Individual Special Events: University of Virginia - Gold Medal

7A. Individual Special Events
University of Virginia, National Campaign Launch

Contact: Kari Evans, director of donor and constituent relations, Development and Public Affairs, PO box 400807, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4807, Phone: (434) 924-6214, e-mail:

The University of Virginia publicly launched its $3 billion campaign in fall 2006 with 54 events over a course of four days. The pinnacle of the weekend was a gala celebration on Saturday, September 30. The objective of the weekend was to celebrate the fundraising successes to date and generate enthusiasm for the campaign in a way that honored the university’s rich history and ignited a passion for the future.

Eighteen months were spent planning the weekend’s myriad events. Though responsibility for the weekend’s activities resided with the development public affairs office, and one person was dedicated full-time to the coordination, a committee was convened of 34 faculty and staff, representing the president’s office and development staff from each school, the library, and various institutes and centers. The team met monthly and communicated via e-mail to ensure that entire institution was energized and felt ownership of the launch weekend’s goals and plans.

The invitation package was mailed to 2100 of the university’s highest rated donors and prospects. Approximately 1200 attended some portion of the weekend’s festivities, which included individual events for 20 schools and units, such as foundation advisory board meetings, receptions, dinners, and lectures, in addition to the black tie gala for 900 people in the newly constructed John Paul Jones Arena Additionally, many weekend activities were open to the university community, such as:

  • The board of visitors ceremony which officially launched the public phase of the campaign;
  • 12,000 individual fireworks released in a 10 minute span over the Rotunda, the university’s internationally recognized historic landmark building designed by founder Thomas Jefferson, while the university’s marching band performed music timed to the firework display for over 10,000 students, faculty, staff, donors, and prospects;
  • Four interactive forums entitled The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind with 36 faculty panelists discussing the following topics:
    • globalization
    • arts and literature
    • science, engineering, and medicine
    • democracy at home and abroad
  • Special exhibit at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library featuring source materials used in the printed materials.

We were fortunate to have so much of the talent behind this weekend on staff at the university. In addition to the planning committee and event planners that coordinated the many activities, all of the weekend’s printed materials were designed by the strategic communication teams in development and public affairs, such as the invitation package. The invitation needed to feature 20 different, individual events, each with separate and not always overlapping guest lists, in addition to the pan-university events to which everyone was invited. Their innovative solution was to create a presentation package that evolved – with multiple envelopes and cards – into a delightful experience for the recipient who unwrapped the components as if they were a gift. The source materials for the printed pieces were drawn from the university’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Wherever possible, services from within the university system were utilized, from the shuttles provided by parking and transportation, to the food services of UVa Catering, and the expertise of facilities management. In additional to showcasing talent and assets within the university community, using the resources available enabled us to be economical with the approximately $2 million budget. The direct costs paid by development and public affairs for the entire weekend, to vendors internal and external to the institution, were just over $500,000; the rest was underwritten or paid for by gifts from donors.

The crowning event of the weekend was the gala. Though initial preparation began 18 months prior, the planning began in earnest one year before the dinner with the appointment of a chair from the volunteer Executive Committee guiding the campaign. With her guidance and inspiration, the committee of 11 donors was created to steer the aesthetic design of the evening and a production team was hired to realize this vision. The committee met three times in addition to innumerable conference calls and e-mail communication.

The dinner for 900 people was staged on the floor of the newly constructed John Paul Jones Arena. Mindful of the charge to honor the university’s rich history and with the intent to evoke a sense of place in what could otherwise be a blank canvas, tiered staging was built to allow for dinner tables on three different levels, mimicking the different levels of the university’s fabled Lawn – the heart and soul of the institution. A 50 foot high seamless screen was installed 360 degrees around the perimeter to create walls on which were projected three unique sets of images:

  • As guests come into dinner, their yearbook photos were displayed. Staff had spent months culling the archives and scanning images of these nostalgic photos designed to reconnect the guests with their experience as students.
  • Mid-way through the evening, the image faded to Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten Rock Bridge Gap Report in which he laid out the plan for the university, reminding guests of the abundant history of the institution.
  • The final design projected the Rotunda set high above the stage and surrounded by the other historic buildings of the Lawn, creating and atmosphere as if guests were seated in the midst of Mr. Jefferson’s Academic Village.

The dinner tables were a mix of round and serpentine, which were especially appropriate since the gardens of the Pavilions at the heart of the university are surrounded by serpentine walls, also designed by Thomas Jefferson. While practical, for they broke up what could have simply been a sea of tables, the serpentine tables also reinforced the connection to a unique feature of the university.

Staffing the dinner were 250 waiters, captains, and bar servers, 35 culinary chefs, 120 volunteers from through the university community, and 26 students who greeted the guests as they arrived. The program included remarks and performances by student, local, national, and international talent.

It was important that guests have the opportunity to explore the many capital projects that make up a significant portion of the $3 billion campaign goal. Therefore, an exhibit coordinator from the university’s Museum of Art created a gallery through which guests wandered during cocktails. The gallery included architectural models and freestanding walls with framed renderings envisioning the future landscape of the university. The exhibits were designed and built by talent from within the institution.

The tool used to track guest responses and event logistics was MS Access. Complex forms were created that ensured accurate and complete tracking of both who was anticipated prior to the weekend as well as who actually attended. This was particularly important for the follow-up that took place in the months that followed the National Campaign Launch Weekend. A package was sent to the guests with their 5x7 portrait at the gala, as well as a spectacular image of the fireworks erupting over the Rotunda. Additionally, individual development officers, building upon the momentum and energy of the weekend conducted personal visits with donors and prospects to cultivate additional gifts. Now five months later, the campaign is ahead of schedule. We are beginning a series of regional campaign celebrations across the country and around the world, planned over the course of the next four years.

The weekend celebrated the University of Virginia – its faculty and students, the places that are important, and the people who share a passion for Mr. Jefferson’s university. It was a powerful experience for the guests and the culmination of 18 months of planning and hard work.