The Office of Global Affairs is excited to celebrate Ray Li for our April 2023 edition of the Global Visionaries series. The Global Visionaries series highlights the University of Washington’s global impact by featuring innovative, globally-engaged faculty, staff, and students.
Ray Li, Assistant Vice President for International Advancement and 2023 recipient of University Advancement’s Marilyn Batt Dunn award, describes his experience with community building, fostering relationships with alumni, and international fundraising.
Ray Li obtained a Master of Nonprofit Leadership from Seattle University and a Bachelor of Biopsychology from The University of British Columbia. He held the role of Senior Director of International Advancement at the University of Washington for 11 years. Ray’s prior experience includes serving as the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Advancement for Neighborhood House, working as the Assistant Director of Development for the American Red Cross -Greater Hartford Chapter, and supporting the Canadian Red Cross and the American Red Cross -Seattle King County Chapter.
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. I was on a pre-med track in high school and was involved in student government. During that time, I was selected to be part of a leadership development program run by the Canadian Red Cross. It was a very pivotal experience for me and I learned a lot about leadership and civic engagement. Supporting the Canadian Red Cross became a passion of mine so I continued to volunteer with them through high school and university. Upon graduating from The University of British Columbia, I realized that I wanted to spend my time making a meaningful impact on my community.
I went from working with the Canadian Red Cross to the American Red Cross, where I led a youth leadership development program. I then had a chance to go to graduate school, where I earned a Master of Nonprofit Leadership from Seattle University. At the same time, I started working as the Director of Development for Neighborhood House. Neighborhood House is a social service organization with a long history of supporting immigrants and refugees when they first arrive in the United States of America. I was charged with building the organization up. It was quite an experimental role where I was able to apply my graduate school learning on an evening and weekend basis to my weekday job. During my 12 years at Neighborhood House, our team went through three capital campaigns, raising close to $20 million – something that the organization had never done before. When I left, the organization had grown from 90 staff to 300 staff, our annual operating funds had increased more than four-fold and the organization had buildings they could call their own.
The real core of my work at Neighborhood House was community building. I did a lot of thinking about how to be forthright and authentic with the communities we were serving. I strove to include community members in our fundraising efforts and to invite community members to serve on our board to ensure their voices were heard. I learned some of my greatest fundraising lessons from that role. I learned to treat everyone with equity and to create space for all kinds of donors so they could make their own choices. I learned so much from that job about being aware of my own preconceived notions and about how to create inclusive environments where everyone feels a sense of belonging in some way.
I became aware of the opportunity to create the International Advancement program at the University of Washington due to my fundraising work in Seattle. I was drawn to the job because it was about building a program from the ground up, which felt familiar after my work at Neighborhood House. It felt like a pivotal moment in my career and I was eager to start a new professional adventure.
I started building the International Advancement program from the ground up at the University of Washington 11 years ago. My early days with International Advancement were focused on creating opportunities with foreign ministries and setting up visits with quasi-governmental international entities. I did not have a strong background in international fundraising but I knew that community building was a core element of this kind of work. Looking back, there was a lot of unknown at the time but there was also a lot of goodwill. What was most challenging during those first few years was that I had to balance where the University of Washington wanted to go and what the community was ready for.
During my first international trips on behalf of International Advancement, I heard three major consistent themes from international alumni -they loved Seattle and the University of Washington, they had no idea what the University of Washington was doing, and they were eager to create more sustainable relationships. There was also a disconnected feeling amongst international Huskies. I saw there was an opportunity to build more trust. I also realized that I needed to spend time creating a culture of philanthropy -similar to what we have in the United States of America -but also in the various countries where international Huskies reside. It involved creating a multicultural culture of philanthropy – learning about cultural dynamics, the histories of countries, and the legal realities of what’s possible.
It was clear that we needed to build a robust and sustainable International Advancement program that would make the University of Washington successful as a global presence for years to come. We started with building up communities where there were already concentrations of international Huskies. I prioritized cultivating environments where the university could infuse philanthropy, engagement, and life-long learning. Those three elements are actually thematically present in all of our work in International Advancement –in our fundraising, alumni relations, and marketing and communications.
UW Converge is the University of Washington’s signature event for international alumni and friends. Each year it is hosted in a global city by one of our international alumni communities. It offers a direct connection to the UW, its faculty and leadership, and its global alumni network.
UW Converge was born out of good fortune. Michael Young, former President of the University of Washington, was eager to elevate the university’s global presence. He was also very involved in the Pac-12. In 2015, the Pac-12 launched a globalization initiative and one of their first events was to host an exhibition basketball game between the University of Texas and the University of Washington in Shanghai, China. I worked closely with President Young and Jeff Riedinger, Vice Provost for Global Affairs, to collaborate with partners from across campus to make the most of the moment. We ended up using the opportunity to publicly launch the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) in China. We hosted an international innovation summit that featured faculty and students from across the University of Washington who were working on innovative projects. We were lucky to have about 300 people attend from all over Shanghai and China. We also held our first global alumni board meeting with all of our chapter leaders. They came together to share best practices and to connect with President Cauce, who was on her first international trip, as the newly installed UW president, on behalf of the University of Washington. UW Converge in 2015 in Shanghai really laid the groundwork for strong stewardship with a number of international Huskies.
During UW Converge in 2015, the Thailand chapter president raised his hand and asked to host the event the next year. UW Converge in 2016 was therefore hosted in Bangkok and also the island of Koh Samui. The Beijing chapter volunteered to host UW Converge in 2017, which focused on leadership. Then the Japan chapter hosted UW Converge in 2018. That UW Converge focused on innovations in leadership and was modeled after TED Talks.
For 2019, the Taiwan chapter raised their hand to host UW Converge and focused on artificial intelligence -the business of artificial intelligence, the laws, ethics, and policies of artificial intelligence, and research and innovations in engineering. During that Converge, we were also able to feature the University of Washington’s Taiwan Studies Program and meet with various government ministries. President Cauce also had the opportunity to personally present the coveted Laureate vase to one of the foundations that had been giving to the university for many years.
After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to host UW Converge in 2022 in Seattle. It was really great to bring folks together on campus after two years of virtual pivot. As far as this year’s UW Converge, I’m looking forward to the Indonesia chapter hosting the event in Jakarta on August 12, 2023.
In retrospect, UW Converge began due to interest from our various chapters of international Huskies. They had a strong desire to build relationships within specific disciplines but also to create opportunities for alumni within a country to connect across disciplines too. They were also interested in creating spaces for alumni from different countries to come together and establish relationships across international borders. Because of UW Converge, the University of Washington is now more strategically aware of all the relationships and units across campus that are focused on specific countries.
My approach involves a mix of community building, cultivating trust, and brand promotion. The basic principles of traditional fundraising still apply but there is also a lot of nuance to international fundraising. It’s important to be mindful of jargon and to use culturally sensitive language. To be aware of the realities of the geopolitical landscape. To emphasize shared values. At every international interaction I have, I share that if it was just for tuition, the UW would be a good university, but it is because of philanthropy that the UW is a great university. It’s the difference between being able to retain faculty, create international exchanges, launch innovative initiatives, and construct new buildings.
I also try to have a strong understanding of the unique tax laws of international countries. Is philanthropy incentivized or disincentived? Is it incentivized within a country or outside of a country? I make sure to tailor my approach to philanthropic conversations with international donors by meeting them where they are at before taking a deep dive into how they want to give to the University of Washington. In my opinion, it all boils down to having a strong foundation of trust. My job is to clearly convey the impact of what a personally significant gift would mean to the University of Washington.
I should also mention that International fundraising happens over a different medium than traditional fundraising. I often find myself navigating gifts via platforms like WeChat and WhatsApp. Since the pace of those conversations can happen very quickly, I always try to make sure to set the expectations of our prospects from the start so that they keep in mind that the University of Washington is a large university and it can take time to launch new initiatives or process donations.
My leadership style is guided by the values of community and community building. I am a huge advocate of cultivating relationships of trust. I understand that things can take time when working at a large university. I take pride that I am resilient and perseverant. I like to operate with a glass half full mentality. I recognize when the time is right and when the time is not right. I also have a strong value of failing forward and exploring and implementing innovative ideas after reflecting upon community feedback.
I am most proud of the feeling of camaraderie around the world amongst our UW community that now exists because of the International Advancement program. It is rewarding to know that when members of our UW community (faculty, staff, alumni, family) go to a country where there is a large number of international Huskies, they will feel welcomed and know that alumni understand what is happening at the university. I am also very pleased that there is now a strong sense of purpose, a passion for philanthropy and a deep community of connection that didn’t exist before.