Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

Follow the Money: Fundraising 101 for SIOs

Senior international officers increasingly find themselves responsible for fundraising, but where should they start—and who should they partner with on campus?
“When done properly, fundraising aligns critical funding needs with donor values and priorities,” says Kevin Fleming. Image: Shutterstock

Dealing with tight or shrinking finances is all too common for senior international officers (SIOs). Increasingly, they are tasked with the flip side of that problem: fundraising to supplement their budgets.

“More and more, SIOs are being asked to fund either the growth of their international programs or to fund shortfalls resulting from budget cuts,” says Kevin Fleming, cofounder and CEO of Prosper—a consulting firm providing advice to nonprofits—and coauthor of the “Transformational Philanthropy” chapter in the NAFSA book Engaging International Alumni as Strategic Partners

“Resource allocations from institutions may not always be able to mirror program ambitions,” he says, “and as aspirations for program expansion grow, SIOs are often left to find complementary sources of funding to realize their programmatic vision.”

Where to Start

Fundraising typically comes from two sources: grants and donations. For both, SIOs need to connect early on with the people in their institutions who are currently leading that work or who oversee initiatives that rely on outside support. This is especially true if SIOs are assuming fundraising responsibilities with little relevant experience.

“The point is not only to learn from other funding-seekers about the practice of fundraising,” says Andy Shaindlin, vice president at Grenzebach Glier, an international alumni strategy consultant. “The point is also to ensure coordination and collaboration internally at the institution, to avoid competing with one another, and to ensure that outside entities see the organization as being professional, systematic, and communicative.”

Fleming concurs. “Working alongside your development office can help you develop an intentional strategy behind your fundraising efforts by targeting grants and corporate/foundation initiatives that align with your funding priorities—helping you craft your applications and approach that leads to a higher degree of successful funding—and developing fundraising plans for individual donors whose interests align with your funding priorities,” he says. 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Grants

Of the two funding sources, grants are the more direct option to fund department work—which makes them particularly attractive during a period of fiscal constraints. 

“For me, the fundraising is about finding the money to do the work here,” says Sonja Knutson, director of the Internationalization Office at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “It’s about finding funding where our goals and values align to give us the money to do a piece of work.” 

She cites a $300,000 grant that allowed her to hire three staffers to do outreach to international students planning to pursue a master’s degree in professional studies, such as nursing. 

Knutson admits that she didn’t know much about grant writing when she started. To help her get basic skills, she took a three-day course. 

“It was expensive, but I told my boss it will help me write better proposals,” she says. “And it was really helpful. I understand where to look [for opportunities], how to understand partners, and the various audiences we’d be writing for.” 

At first, Knutson was writing grants to fund specific department tasks, like funding for conferences. Over time, that has broadened, and the volume of grants has increased substantially. In a recent eight-week period, her department completed six grant proposals. 

Knutson advises that SIOs develop relationships with potential funders to increase the likelihood of success. “It’s really rare to apply out of the blue,” she says. “It’s about the importance of relationships and networking.” She says that as relationships develop, it becomes easier to call a potential funder and ask for additional information and get a sense if they would be interested in the program submitting a proposal. 

Knutson admits that in some ways, using grants to add staff is like "duct-taping an office together" and is a downside of this type of funding. 

“We’ve had successes with people able to stay for multiple years,” says Knutson. “But every now and then, if a position exists, a fund will not want to fund it. It’s not sustainable to keep creating new positions.”

Knutson also advises SIOs to be prepared for the reporting requirements that come with grants. “They are much more significant,” she warns. “The external groups may know more about what we’re doing than the university itself. The funder will go through things with a fine-tooth comb.”

Donations and Development 

Unlike grant funding, donation-based development brings more potential for larger gifts, and the need for coordination with the institution’s development office is especially important.

Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost of international affairs at Lehigh University, says that when she arrived at the campus in 2016, she was paired with a gift officer working on international fundraising. One of the first challenges she faced was educating staff about who might be a potential donor. 

“There was a kind of default assumption that you had to be international per se to want to give to the area,” she says. “Nationality is not something that defines who would be interested.” 

She notes that students who study abroad also share an interest in the work of international officers, and some alumni with no obvious connection are very interested in internationalization. Lehigh’s development efforts in the area include a $10 million gift from former Chrysler CEO and Lehigh alum Lee Iacocca, who had no link to the school’s international programs. 

Matherly says that fostering a closer relationship with the development office will help SIOs understand things from a more holistic perspective. “Development gets a bit of a bad rap—they’re so protective of their contacts, everything has to go through them,” she says. But “that’s their job. They get frustrated with the assumption that you just bring them an idea and there are people sitting around waiting to hand you money.”

Close coordination also helps avoid crossing wires. “We need to know our story, how many [people] are saying the same thing, and who is going to be meeting with the prospective donor,” says Gretchen Dobson, who is coauthor of Engaging International Alumni as Strategic Partners and a global engagement specialist, author, and academic. “It’s embarrassing when a prospect is on the list for five other people.” 

Matherly says that she often hears frustration from international office colleagues about how to be included in the development office’s set of priorities. She advises looking at the institution’s priorities as a whole and then seeing how the international program fits into them. 

“That’s the principle of a good internationalization plan generally,” Matherly says. “But if you can’t do that, it will be impossible to be included in the development priorities.” 

“It’s about relationships,” agrees Dobson, who built Tufts University’s global alumni program. “It’s about the SIO and international officers collaborating internally with leadership to understand if this is a priority.”

The SIO’s Secret Weapon

If strong relationship cultivation is one strength SIOs bring to the fundraising table, their secret weapon is their knowledge of their programs and the stories of the impact that these initiatives have had. 

“SIOs who are suddenly asked to fundraise often feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘asking for money,’” says Fleming. “However, being able to talk naturally, knowledgeably, and passionately about the ways funding can impact the lives of students and the campus community can help soothe your nervousness about your role as a fundraiser and help you become effective in raising money from donors and philanthropic sources.” 

As much as fundraising may be part of the SIO’s portfolio, the development office may still be taking the lead, cautions Dobson. “An SIO may not be the fundraiser,” she says. “They may not have the right skills to do it. That doesn’t mean they can’t have a part. It’s one institution, so no one should feel that they can’t play on the team. It’s one big team.”

Finally, for SIOs daunted by the task of fundraising, Fleming has words of encouragement:

“Know that fundraising is not a four-letter word!” he says. “When done properly, fundraising aligns critical funding needs with donor values and priorities. It is a mutually beneficial relationship whereby donors positively impact something they are passionate about, and your funding priorities provide the vehicle to do so. Many people forced into fundraising roles discover that they really enjoy it—you just may find out that you do too.”  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.