Taking charge of the fundraising program for one of the world’s leading international schools, just as COVID-19 hit, has had its challenges for Hannah Williamson.
As the recently appointed Head of Fundraising at United World College of South East Asia, Hannah and her boss Sinéad Collins, Director of Engagement and External Relations, are now navigating how to remotely drive a new strategy for fundraising and community building, as well as plan for the College’s 50th Anniversary in the 2021/22 school year. Hannah and Sinéad spoke with Deann Stevens from Richmond Associates.
Hannah Williamson, Head of Fundraising, UWCSEA
Q. Hannah, you had barely settled into your new job when UWC SEA decided to move to remote working. What sort of challenges has it created?
A. Hannah: I think it’s fair to say it’s been an interesting few months. I joined at the beginning of January with a mandate to build on the success of our past fundraising at UWC, in particular to diversify our fundraising, so I work across both our alumni relations team as well as our fundraising team. It’s been challenging to be able to break new ground and build new relationships with donors as people have been impacted in so many different ways by COVID-19. As someone who really values being able to build relationships in person, these opportunities have been taken away from us at the moment but I am making the most of connecting on other platforms!
Q. Sinéad, when did you know that it wasn’t going to be business as usual this year at UWC SEA?
A. Sinéad: It was the end of January that it started to emerge for us, just as we were heading into Chinese New Year. We had sent out what now feels like a very innocent communication – we call them medical advisories that come out every so often – reminding people of our infectious disease policy. We had started to hear of people being asked to share travel arrangements and to report where they were going. There were also messages coming in from our nurses who were in touch with the medical professions and were hearing things coming out of China. So it was a reading of smoke signals, in some ways, trying to put together the pieces that were coming in.
In early February, just after Chinese New Year, we cancelled all school trips, which are a huge part of UWC’s outdoor education program for which our students travel. We were hammered by our community who said it’s just premature and that we were panicking over nothing. Of course now we look quite prescient. Then we started cancelling events and it’s just accelerated from there.
Q. What impact has the pandemic had on UWC’s fundraising activities?
A. Hannah: From a practical point of view, we are grappling with how we continue to fundraise in an environment when there are so many other issues that our community is facing. That said, we ran a very focused appeal earlier in the crisis and our entire community really came together, which as a relative newcomer was so great to see especially in these challenging times. During this time we have also been putting a lot of effort and energy into stewardship. Being able to connect on a personal level has been so rewarding especially in these times of isolation. We’ve also been looking at our internal systems and processes because we know these are the tasks that are always so far down the list as they are not seen as revenue generating. But of course they are because they support everything and underpin everything that you do. So we’re looking at trying to move forward on some of these big strategic projects, which will pay dividends in the longer run.
A. Sinéad: The economic tail on this is going to go on for quite some time. And we’re really aware and sensitive to the fact that, even though we’ve frozen school fees and done all of the things that we have a responsibility to do to try and take care of our community, to go out and look for money from them would be absolutely tone deaf.
Instead of being the place where we provide care and comfort, in some ways, we have become a bit of a source of stress for parents, without meaning to, in terms of home schooling.
And I think as we bring people back together the community recovery is not just financial. There’s a recovery process that we have to go through as a school, as a brand, as a community, and that’s where we’re trying to plant the seeds of recovery now. And when you think about taking care of a community at a time like this, the thing that I find hardest is trying to hold them because they’re scattered all over the place.
Q. A key part of UWC’s 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2020/21 is community building. How are you doing this whilst in isolation?
A. Sinéad: We’re trying to do what many others are doing, which is to move things online and develop creative ways of bringing people together. We’ve had virtual orchestras and lip-syncing of teachers singing.
And as we think forward to our 50th Anniversary, one of our themes is ‘Singapore is the place that made us’. We’re now trying to design an awareness raising campaign to really galvanize our community around the vulnerable people within Singapore.
Q. What have you learned about yourself, professionally and/or personally, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions?
A. Sinéad: I’m pretty resilient professionally but I think I’ve really had to dig deep into that resilience to go, OK, what are we going to do now? And I think I’ve really learned how to play on very shifting sands and feel that it’s OK that I don’t know. It’s also reinforced my firm belief that it’s all about the people and, in the end, that’s all that really matters.
Personally, it’s been a kind of return to self. I’m playing the piano more and I’ve done those things that are self sustaining. I’m learning a piece to play with my daughter, who plays the cello, and it reminds me that there’s more to life than just work. I think globally it’s a creative time.
A. Hannah: One of the things I find most difficult about remote working is the blurring of the boundaries between work and home life. It’s very easy to just sit at your desk, or on your couch, and keep answering emails because there is no separation. I know lots of companies are saying it’s the death of the office. But actually, there’s so much more to them than just being convening places for work. They’re convening places for community and ideas and I miss that.
Q. What are you most looking forward to once our freedoms are restored?
A. Sinéad: Hugs and being able to just leave my house and go for a bite to eat with a friend. It’s the simple stuff, the human stuff that I look forward to.
A. Hannah: I went for a bike ride yesterday around my neighbourhood because still that’s all that’s really allowed. I can’t wait until I can get up early on a Saturday morning, when it’s really quiet, and go for a cycle into the CBD and just sit with a coffee outside on a terrace. It’s the small pleasures that will be lovely to have again.
- The UWCSEA Foundation was established in 2008 to enrich the unique UWC learning experience and bring the College closer to achieving its mission: to make education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.
- Collective support through the UWCSEA Fund continues to advance this vital UWC mission and enrich the transformational UWCSEA learning experience, in the classroom and beyond. It is a characteristic that UWCSEA strives to instil in all of our students and promote throughout our broader community.
- The fundraising team is an integral part of the wider Department of Engagement and External Relations at UWCSEA.