Grand Gold, Special Events: UC Santa Cruz

Sherry L. K. Main is Associate Vice Chancellor, Communications & Marketing, for the University of California Santa Cruz. In 2015, the university celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting a dinner for 1,000 donors and community members. Sherry was part of a team that was tasked with ensuring the event lived up to high expectations. As one of only six 2016 Grand Gold winners, we thought it worth asking Sherry how they pulled it off.

CASE VII: When did planning for the Fiat Fifty: 2015 Founders Dinner begin?
SHERRY: FiatFifty as a concept was first thought of in the larger context of planning for UC Santa Cruz’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2014. The event planning itself began eight months ahead of time in January of 2015. It really began to take shape around April when we had confirmed our University Medal recipient Alice Waters, emcee Kathryn Sullivan ’77 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator and former astronaut), and Tandy Beal & Company as our entertainment for the evening.

The UC Santa Cruz campus served as the venue
for the FiatFifty event.
CASE VII: Was there universal buy-in from the start?
SHERRY: There was universal buy-in from the start that the 50th anniversary of the campus founding was something special and a year not to go by without spectacular celebration. The image for the spectacular event, however, took some months to evolve. What was certain and ingrained in our process was that this was an opportunity to recognize the founding faculty, staff, and alumni who were critical to setting the foundation of our university. Since we had many living founders around, we wanted to be sure they felt appreciation from our campus community today.

Our annual Founders Dinner is billed as an awards and fundraising gala. Given the special anniversary, we decided to increase the attendance and bring this annual event back onto campus (usually held at a large venue in town). It was a great way to get our best donors out to support the campus, as well as cultivate new donors with the “wow” factor of the event. Having culinary leader Alice Waters in attendance as our medal recipient really aligned with the organic food movement and social justice aspect which UC Santa Cruz has come to be known for.

CASE VII: How did the event fit into the UC Santa Cruz campaign strategy?
SHERRY: UC Santa Cruz is engaged in its first comprehensive campaign, and this event was a signature piece of the effort. We made sure that the campaign initiatives were threaded throughout the communications pieces, the event itself, and follow-up. All gifts made this evening counted toward the campaign. Our donor relations team also received checks in hand this evening.

FiatFifty also served as a pivot point for our 50th anniversary celebration, where we began to look forward to what the next 50 years at UC Santa Cruz should look like. The campaign initiatives really helped to illustrate that narrative. The momentum from Fiat Fifty gained us media coverage, as well as community awareness for UC Santa Cruz’s excellence in research and teaching.

CASE VII: What were you biggest challenges/concerns?
SHERRY: In all honesty, our biggest challenge was in how we could take all of our grand ideas and package it into an evening that was not business as usual, but also didn’t make us look like we were going over the top. Budget and student fees continue to be difficult conversations, especially as a public institution. Fortunately, through a lot of hard work, gifts in kind, relationships that we had built up over the years, and intense collaboration across campus partners really made this event affordable and spectacular.

Chef Alice Waters accepts
the University Medal.
Chef Alice Waters inspired our menu. To take her food design, use campus and locally grown produce, and serve 750 people out of a makeshift kitchen on a field, was a feat to say the least. Being a foodie myself, I knew that a lot of people who attended this night were looking forward to Ms. Waters’s menu, so the bar was set high from the beginning to be sure the food, the experience, and the ambience was top notch.

CASE VII: Did the event live up to expectations?
SHERRY: The event was beyond what we could have expected. Once the guests of honor arrived – our founding faculty, staff, and alumni – the party kicked right into full force. Guests were reminiscing about the original days on campus and reflecting how much the campus had changed over five decades. Our chancellor, Sammy the Slug (mascot), and emcee Kathryn Sullivan engaged our guests throughout the cocktail hour, which made the 750-person event feel very intimate and personal.

Emcee Kathryn Sullivan engaged guests.
The walkabout performers, on-stage acts, after-party dancing, and star-gazing with our graduate students really made for a night to remember that guests still reflect on some months later. What I feel really hit home with folks is that we really do shine in many disciplines, which we were able to successfully showcase throughout the evening – from organic farming to astronomy, and to careers that have not been imagined yet.

CASE VII: If you had to do it all over again…?
SHERRY: I would do it in a heartbeat! As challenging as some of the planning may have been, having the benefit of hindsight would certainly help to make it easier. The team that you have is critical, as is the leadership and commitment from the top. I feel that the chair of our event committee did an excellent job keeping us on task, and that everyone – from the writers to the event assistants – rose to the occasion. The team really made the evening one that was worth the incredible effort!