It was a highly emotional moment for Colombian nationals and others alike when Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos stepped onto the stage to take part in CIAT’s 50th anniversary final celebrations at the organization’s headquarters near Cali, Colombia.
Adding to the feeling of excitement was the moment when President Santos pledged the equivalent of approximately 3 million US dollars to CIAT’s initiative Future Seeds and awarded CIAT with the National Order for Merit in the degree of Silver Cross, the highest recognition a research institute can obtain (see a short video here).
CIAT, or the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, was formally established in 1967 thanks to backing from the Colombian government and the Rockefeller, Ford, and Kellogg Foundations. So yes, 2017 was CIAT’s 50th anniversary, and was unquestionably a major milestone and something worth celebrating.
Or, was it?
Celebrating an anniversary – and especially an important one like 50 years – requires significant resources – human and financial. Looking back at the year 2017 and all the planning and work that the anniversary demanded, this is a fair and necessary question to ask.
Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation between 2005 and 2017 (Rockefeller celebrated 100 years in 2013 during her presidency) wrote an article titled “Anniversaries Are Not to Be Wasted” for the Harvard Business Review in 2012.
And I tend to agree with her that “anniversaries are not to be wasted,” if you manage to really make it worthwhile.
But what does an organization like CIAT expect from an anniversary?
Although it is a time to have a celebration, one should not miss the opportunity to communicate important information such as the extent of its impacts and achievements, strategic messages, and future plans. It is an opportunity to show how you stand out of the crowd and stay relevant to the current (and future) global agenda. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the support received – financial and otherwise – and to strengthen relationships with existing partners and donors while working on expanding relationships to new ones.
No doubt one could write a book on planning anniversaries. I will not do that but here are 5 tips for future anniversary planners.
- Start early
It will never be too early to start planning your anniversary. If, like CIAT, you plan on inviting a President or another high-level personality, you should book their agenda as soon as possible (and be ready to adapt and change your own agenda as many times as required).
Besides, you have no idea of the amount of archeological work there is to do, especially if you want to produce commemorative materials (which you should, see tip #4) or visions and forward-looking products, on top of all the logistics for celebration event(s).
- Make it media worthy
This is probably the most difficult task of all. An anniversary in itself is not necessarily very attractive for the media. Launching or promoting a special initiative (NEWS in Africa, Future Seeds in Colombia in the case of CIAT) is more likely to get media attention. Involving a personality (like the case of President Santos) also increases your chances of coverage.
- Involve staff and create a diverse organizing team
An anniversary is not only a celebration event. It’s a year-long campaign that involves re-branding, media outreach, commemorative products, marketing materials, and much more. It’s also the opportunity to look back and to look forward. For this, you will need a diverse set of skills. Also, think about internal events such as round tables, seminars, and spontaneous initiatives. They are inspiring for staff and create unity and commitment while also offering a platform to look forward and to rethink the organization.
- Make it about partners and donors
Ultimately, the purpose of your anniversary is to show the relevance of your organization to the current and future development agenda, and renew and expand your relationships with partners and donors. Give them center stage, recognize their support, and listen to what their future priorities are. If at all possible, make this exercise a regional one: your priorities, audiences and target groups are different in each regions. Develop tailored activities and events that will serve your regional objectives.
- Create inspiring commemorative materials
Until now, a written history of CIAT had not been produced, and the closest attempt were the papers presented at the 30th anniversary celebration, which focused on the early development of the Center. The 50th anniversary was arguably the perfect juncture to fill this void and CIAT produced a full-fledge 100-page book telling its (hi)story: Forever Pioneers – 50 Years Contributing to a Sustainable Food Future… And Counting authored by John Lynam and Derek Byerlee. Thanks to the celebrations, CIAT now has a proper written history and if Carter G. Woodson is right, “knowing the past opens the door to the future.” On the occasion, CIAT also packaged 50 years of documented impacts into a short, catchy 12 pager. More examples of CIAT50 commemorative products are available here.
In times of scarce financial resources making the case for celebrating an anniversary might not be easy but as Judith Rodin says in this same article “An anniversary, I now know, is an opportunity not to be wasted. The pride and unity it inspires makes it an ideal time to ask people to think together about why their work matters and how it should move forward.”
Blogpost by Stefanie Neno, Communications Manager, CIAT
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Photo credits: CIAT