care about your work, not just feel connected as alumni and parents. Conference attendees are all banking on nonaffiliated donors wanting to invest in research that helps people globally.

Sports matter.

It is easier to raise major gifts in China when your basketball team is doing well. There is cachet in being affiliated with American teams.

The ultimate story.

And finally, my favorite story of the conference: One university decided to bet on international fundraising. They hired 9 dedicated fundraisers to spend months in targeted regions, ultimately developing a 36-person international campaign advisory board for the president. To qualify for the board a minimum gift of $1M was required. One member seemed initially reluctant, but participated. His reluctance clearly faded, because several years later, he gave more than $100M to the school. Not only that, he bought out the Louvre in Paris for a night so that all 36 board members and their spouses could take a private tour and bond as a team. Can you imagine? It can happen to you.