As fundraising campaign nears, GW turns to Asia

As GW tries to meet its fundraising goals, it will eye the continent home to about 70 percent of international alumni: Asia.

Attracting big gifts in countries like China and South Korea poses steep challenges, higher education philanthropy experts say. University fundraisers will have to break down cultural aversions to donating and control travel costs, while convincing donors to help fund an educational mission that’s playing out thousands of miles away.

“We’ve not traditionally been out there asking them, not in an organized way, so this is new to us,” said Mike Morsberger, vice president for development and alumni relations. “We’re starting to break down barriers and we’re seeing that giving and that participation go up.”

Last year, about 7 percent of GW’s $103 million in donations came from abroad. That is slightly higher than the average 5.5 percent of international donations among institutions nationwide, according to a 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education survey.

GW’s focus on Asia is part of an increased effort to tap a global donor base that could help the University make headway on its likely $1 billion campaign goal this year. This year, the University will add two fundraisers to its international team, which was created five years ago to focus on the approximately 12 percent of alumni who live abroad.

Morsberger, who went to China last month, will also travel there in December with University President Steven Knapp. The University held 25 fundraising events in 18 countries this summer, including China, India, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The travel costs – which could weigh down GW’s improving fundraising efficiency – could pay off if GW can bring in a record donation haul. Specifically, the University is seeking out donors to put their names on the Science and Engineering Hall or GW School of Business by giving tens of millions of dollars.

Jennifer Howe, the associate vice chancellor for university initiatives and international advancement at Vanderbilt University, said Asian donors place a higher value on funding a project that displays their name.

“There is a cultural level of prestige in having somebody’s name on a plaque,” Howe said.

Pam Russell, the director of communications for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said increasing international efforts is key to broadening a donor base, particularly during sluggish economic times. “If [a university] is looking at diversifying their pool of potential donors, that’s the way to do it,” Russell said.

But finding foreign alumni with the potential to give big gifts is particularly challenging at GW. Morsberger said GW does not keep an adequate database of its alumni that are abroad, making it tough to connect professors who are traveling during the year with the University’s overseas prospects.

“I can’t just give you a list of, ‘Here are the richest people we know in London,’” Morsberger said Friday at a Faculty Senate meeting. “It embarrasses me. I want to do better.”

He said he’s in talks with software companies to improve tracking systems, but until then, Morsberger said alumni must “self-report” their ties to GW.

B.J. Davisson, GW’s associate vice president for principal gifts and planned giving, added that there are also cultural challenges to bringing donors on board, particularly in Asia.

For example, he said state-run universities in China pay little attention to fundraising. He added that many Asian families view college as “a commercial transaction” that does not always give alumni the life-long connection to their school that some Americans feel.

He acknowledged that cultivating relationships with international donors does “usually take a bit longer,” partly because development officials cannot meet with donors as frequently.

Chloe Sorvino contributed to this report.

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