A student sitting on a desk with her arms extended talking to two two others than are seated in front of her. There is another student behind her motioning with his hands in front of a screen
Bella Lubinskas, a junior majoring in advertising and a student team lead at CreateAthon@VCU, speaks to the rest of the team on March 25 during the first hour of CreateAthon. The team spent the next 23 hours preparing materials and presentations to help a collection of local nonprofits with their branding and communications needs. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

‘Energy’ fuels 24-hour CreateAthon@VCU’s return to in-person collaboration for local nonprofits

“We’re the little guys,” said one organization’s founder while expressing gratitude after students shared their vision for her organization and three other “scrappy” nonprofits in the creative sprint’s 15th year.

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On Monday morning at the T. Edward Temple Building at Virginia Commonwealth University, a team of four students stand in front of two nonprofit founders, their class and their professor. One student blows a coach’s whistle, and the other three students shout “Play ball!” before presenting their vision for solving the communications challenges their youth baseball nonprofit client is facing.

It’s more energy than you might expect students to have just days after a 24-hour creative sprint serving the branding and communications needs of a collection of Richmond-area nonprofits. But “energy” was the most common word students and their adviser used when describing this year’s CreateAthon@VCU (with “vibes” as a close second). The event, which ran from 9 a.m. March 25 to 9 a.m. the following morning, marked CreateAthon’s 15th year at VCU and its first back in person since 2019.

Last Friday also marked a “first” for Jess Collins, an assistant professor of advertising at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, who took the reins for CreateAthon in 2020: her first time running the event in person after it went virtual when the pandemic began.

“It is so nice to see the halls with such energy in them,” said Collins, who compared the atmosphere to that of an advertising agency. “I’ve been teaching in person since last fall. The energy has been slow to pick back up, but this has felt like old times. To see students walking through the halls and hanging out and working in groups in the classrooms: The energy is back.”

She was thrilled, as she has been the past two years, to see the students working with the local nonprofits she described as “scrappy” nonprofits in the early stages of building their organizations – “ones that could really use the help.

A student looking at a laptop with food next to her
Anna Roberts, a junior majoring in advertising and a student volunteer at CreateAthon@VCU, focuses on the work in the first hour of CreateAthon. Each teams' presentations to four Richmond-area nonprofits after CreateAthon included new materials for branding, social media, website and more. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

‘A hot pot of emotions’

At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, teams of student leads – members of Collins’ semesterlong course – and peer volunteers were not even one-third of the way through the event but were already making gains at developing advertising copy, social media templates and calendars, website redesigns, branding recommendations and materials for their nonprofit clients – and learning more about the cadence of creative work in a 24-hour setting.

“It’s been very up and down at the same time,” said senior strategic advertising major Joy Luong, a student team lead.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Emma Hartley, a senior strategic and creative advertising major and a volunteer at the event.

“We’re super excited, then we’re hitting a wall, then we’re crashing, but then we’re getting super motivated. It’s definitely a hot pot of emotions,” Luong said.

“Yeah, already – and it’s not even five o’clock,” Hartley said.

It was the pair’s first time working closely together as they prepared social media templates for nonprofit Bright Minds Chess RVA, and the pair said their group had learned a lot about the importance of communication and collaboration early on “to avoid hiccups in the nighttime when it gets more stressful,” Luong said.

Collaboration was a common theme during the event. Nadia Abdullin, a senior mass communications major in the course, was in charge of the group’s color palette, type, logo and “vibes – I have said ‘vibes’ like 100 times today,” she said. It was her first time using the virtual whiteboard software her team was collaborating in for its mood board and visual strategy.

“I’m kind of used to it just because, as a creative, there are new tools being created all the time – new apps, new design frameworks, all that stuff – so as soon as you get familiar with one tool, they’re like, ‘Check out this new cool thing!’ so you kind of have to learn on the fly,” Abdullin said. “Being able to show that quick understanding and thinking on your toes, I feel like, is part of the industry, specifically in advertising or creative work.”

New skills and new experiences

Challenging students to learn new skills and gain new experiences is central to the student team leads’ semester-long upper-level elective course built around CreateAthon.

“My goal as a professor is to always give them assignments that will set them apart when they’re getting job interviews,” Collins said. “When they’re talking to people, I want them to feel like they’re proud of their work and that it can give them a bit of an edge to have stuff that they really put their heart and soul into – it’s just the way that I plan all of my classes.”

While the elective is limited to mass communications majors, CreateAthon itself is open to volunteers – both student and professional – from any background. This year’s volunteers ranged from alums and mentors, including a communications team from the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, to students who plan to seek careers in fields from journalism to business.

Karyn Cook, a senior journalism major, got a chance to flex her journalism skills as a copywriter teaming up with students whose focus was more on advertising and PR. “I feel like I can go to them for help,” Cook said during the event, “and I like that they can rely on me knowing that I’m a journalism major to be able to help them out with copy and writing.”

Students looking at cloths, one is holding a shirt with outstretched arms
Students working on the project for Caring Clothes Closet, which they later recommended renaming "Caring Closet," begin unpacking materials at the beginning of the 24-hour CreateAthon@VCU on March 25. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

It was senior Mikaela Peters’ second CreateAthon and first in person. Last year, she participated virtually as a student, learning the ins and outs of client relationship management, and this year, she served as the course’s teaching assistant, developing her skills in project management by managing sponsor relationships and training mentors, all of which she expects to help her in her career as an art director.

“This is the line of work you’ve entered, and this is as close as you can get to it without fully graduating and getting hired somewhere,” said Peters, a mass communications major with a concentration in strategic advertising who also serves as vice president of planning for VCU Ad Club.

Practicing all the skills needed for a career in advertising is an ongoing element of the elective course, Collins said, starting when students choose the nonprofit they wish to spend the semester supporting.

“We all pitched for whichever nonprofit we wanted to work for,” said Blake Carlson, a mass communications major with a concentration in creative and strategic advertising, whose team pitched for and worked with Slyderz Baseball. “It wasn’t assigned to us; we all got to pick what we were passionate about.”

A woman lifting up her glasses to wipe away a tear from her eye
Sara Fender dabs at tears of joy in her eyes as students who worked 24 hours at CreateAthon@VCU present their vision for her nonprofit organization. As part of their presentation, they shared their idea for a new name for Fender's nonprofit: Caring Closet. The new name and accompanying logo would help to distinguish it from other nonprofits with similar acronyms, students said. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Putting ‘little guys’ in the spotlight

That passion is apparent to the founders of the four nonprofits the students have served at CreateAthon and throughout the semester.

“My team knows how I feel about them,” said Sara Fender, smiling through tears of joy on Monday. Fender, who founded an organization to provide clothing to families in crisis, was overcome with emotion after students presented her their recommendations, including a new name for her nonprofit: Caring Closet, which had been called “Caring Clothes Closet” since its founding.

Fender was one of four nonprofit leaders, including Stephanie Becker of Better 2gether, Bernice Travers of Bright Minds Chess RVA and Carl Smith of Slyderz Baseball, who learned the results of VCU students’ creative solutions this week.

After the whistle and call to “Play ball!” on Monday morning, students presented a unique branding idea to a nonprofit with sports at its core: a mascot. Sylvester Slyder, students shared, would be the new mascot for Slyderz Baseball. “Oh wow,” an awestruck Smith said in the moment.

“I want a mascot!” said Fender, seated next to him, with a laugh.

Students giving a presentation at the front of a room
Students who worked on materials at CreateAthon@VCU for Slyderz Baseball share their results with the nonprofit's leader, Carl Smith (center left), on Monday. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

After the presentations, Smith and Fender reflected on the students’ presentations and their journey with their teams so far.

“Working with the students, they’re really doing it with love, and it definitely shows,” Smith said of his team.

“It’s hard to explain how much it means to be given this opportunity to share what you do, why you’re passionate about it and what you need and have a group of college-aged students ‘get it’ so quickly and become almost as passionate about it as you are in a very short timeframe,” Fender said. “And the quality of the work is agency quality – I mean, it really is. I’m not even sure it would be any better if you worked with an agency. It’s incredibly talented kids that are really going over and above the classroom work to serve the community.

“VCU is an integral part of our community, but this class drives it down deeper and really gives us – all the small nonprofits – an opportunity to shine and to tell their story … We’re the little guys.”

A man and woman holding a piece of paper and looking at it together
Sara Fender (left), founder and executive director of Caring Closet, and Carl Smith, president and founder of Slyderz Baseball, admire the work of students who presented their recommendations for their nonprofits — developed at CreateAthon@VCU — on Monday. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)