Working as a Senior Programme Director at the China-United States Exchange Foundation, Alice believes that a positive and peaceful relationship between the world’s strongest nations is essential for global wellbeing. She has been working in the foundation, an NGO that encourages a constructive dialogue and exchange between the people of the U.S. and China, for almost a decade and has dealt with numerous challenges throughout her time there. However, Alice is now facing the most challenging period of her career given the pandemic related restrictions on her international travel and the work she normally does. On top of the pandemic there is the perennial curse of the NGO to deal with: the difficulty in obtaining funding.
While most of the students from the HKU MBA programme aim to succeed in areas such as finance, consulting or entrepreneurship, Alice’s work will take her down a different path. Can an MBA equip her in her role and help to support her beliefs?
- Please share with us your background, and please tell us what the China-United Stages Exchange Foundation promotes?
My parents are from China and I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I’m a Senior Program Director at the China- United States Exchange Foundation. It is a non-profit organisation that specialises in promoting a healthy development between the peoples of the United States and China.
The foundation is relatively small as we have fewer than 20 staff. We conduct about 40 programmes each year which includes educational exchanges, political engagements and visits, cultural exchange programmes, research studies, and organising conferences and webinars on topics relating to Sino-US relations.
My duties vary. I often joke when people ask me about my day to day operations as I tell them that I do everything! You get your hands dirty and to try different things. If I’m accompanying a group of US representatives to China then I become a tour guide as I help design and set up the programme for the visit. In some cases I’m a translator as I facilitate the meetings between the two parties. I’m involved in donor relations and fundraising and I organise conferences and webinars.
To put it in a nutshell: we are in the business of making friends. I’m conscious that everything that I do is to create better understanding and good relations between the two peoples by bringing them together.
- What was your reason behind joining the MBA?
For the first 7 years of my career I was quite busy establishing a family. One day I came to work and the Chairman of our foundation sat me down and said to me “Alice I think it’s time that you to further your studies and we’ll support you”. So it all started from there.
I knew from the beginning that I only wanted to apply to HKU because of the great experience I had when I studied here for my bachelors. The more difficult part was to select which programme to do. I thought about doing a masters in international and public affairs which is more related to my field, but I also wanted to be in a learning environment that is new and exciting and to come out with skill sets that are practical to deploy in my career and in life. So I settled on the HKU MBA programme.
- The China-United States Exchange Foundation is a non-profit organisation. Could you share what drives you to work for a non-profit and non-government foundation?
The first driver is belief; I truly believe that the non-profit sector has a significant role to play in solving the world’s problems.
Secondly, the foundation has been extremely supportive to me. It is human centric and has supported me through a lot of challenges, therefore I think the foundation is a good fit.
4) You have been working at the China-United States Exchange Foundation for close to 10 years… What changes have you seen to your role over the past decade?
At first because of my journalistic background I was asked to produce interview videos on China- US relations for the foundation’s editorial website. After a few years I transitioned into more of a project based role which I’m still involved in. Most recently I was asked to focus on donor relations and fundraising.
5) What major challenges have you faced during your career?
We organised a lot of great exchange programmes and it was really fulfilling to be a part of this grand picture of building friendship and stability for the most important bilateral relationship of our time. This started to change at the end of the Obama era and the beginning of the Trump era. The rhetoric on both sides was becoming more hawkish and the world started to drift from globalisation to protectionism. And on top of all of this there’s COVID which restricts travelling and really hinders the work that we do here. It restricts us from international travel which really hinders the work that we do but I’m hopeful because it is exactly in these situations where the role of an NGO like ours can create value and keep the communication channels open.
6) Could you tell us whether an MBA has equipped you to embrace the challenges you face and helped you to prepare you for the future?
The MBA has taught me to be more socially innovative. Most of the issues that non-profits aim to tackle are massive such as poverty, health and disease. The MBA programme has enabled me to see the problems that are stopping non-profits from succeeding as they are limited by many preconceptions and shackles.
In the MBA programme we learn that the more value you create the more money you can make. In a non-profit scenario, it is the opposite. People don’t sit well with the idea of using money to incentivise people to create more social value. Can you imagine the reputational damage they would receive if someone tells you that they make 5M HKD a year by running a non-profit that helps orphans? In the lens of ethics for non-profits people draw a line between doing well financially and doing well for the world. I question if the two are mutually exclusive…
We learned in the marketing class how valuable advertising is to a company’s growth. Businesses will spend aggressively on marketing so long as it produces value but we hate to see our donations being spent on advertising or on any sort of risk that comes along with revenue generation for the charity. Non-profits are reluctant to attempt any innovative, bold, grand scale fundraising campaigns for the fear that it might fail and ruin their reputation. This leads to destroying innovation in fundraising. If you can’t generate revenue then you can’t grow and therefore cannot solve the issue that you set out to tackle in the first place.
I recently listened to a TED Talks where a philanthropist was saying that in the last 40 years charitable giving has been stuck at roughly 2 percent of GDP in the USA. We need to wrestle some of that market share away from the for profit sector. So where better to learn how to do that than at the HKU MBA?
7) Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to join a non-profit or NGO?
Find a cause that you care about deeply. That is the most important thing.
8) And do you have any advice to MBA aspirants who would like to use the MBA as a door opener for a career change or perhaps career acceleration?
Do it! The programme is so diverse and not just in terms of the courses it offers but also the people and peers that you’ll meet. It’ll inspire you! The skills you learn here are practical and you will be able to utilise them in your career and life in general.