Individual Special Events: Cornell University - Silver Medal

Category 7a: Individual Special Events
Cornell University, Far Above . . . The Campaign for Cornell Public Launch

Contact: Carolyn Ent, director, campaign events, 130 East Seneca Street, Suite 400, Ithaca, New York 14850-4353, phone: 607-254-6511, e-mail:

Description of the Program: “Far Above . . . The Campaign for Cornell” was publicly launched October 26, 2006, at a news conference in New York City. In addition to the media, the audience consisted of university stakeholders, local alumni leadership and key state and city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The campaign goal at $4 billion marks the most ambitious fundraising effort in the history of Cornell with funds targeted for programs in support of students, faculty, and facilities. The campaign earmarks a portion of the $4 billion goal to expand the collaborative, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research programs of Cornell University in Ithaca and Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

The news conference, held at Weill Cornell Medical College, showed an example of this collaboration by presenting cutting edge research regarding biodegradable artificial skin that promotes a burn/wound victim’s healing. A technology demonstration and research presentation were given by a faculty member from the Ithaca campus and a surgeon from the medical school. The work’s importance was attested by a representative from the New York City Fire Department. Comments regarding the importance of clinical research to New York were given by Mayor Bloomberg. After the formal program, one-on-one interview opportunities for media with selected spokespeople were scheduled.

An Ithaca campus celebration took place the next day on Friday, October 27, 2006. A staff celebration was held on Monday, October 30, 2006.

The Ithaca campus event consisted of three phases:

  1. Joint annual meeting and state of the university address by the president;
  2. An evening celebration to highlight the Cornell mission and generate excitement
  3. Pep rally kickoff celebration for alumni affairs and development staff.

Audience: Campaign launch events were part of the 2006 annual Trustee-Council Weekend. Members of the Cornell University Board of Trustees and the Cornell University Council, a group of 400 university ambassadors, were invited to attend. In addition, invitations were mailed to campaign donors who had given a million dollars or more, or who had the potential to make a gift of $1 million dollars or more. Finally, approximately 125 faculty, students and staff, including representatives from the University Assembly and from Weill Medical College were invited.

Objectives: The objectives were as follows:

  1. Illustrate in images, sound, and words key aspects of the campaign: students, faculty and facilities
  2. Display the new leadership that will propel Cornell forward
  3. Generate enthusiasm for the campaign on the part of alumni, friends, staff and parents
  4. Reaffirm and strengthen the bond that Cornellians feel with the university


Joint annual meeting and state of the university address by the president: A joint meeting of the board of trustees and Cornell council began the day of activities for a targeted audience of donors, prospects, faculty and administrators. The scripted meeting was held at the council’s hotel headquarters on campus. Council and trustee leadership were seated on stage along with the university president. Deans and campaign leaders were seated in the first rows of the audience. The auditorium was full, as the chairman of the board of trustees opened the meeting by welcoming everyone and expressing his enthusiasm for the future of Cornell. The council chair then emphasized the importance of volunteers as we move forward in the campaign and urged everyone to stay involved as we begin this new era.

The campaign launch occurred one month into the leadership of a new presidency. The annual state of the university address was included in the event to demonstrate that the president understood Cornell’s heritage and had a vision for its future. By sharing his perspective on and appreciation for the Cornell spirit, he was able to express his engagement in the university’s mission. During his speech, the president made the intellectual argument for launching a campaign at this particular time and explained what the support could mean to Cornell’s future. A question and answer period followed where the assembly was encouraged to ask questions of the president, provost and college deans. The meeting concluded with a round of applause in support of the campaign and the president’s leadership. Case statements were distributed by staff volunteers as guests departed the auditorium. Senior administrators and campus VIPs lingered to talk and grant media interviews as the guests went on to their scheduled meetings.

Campaign Celebration: The evening celebration presented the emotional case for the campaign. As guests entered the special events center they walked through a lighted tunnel into a large arena transformed into a clean, high tech performance space with four large screens forming a cube. Two of the screens were 40’ high, giving the impression of an interactive exhibition at a museum. Images of Cornell faculty, students, and staff in action were projected on the screens showing cutting edge research and innovative partnerships, projects and programs of outreach and service. Student hosts and staff from alumni affairs and development were on hand to guide guests into this inviting structure – which created a remarkable 3-D translation of the campaign’s case. Two hundred faculty and students from all colleges and schools were already present in the space to welcome guests and to provide first hand interactions concerning the research and other activities showcased on the screens. Attendance including faculty, staff and students totaled approximately 1,000.

As guests enjoyed cocktails, they were transported to different sites of Cornell through the images. The campaign co-chairs presided over the reception program from a central round stage inviting guests to experience “our Cornell”. At the conclusion of the forty-five minute reception, the president was introduced and made brief remarks on the loyalty of Cornellians and offered a toast to the university and the campaign. A recording of the Cornell chimes then played signaling the time for dinner. As the president invited all to join him, the guests turned to see that the black draping surrounding the space lifted like a theater curtain to reveal long rectangle tables arranged in the form of a giant “C”. Using lighting changes to make the transition, the cocktail area went dark and the dining tables were lit while the screens remained a focal point throughout the dinner. Encouraged by development staff, the guests were guided to their assigned seats with deans, faculty and student hosts. The screens continued to show images of the university as guests dined on a three course meal.

Following dinner, the lights were dimmed as a video came up on the screens. This brief video featured alumni and supporters discussing how “their Cornell” has transformed their lives, and why the experience of Cornell is different from other universities. Lights then came up on the round stage which was now in front of the dining tables. The president appeared and made the emotional case for launching the campaign at this time. Then said, “Now I want to introduce you to the people and programs that are going to make a difference, and the reason we are going to succeed.” With that remark, he began to invite teams of faculty, students, staff and others to leave their tables and join him on stage. These individuals, representing all aspects of the Cornell community, created a “family portrait” which all guests were then invited to join. When everyone was on stage, and music and screens were pulsating, students then led the guests to the dance floor. As the groups began to dance, the lights suddenly went out and the music stopped on cue; in the center of the raised stage a single Cornell student in the spotlight began to sing the alma mater. As the audience joined in, a full musical accompaniment came in and the screens slowly showed faces of Cornellians of all generations. At the finale of the alma mater confetti filled the room and more students joined the guests encouraging everyone to dance.

As guests departed, they were given a commemorative photo book of Cornell images. Following the event, photos and personalized letters were mailed to the attending guests. Launch photos and information was posted on the campaign Web site. Campaign case statements were mailed to those guests invited but could not attend.

Pep rally kickoff celebration for Alumni Affairs and Development staff: To wrap up the celebration, on Monday, October 30, 2006 a “pep rally” was held for the Division of Alumni Affairs and Development’s 400 staff members. This particular component of the launch was designed with the following objectives in mind:

  1. To create a sense of team spirit and unity between alumni affairs and development staff as they move into the public phase of the campaign.
  2. To create a sense of excitement for the campaign.
  3. To establish, reaffirm and strengthen the bond that staff feel for Cornell.

Event Theme and Description: Using a pep rally theme to create a sense of fun and excitement, guests were invited to an early morning buffet breakfast in the basketball arena. We played on the sports theme throughout the event to help translate the concepts of “team”, “collaboration”, “leadership”, and “spirit” - knowing that these behaviors and characteristics will be critical to the success of the campaign. Words of praise and appreciation were given by senior staff members followed by the launch video with highlights from the weekend’s activities. The video culminated with brief comments from volunteers and administrators expressing their appreciation of and thanks to the staff. Everyone was then pleased and surprised to have the president make an appearance. He acknowledged all AA&D staff for providing legendary service throughout the weekend and in everything they do. Telling everyone that they deserved the “team ball”, campaign staff launched commemorative footballs into the audience. At the conclusion of the event, all 400 staff members were posed in the stands for a team photo. The team photo and other photographs from the rally were later posted on the internal campaign website.

Resources: The nine people that make up the Campaign for Cornell office at Cornell University directed the event. They worked with the three staff in events managements in alumni affairs and development who handled the logistics for the Ithaca events. Countless university staff and an outside consultant, the Herson Group, designed and executed the evening celebration. University communications and the communications office at Weill Cornell Medical College directed the media event in New York City. The campus hired numerous internal and external service providers for lighting, sound, décor, video, photography, food, security, etc. The budget for this major event was $400,000 which covered some of the expenses normally incurred as a result of Trustee Council Weekend.

Because of the complexity of these events, many staff members from alumni affairs and development were called upon to volunteer their time as hosts, ushers, drivers, and registration table greeters. An on site-briefing for the evening event was conducted with staff, faculty and students the day before and each activity was assigned a team captain with the ultimate responsibility.

Evaluation: At the time of the launch, the campaign had raised $1 billion. Since then, donors have committed another $300 million, putting the campaign on target at $1.3 billion. The campaign launch also led to a number of additional gift discussions at a $1 million and above. A summary of survey results from guests attending the evening celebration rated the event (48 percent) excellent; (27 percent) Good. Comments included: Excellent meal. Such fun. Everyone felt so positive. Giant slide show remarkable – loved the variety of pictures.