Developing a High Impact Staff Event

MSTAFF200 was designed by staff, for staff, as part of the U-M’s Bicentennial Celebration. As the first campus wide event in the institution’s history dedicated to staff, it also supported the U-M’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

The work of staff members is often invisible: they are neither faculty nor students, the two groups most often the focus of campus attention. MSTAFF200 provided a rare opportunity to recognize and honor all U-M staff members. 

The two staff members selected as co-chairs of event planning and implementation were given complete creative freedom. Rather than settling for a typical cake-and-punch reception for a few hundred people, they rallied 32 staff leads to guide 18 subcommittees.

Then, honing the best ideas, they designed an outdoor fair that was attended by some 20,000 people. The fair centered on three U-M staff “Era Tents”—one portraying the 1800s, one focused on the 1900s, and one spotlighting the present and future.

Inside each tent were displays that told stories of how staff worked and what they did, along with examples of their jobs and leisure activities. 

Two stages featured staff performances of magic and music. There were also tents where staff members showcased their talents, community interests and service projects. In yet another tent, staff members displayed and displayed their artwork, crafts and other hobbies.

In this way, as in no other way before, staff members could fully share their broad and diverse talents, abilities and interests. While MSTAFF200 was a major event, the concept and approach can easily be adapted and scaled to any size and scope, for any campus.

The celebration could be all day or just a few hours long, held indoors or outdoors, as one large event or a series of smaller activities and programs. Whatever the format, it will demonstrate that staff are an essential part of the campus community.

Staff members at U-M number more than 50,000 and have wide ranging roles, backgrounds and interests as well as widely divergent schedules, work locations and availability.

So the first priority, and challenge, was to create and event for staff and by staff that was both inclusive and accessible, in all ways these terms could be construed. Specific goals included:

  • Creating an event where U-M staff would feel genuinely appreciated while honoring the U-M’s Bicentennial

  • Making not only the event but the process of creating and implementing the event inclusive and accessible

  • Ensuring that diverse staff members had a voice in event planning as well as opportunities to contribute and share their ideas and talents

The primary audience was all U-M staff members, current and retired. This included Central Campus, North Campus and the Medical Campus as well as U-M regional campuses at Dearborn and Flint.

Further, it included all staff members at all levels, representing all units on campus, and it encompassed all functional areas and staff roles, from skilled trades people, librarians and food service workers to nurses and doctors, accountants, athletic coaches, academic advisors, custodians, major gifts officers, research administrators, facilities managers, and many others.

Faculty, students and community members were also invited to attend. A secondary audience was university leaders.  Families of staff members and community members were also welcome to attend.

Planning and implementation involved collaboration between the MSTAFF200 Planning Team and its subcommittees, the U-M Voices of the Staff Employee Engagement Program, the U-M Bicentennial Committee, and U-M Business and Finance, which provides operational and financial guidance and support for the entire campus.

Planning:

An organizing committee met for a year to develop the overall plan, conceptualized as a large outdoor fair. The fact that the event was connected to the university’s Bicentennial Celebration afforded significantly more resources than it otherwise would have. This opened up possibilities in terms of both size and scale.

The MSTAFF200 event was sponsored by Voices of the Staff (the University’s staff engagement program), in cooperation with the U-M Bicentennial Committee. The University’s Business & Finance unit provided leadership and financial support.

Once a framework and initial plan were in place, the planning committee dissolved and an implementation committee was formed.

Implementation:

The co-chairs of the MSTAFF200 event were intentional in their approach, utilizing positive organizational culture theory to guide their work.

They deployed a leadership style that was not directive, but instead provided necessary parameters, resources and guidelines to subcommittees through a participant-leadership model. 

Together, the 18 subcommittees brought the planning document to life, adding their own ideas and details to the implementation plans. Subcommittees [1] included:

  • A logistical team to handle tents, electricity and set-up

  • A group responsible for food and beverages, with a focus on zero-waste

  • Teams that handled the plans for entertainment and era-based staff displays

  • A sub-committee in charge of giveaways, to include a special, custom-made gift for each staff member

On the day of the event itself, over 600 staff and student volunteers were deployed. Efforts were made to ensure that every volunteer also had an opportunity to enjoy the event.

The co-chairs split their responsibilities and backed one another up, as needed. To keep everyone up to date and on-task, they produced a Situation Report in the form of a monthly newsletter for leaders of the 18 subcommittees.

They also consulted with a campus expert to ensure that issues around accessibility and inclusivity were addressed in their process and plans.

This approach generated a sense of ownership and pride among everyone involved. Staff members were not assigned to this project. They were trusted to manage their work responsibilities and determine their appropriate level of volunteer involvement.

The culture of the planning team, and the dynamic it generated, proved that when staff are empowered, they can achieve amazing things.

This countered what for some staff members can be a difficult aspect of academic culture, in which staff members may feel constrained or treated as “less than” faculty members and students.

Attendance figures offered abundant proof of success. Over 20,000 staff, university leaders, faculty, students and community members attended the event and learned about the contributions of their colleagues over the University’s history. For once, staff members were the focus of celebration and affirmation.

The event schedule ran smoothly, and the weather cooperated by offering a perfect summer day as a backdrop.

Afterward, the co-chairs received a flood of messages expressing thanks and appreciation. Many staff members noted that they experienced a new sense of pride, joy and energy about their role.

While the president and the executive vice president/CFO were slated to spend just an hour at MSTAFF200, both ended up staying for much of the day, visiting the displays and engaging with staff members.

Other executive officers also attended and several wrote notes of congratulation, with some commenting that they had never seen an event so well planned and executed.

Immediately, there was talk of when the next event would be. Even though an event at that scale would, typically, not be repeated until the university’s next bicentennial, discussions began on the possibility of hosting a major staff celebration on a more regular basis.

  • Involve staff members at the very beginning and ask them what they want.  Then bring those ideas to those in leadership roles.

  • When it comes to budget, consider having a brainstorming phase where all ideas are welcome to encourage creativity. Then decide what’s possible and enlist campus leaders to implement the best ideas.

  • At first, university leaders may be reluctant to commit resources for a staff- focused event. Be clear and specific about the purpose and return on investment: employee engagement, renewed commitment and an improved campus culture that values all its members.

  • Allow for sufficient staff time in planning and staging the event, but don’t over-formalize it. The grassroots energy that brought many volunteers together to do what they did by choice was part of the “special sauce” that made this event so successful. Also, staffing needs will vary depending on the size and scope of your event.

  • A big challenge was not knowing how many people would attend. Planners estimated attendance at 10,000 with a back-up plan for larger numbers in terms of food and other amenities.

  • Be prepared to encounter campus policies that you didn’t know about. In this case, planners learned that the university had a noise restriction policy. Although they acted quickly, the policy wasn’t lifted until one week prior to the event.

  • Take time to think through logistics carefully, and be prepared for unexpected logistical challenges.

  • Work with campus experts and seek input from staff members to make your event a model of accessibility and sustainability.

  • Consider creating a one-of-a-kind gift for staff member attendees. At U-M, a group of skilled trades staff members designed and produced 10,000 small, commemorative wooden cubes. These cubes were given to staff members who attended the event.

  • Document your planning and implementation process. Take photos and collect artifacts from the event. Keep these in a place where future staffers can access them for reference, and share them with your university or college archive.



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