As of August 2019, the higher ed sector in Australia had 423,349 international students enrolled , which is great for universities and broader higher ed providers. These students contribute diversity in and outside of classrooms on campuses, in our communities and make valuable financial contributions to the institution they attend. But what happens when they graduate and return home?

Another group largely forgotten are domestic Australian students who, in an ever-increasing globalised view of the workforce, leave home to make it big overseas.

A third group is transnational alumni who live and work in two or more countries on a regular basis. Think domestic and international alumni working for a multinational and travel regularly overseas (and that can mean back to Australia); or, the international alumni who have called Australia home for many years and who make up growing diaspora communities in capital cities and regional hubs.

All these groups have fallen out of scope at the vast majority of the institutions they attended.

The relationship between student and Alma Mater is an important one that should run well beyond graduation. In this five-part series Gretchen Dobson and Dirk Mulder explore the importance of this relationship and key elements to enhance relationships with international alumni.

The Give and the Get: Donor Relations

This week’s focus in our five-part series is international alumni and the importance of donor relations to Australian universities. Donor relations is becoming important on university balance sheets. With Commonwealth funding failing to keep up with costs broadening income streams is a priority. Making the headlines, international student recruitment has been by far the most lucrative injection to the budget and international alumni are, indirectly, among the most valuable recruiters for institutions. The closer the relationships are between an institution and its global alumni, the easier it will be to engage in dialogue about the future, sustainability and philanthropy.

Put simply, donor relations is philanthropic means to facilitate enhanced interactions between a donor and the university. The Americans are really good at it and we are slowly catching up. How good? According to the Giving USA report, total contributions to higher education reached US$46.73 billion (AUD $68.53 billion) in 2018, up 7.2 per cent from 2017. That’s big in anyone’s terms. As individual wealth increases so do the donations, with seven universities reporting at least one gift of US$100million in 2018 and the data doesn’t even include Michael Bloomberg’s US$1.8 billion (AUD $2.6 billion) to the Johns Hopkins University.

We should point out that fundraising is ingrained in the American psyche and US universities are very successful at raising money from alumni and families. College sports, on-campus living, school-specific traditions and generations of family history all enhance alumni affinity and our “Oz” is definitely far from Kansas and football tailgating. American universities can do more to engage international alumni and, according to a 2017 White Paper published by Academic Assembly, Inc and Instead, most know it.

Focusing here at home, how do Australian Universities literally cash-in on their global alumni relationships?

Parts One  Two and Three of our international alumni series focus on understanding alumni needs, the value of their referral and impact on repeat business, and how networking, extending brand and influence work toward building relationships with alumni for mutually beneficial returns on the investment.

Not every alum is going to donate a billion dollars for financial aid but there are some altruistic motives (the good “gets”) out there in the world and donors must be cultivated.

This is not new for some institutions in Australia. The University of Newcastle, for instance, has done very well to continually support its relationship with Jack Ma, evidenced by the Jack Ma foundation giving US $20million (AU $26.4 million) to the University in 2017 for a scholarship program. The press release heading even struck the right tone: “Remarkable friendship honoured with Ma & Morley Scholarship program”.

While closer to home UWA welcomed a gift from Nicola and Andrew Forrest worth AU $65 million – the largest philanthropic donation to an Australian University in history.

In these cases, the donor has immense individual worth and has had a relationship slowly ratcheted up over a long period of time. These gifts not only allow money to be channelled for university business, but they build institutional brand and prestige by linking high net worth folks to their alma mater and highlighting the fact that, of all the institutions and causes around the world that the money could have gone to, it came ‘here’.

The PR associated with these gifts is as equally important in status-building as the gift itself.

While large single benefactor giving has many upsides it is a long journey to reach this point, and let us face it there are only so many people who can afford to give this kind of money. So, balancing the ask across your network is an important thing to do.

Diversifying the Portfolio: Alumni and Corporate or Foundation Partners

The alumni rationale and motivation for engagement is fundamentally driven by alumni networks and stages of individual professional and personal development. This includes alumni rising up corporate ranks and becoming engaged in their companies as well as in their institutions or foundations. It is crucial for schools to start framing the relationship immediately and focusing on gratitude. Underpinning all this, of course, is the working assumption that institutions have done and will do everything possible to create opportunities for students and future alumni.

Alumni gratitude to universities may, when combined with a sense of belonging, a willingness to engage and acknowledgment of expectations that alumni give back based on what they have been given, offer fantastic access points for institutions. What constitutes win-win relationships between alumni, corporate partners and education institutions? A big-picture approach (remember universities advance causes) would certainly be for players in all sectors to do what they can to cultivate engagement on a societal level.

However, while alumni relationships are lifelong, human needs evolve over time and the degree to which alumni stay connected will vary.  The need to find different outreach and engagement techniques for alumni in various phases of professional and personal development is highly relevant in the context of increased institution–alumni–corporate relations.

The special challenge for Australian alumni networks late to the field of alumni relations and lacking outreach ability with respect to the more senior and much-neglected generations of alumni will be to simultaneously restore relationships and pursue diversification strategies vis-à-vis alumni offerings.

Universities may want to take a tip from the business community, especially when it comes to industry approaches to human resources and talent management with stakeholders across an equally wide span of age and experience.

Campaigns and Constituents

The power of knowing where the money is going and the impact of a gift taps into an individual or family’s sense of charity and giving. Providing ongoing feedback on how this money is advancing the cause it set out to do (i.e., stewardship) is another way of continuing the relationship with the donor.

The University of Sydney through its (AU) $1 billion philanthropic campaign has done this well and has stretched the boundaries of giving from an Australian perspective. Describing contributions to the campaign, the university includes support from more than 64,000 individual donors, across all seven continents (including a gift from a donor in Antarctica) as well as contributions from more than 1000 staff. Repeat donations were also made. In March 2016 the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation made a gift of $35 million to support the building of the first stage of the new Camperdown Health Precinct, the Susan Wakil Health Building. It followed the Foundation’s gift in May 2015 of $10.8 million to endow 12 nursing scholarships.

Internationally, another key prospective donor base revolves around families where local spheres of influence may widen when they attach themselves to their son or daughter’s international degree and brand. Case in point, when travelling to Indian cities where we had large alumni bases we feted families as well as parents felt privileged to build a relationship with the Dean or VC and be “in the know” about university happenings (the “give”); in turn, student recruiters “got” access to their social circles. We felt comfortable talking about campaigns with these active and involved families. After several years of relationship-building with one family, we recognised one of the most influential families in Mumbai with a university service award. After 15 years, they are still providing “boots on the ground” brand ambassadorship for our former employer.

Another success story came out of Hong Kong where we travelled regularly, provided opportunities for alumni to mentor students, host internships and expand their networks across Asia-Pacific. Concurrently, we cultivated all alumni officers of the Hong Kong alumni chapter, most of whom were in their prime career-earning years. One sent his daughter to our university and was soon asked to join the international board of advisors, paving the way to greater philanthropy; another shared his desire to follow in his Montreal-based family’s philanthropic footsteps and committed to an annual gift of six figures. Both donors were international alumni leaders before giving their first dime.


A successful global donor relations strategy is becoming more important to each university. Its success relies largely on leaders willing to invest in the international advancement program over time to develop relationships with international alumni and families. Focusing on building and maintaining these relationships will, over time, provide opportunity for the institution to ask all levels of their international alumni communities to participate in campaign and annual giving appeals.

This paper is part of a five-part series aimed at analysing some of the key rationales for servicing International Alumni better and what underpins these. The series contains the following:

Part One: Voice and aspiration see here

Part Two: Repeat Business see here

Part Three: Network, Brand and Influencing here

Part Four: The Give and the Get (with Donors)

Part Five: Simple steps to enhance a global alumni strategy

In Part Five we will tie it all together with simple steps to enhancing a global alumni strategy.

Dirk Mulder is an international education business developer, strategist and market analyst with over 15 years’ experience in International Education including holding director positions in international operations at Murdoch University, Curtin University and the University of South Australia. Contact him @

Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with over 27 years’ experience across five continents. Gretchen advises leaders on strategies and solutions that enable institutions, organisations and governments to identify, track and manage relationships with their global stakeholders. Contact her @


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education