Benefit Dinner: Behind the Scenes

Benefit Dinner: Behind the Scenes

Nikki Haley speaks during Faulkner University's Annual Benefit Dinner on Oct. 3
Nikki Haley speaks during Faulkner University’s Annual Benefit Dinner on Oct. 3

More than 2,000 guests began filling the ballroom of Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center on October 3 for Faulkner’s sold out Annual Benefit Dinner to hear Nikki Haley, the former United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

What they experienced that night was much more than simply listening to a speech from a great speaker. The Benefit Dinner is one of the most highly anticipated social events of the year for the River Region and guests from all around the state and the southeast travel to be a part of the night. 

They come to experience a night of high-energy entertainment and community recognition along with special highlights and news from Faulkner’s campus. Guests witness breathtaking performances from Faulkner’s chorus, students and alumni and hear from President Mike Williams. They learn about the university’s new College of Health Sciences physician assistant program coming in 2020. They hear that 100 percent of students who graduate with a Computer Science degree from Faulkner find a job in their field only six months after they graduate. 

“Our annual Benefit Dinner is really the signature event of the university. It’s an opportunity for us to showcase our outstanding academic programs and our distinctive Christian mission and the investment we are trying to make into this community,” Williams said. “The most important outcome of the dinner is that we raise money for students to give them more scholarships in order to provide them with a transformative experience and to prepare the new emerging generation to make a tremendous difference in our world.”

There’s a lot that goes into making the event an unforgettable night and it doesn’t start when the salad is placed on the table. It takes 12 months to plan as Billy Camp, vice president of advancement and the department of advancement prepare each detail of the night. 

The most important element is finding the right speaker. 

“We begin looking for a speaker the day after our last dinner and work on creating a theme for the night that will fit what we wish to showcase,” Camp said. “We want to make a great show that dazzles the crowd and the way we do that is through visuals, timing and sound.”

Camp begins by looking and gauging current events when determining a relevant speaker that will not only engage the audience, but someone who is a stranger to the Montgomery area.

“We look for someone who people are going to get excited about and talk about,” Camp said. “Although we might not agree with everything they say, we want someone who has a good moral standing.”

Ashby Kasarjian sings during the 2019 Annual Benefit Dinner
Ashby Kasarjian sings during the 2019 Annual Benefit Dinner

After the speaker is contacted and secured to speak, an announcement is made to the public and from there it’s all about promotion through ads, television spots, radio broadcasts, social media advertisements, interviews and selling tickets and sponsorship tables.

Camp and his team immediately get to work creating a theme and coordinating the sequence of events for the night. Every detail is thought out, practiced, rearranged and formatted to make sure the night goes smoothly and every second is accounted for during the entire two-hour event. Even the lights, staging and background music are all selected for a purpose.

The salad, main course and dessert served that night were tasted and selected from an array of options several weeks prior to the event. Dozens of student volunteers are trained to help seat guests, collect tickets and serve guests. Staff volunteers are trained to maintain the photo line, provide tickets at Will Call and help in the reception area. Multiple security agencies are contacted beforehand to maintain checkpoints throughout the convention center and provide the upmost safety for the speaker and guests.

Months prior to the evening, auditions are conducted to select the performers and choral practices are held each week leading up to the dinner. Several dress rehearsals are scheduled during the first week prior to the event to address the details.  

Camp focuses on the flow of the evening so it will be smooth and natural from the dinner’s introduction to each video, song and performance. Camp selects songs containing lyrics that fit with the theme, that have meaning and move the program along. He reviews and a team writes and approves the dinner program.

With nearly 2,000 guests in attendance each year, the dinner is the university’s largest fundraiser and all proceeds go toward funding student scholarships.

John Hill, owner of Culinary Management, has been a faithful sponsor of the dinner for the last 25 years because he supports the mission of Faulkner. 

“The core reason we support the Benefit Dinner is to raise funds to support students and the work of the university,” Hill said. “Funds are needed to maintain the school’s current level of excellence in academics and an uplifting campus environment.”

“Secondly, the Benefit Dinner is a way to showcase Faulkner to the community and to those who may not be familiar with the university and what it does for the River Region. Faulkner cultivates students with character and helps them find direction as a young person. Our communities need morally strong leaders in all in all fields, but especially in education, law and the political areas,” Hill added.

This year’s theme provided a subtle, yet moving recognition of women, in particular women’s suffrage to mark the 100-year anniversary of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Congress passed the amendment on June 4, 1919 and it was ratified on August 18, 1920.

Part of the night celebrated several alumna for their inspiring stories and accomplishments including The Honorable Carole Medley (‘95), Lauderdale County District Judge; Dr. Sky Jones (‘06), doctor at St. Jude’s Research Hospital; Joetta Kelly (‘71), a teacher in the River Region for over 40 years, Senior Master Sgt. Jessica Parker (‘19), member of the United States Air Force and Monica Pugh (‘95), a mother of five children and a foster mother to three.

Alyssa Taylor, Lauri Ann Itson, Ashby Kasarjian and Leah Hunt sing during the 2019 Annual Benefit Dinner.
Alyssa Taylor, Lauri Ann Itson, Ashby Kasarjian and Leah Hunt sing during the 2019 Annual Benefit Dinner.

As each one was escorted on stage, the Faulkner University chorus and Faulkner student Ashby Kasarjian sang Mariah Carey’s Hero, to honor their sacrifices, and highlight their love and kindness.

The Benefit Dinner has erased the notion that Faulkner isthe best-kept secret of the River Region. Through bringing big names to the area, thousands have attended the dinner.

“Our visibility has certainly climbed,” Camp said. “We present an evening that our stakeholders and our students can be proud of. Everything we plan to include during the evening is a part of the message we want to share. This is our one shot to show Faulkner’s successes and dreams with the community.”