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September 2008
Volume 3, Number 9

Gifts From the Earth:
Annual Event Brings Communities Together

Heather Foss

Each year, South Seattle Community College hosts Gifts From the Earth, a signature event that brings together the campus and the larger Seattle community for an evening of good food, good wine, and a celebration of education.

For more than 20 years, South Seattle Community College has been home to an award-winning, American Culinary Federation accredited culinary arts program, which offers degree and certificate options in restaurant and food service production, catering and banquet operations, and pastry and specialty baking. Many of the guests and participants in Gifts From the Earth are strong supporters of the culinary program and related programs such as the Northwest Wine Academy and the new Bachelor of Applied Science in Hospitality Management degree program.

Gifts From the Earth highlights the college’s culinary, wine, and hospitality programs, while recognizing and celebrating the support and partnerships that have been formed in the community as a result of these programs. Each of the fifteen volunteer celebrity chefs prepares a four-course meal for two tables of ten people. Among the noted chefs are Jeremy McLachlan from Salty’s and Peter Birk of Ray’s Boathouse. Paired with each meal are wines from more than 30 Washington state wineries, as well as vintages from the college’s own Northwest Wine Academy. These elements on their own are enough to sell out the 300-seat event; however, the success of Gifts From the Earth is a result of much more than memorable food and beautiful decorations.

Ingredients for a Successful Event

While Gifts From the Earth has consistently increased revenue each year, it has also expanded the traditional boundaries of a fund-raising gala. What sets it apart are the three main ingredients, which have remained constant since the 2001 inaugural event: student involvement, community partnerships, and campus buy-in.

Ultimately, students are what tie the event to the organization and the mission. Guests at Gifts From the Earth want to connect with students, talking with them about their program of study and hearing about their plans for the future. Gifts From the Earth also offers a perfect venue and opportunity for supporters not only to interact with students, but also to view student success in action. The student servers, student speakers, and student presence combine to give the event an emotional impact that has come to characterize it. All these connections make event guests feel more drawn to support the organization.

The event also offers participating students, all of whom are volunteers, valuable networking opportunities and hands-on experience working with well-known, industry-established chefs. According to Chef Stephen Sparks, a 14-year culinary faculty member, more than half of his participating students will receive a job offer or opportunity from their involvement in Gifts From the Earth. “It may not result in a job right away, but it is a connection for the future,” said Sparks. “Students who work in the kitchen are excited about the opportunity to see how things are done on a larger scale, and they get to prepare specialty items. Students who work directly with the chefs gain networking opportunities, and they get to see what’s currently coming out of the kitchens of some of the most popular restaurants in the Seattle area.”

South Seattle Community College and its various departments are continually growing and changing in order to offer the very best programs and opportunities to the students it serves, and Gifts From the Earth is no exception. Each year, a new program or element is added to the event. In 2006, the newly established Northwest Wine Academy, located at South Seattle, became a new participant in Gifts From the Earth. The Northwest Wine Academy provides students the opportunity to earn a winemaker’s certificate, a wine marketing and sales certificate, and a food and wine pairing certificate. Like the culinary students, the wine students who participate in Gifts From the Earth are presented with opportunities they may not otherwise have. Northwest Wine Academy students are responsible for contacting wineries, securing donations, visiting wineries to pick up donations, pairing the wines with each course to be served during the evening’s festivities, and pouring wine for the guests. Not only do they receive practical experience, they also learn how to cultivate relationships within the industry.

In 2007, South Seattle launched its Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Hospitality Management, and the first cohort of students enthusiastically volunteered for Gifts From the Earth. The hospitality management program allows students to explore management, marketing, and human resource positions in all areas of the hospitality industry. At Gifts From the Earth, students put their education to work by serving as table hosts, providing that extra special touch of customer service for each guest. They are able to use many of the topics they cover in class in a real setting, handling special requests, complaints, and other needs. In each of these instances, Gifts From the Earth helps students gain real-world, hands-on experience that cannot be duplicated in a classroom setting.

In addition to the learning experience and networking opportunities gained by participating students, Gifts From the Earth also serves as a venue to acknowledge the college’s industry partners and create new relationships. With the hospitality industry booming in the Seattle area and the natural connection between the college and the community that the culinary, wine, and hospitality programs provide, many opportunities exist for the development of new relationships. For many people, attendance at Gifts From the Earth may be their first chance to visit the college campus or the first time they hear about the exciting programs the college offers. This often leads to their involvement with the college; they might come to the campus for lunch, decide to make a gift in support of a particular program, or even become a foundation board member.

Partnerships with community and industry leaders propel the mission of the college and the foundation. These relationships, cultivated correctly, can lead to success. For example, when the Bachelor of Applied Science in Hospitality Management program was in its beginning stages, a committee of industry leaders was formed to assist with everything from identifying a need for the program to assisting with curriculum development. Many of those who served on the committee now support Gifts From the Earth by attending the event or hosting a table at the event.

Many groups come together to plan Gifts From the Earth. In addition to the event committee, made up of foundation board members and community members, a group from each college program takes ownership of its part of the event. A large group of volunteers, including faculty, staff, and administrators, participates on the actual day of the event. In addition to these ingredients, South Seattle adds its own special ingredient, a commitment to excellence. The first of the collegewide priorities is to “promote student learning and success.” This special ingredient characterizes Gifts From the Earth and all programs across campus.

In 2008, the event raised $160,000, a $30,000 increase from 2007. Since the inaugural event in 2001, the amount of revenue has increased by more than $100,000. Revenue generated by the event comes primarily from sponsorships, ticket sales, an auction, and the Fund a Dream segment, which supports the South Seattle Community College Foundation in its mission to encourage, promote, and provide financial support for educational, scholarly, and community programs on behalf of the college.

A Focus on the Mission

As part of the planning process, an assessment was conducted on the strategic value of this event for the college and the foundation. As a result of that assessment, many changes have been made to ensure that Gifts From the Earth is a success. One tool that helped determine the importance of focusing on the mission was the use of a guest and participant survey. The information collected from the survey revealed that guests were most interested in seeing the students and programs highlighted during the event. This information was shared with the committee and helped to shift the focus of the event on the guests' interests.

For example, in early years staff focused on the event details such as decorations and centerpieces, and did not use the power of the volunteers to help run the event. As a result, guests did not feel a strong connection to the college. Now, the Gifts From the Earth committee is made up of foundation members and community volunteers who represent the industry. Instead of focusing on decisions such as color of linens and centerpieces, this committee turns its attention to effectively delivering the college message in ways that attract new supporters.

The committee also increased student participation in the event. In previous years, each chef would bring his or her own assistants to help in preparing and serving the meal. Each speaking part of the program was focused on chefs and wineries, with no significant student presence. Now, important networking occurs as culinary arts students work directly with the chefs to help them prepare and serve the food. Wine program students learn about and serve wines from all over the state of Washington, while hospitality students work directly with the guests. A student speaker addresses the audience before the Fund a Dream portion of the event. Following the 2008 event, the student speaker was offered a job by a high-profile company whose representative was a guest that night.

Because of the changes, the event task list was turned upside down, with committee members now centered, first, on who the guests will be and, later, on how to make the event special for those guests. The committee begins by focusing on sponsor recruitment, then table captain recruitment. The group is not bogged down with the details, but focuses instead on the mission and how best to achieve positive results that will benefit students and enhance the college’s brand.

After several years of refining the planning methods for Gifts From the Earth, the event has gained momentum and continues to build strong relationships for the college. The shift from an internally focused event to one that focuses on building partnerships in the industry and providing opportunities for students has given the event staying power. Gifts From the Earth has become South Seattle Community College’s signature event, and one that college supporters, employees, and students look forward to attending year after year.


Heather Foss is Development Officer at South Seattle Community College in Seattle, Washington.

Photographs for this article were taken by Gene Baker, Director for International Marketing and Outreach at South Seattle Community College.


Cynthia Wilson, Editor