Three people sitting at a table. The people on the left and right are looking at a person in the middle who is speaking. Around them are three people sitting and one person standing up.
He, She, Ze & We executive director Shannon McKay (center) expresses gratitude on Monday to CreateAthon@VCU students for their work with the Richmond-area nonprofit's branding as Cheezi Farmer (left), who leads Us Giving Richmond Community and Black Pride RVA, and Sadie Holloway (right), who works with He, She, Ze & We look on. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

CreateAthon@VCU ‘a big help to a small organization,’ nonprofit leaders say

In its 16th year, the longest-running college CreateAthon gave five Richmond-area nonprofits new resources to “succeed and be sustainable” in marketing themselves long after the semester ends.

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As students and volunteers gathered at the T. Edward Temple Building at Virginia Commonwealth University on Friday morning, Jessica Collins, who was ready to get the group revved up to start the 16th annual CreateAthon@VCU, had already hit 6,000 steps. It was only 9:30 a.m., and the 24-hour event in service to Richmond-area nonprofits was just getting started.

“We are going to do some amazing work today,” said Collins, an assistant professor of advertising at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who leads CreateAthon@VCU. “It’s going to be an intense 24 hours.

“I’ve been awake since 5:30 a.m.; check on me later,” she added to laughter from the crowd.

Over the next 23.5 hours, a team of 23 students and 40 volunteers, alongside 25 alumni and professional mentors, would create branding guidelines, logos, color palettes, social media design templates, websites and more to help five Richmond-area nonprofits market themselves.

“You’re getting ready to have the entire creative and strategic (advertising) experience as a team in 24 hours, which is great. I mean, you already all do amazing work in your classes, but now you’re going to have this experience where you’re going to go from start to finish in 24 hours,” said Peyton Rowe, director of the Robertson School and founder of CreateAthon@VCU, the longest-running college CreateAthon in the world, at the kickoff on Friday. “You are going to do things you didn’t think you could do.”

Before this weekend's event, CreateAthon@VCU had already donated more than $1.4 million in value to 76 nonprofits over the previous 15 years. This weekend, the students, mentors and volunteers worked a combined 1,512 hours total during the 24-hour event to make a difference for five more Richmond-area nonprofits:

  • Extra Mile Pediatrics, a Richmond-based organization providing medical care for children in areas of El Salvador where significant barriers to care exist.
  • He, She, Ze & We, which aims to serve families with transgender loved ones through support, education and advocacy.
  • Nationz Foundation, which provides HIV/AIDS education, advocacy and prevention services throughout Central Virginia.
  • REAL LIFE, which serves individuals, who have been impacted by incarceration, homelessness or substance use disorders, in overcoming barriers.
  • Us Giving Richmond Connections/Black Pride RVA, which aims to improve the health and well-being of Black LGBTQIA+ communities of Greater Richmond.

The students’ hard work paid off this week as they presented their finished work to nonprofit leaders.

“Amazing job,” said Cheezi Farmer, who runs UGRC, while attending students’ presentation on her organization’s brand on Monday. “I love the overall concept. This is better than a marketing team.”

Four people standing at the front of a room giving a presentation. On the left two people are looking at a computer and on the right two other people stand up facing a large TV screen.
VCU strategic advertising majors Camryn Anderson (left) and Cheyenne Boyd (second from left) show a mockup of the new website for He, She, Ze & We that their team created during the 24-hour CreateAthon@VCU event at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture this weekend. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)Community and Black Pride RVA, and Sadie Holloway (right), who works with He, She, Ze & We look on. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Engaging with community organizations is part of what makes CreateAthon so special, said Hailey Fitzgerald, the course’s teaching assistant who coordinated with the five nonprofits this year.

“I think it’s really meaningful because a lot of the nonprofits we’re working with this year are so VCU-centric – the values tie in with VCU students’ (values),” said Fitzgerald, a senior majoring in creative and strategic advertising and minoring in political science. “A lot of the nonprofits we have are diverse, and they represent the LGBTQ+ communities and people of color. And I think that’s just great to see representation of the whole community, not just the school.”

Part of the learning experience came from working with groups of students from across all areas of their fields.

“I think there’s just something magical about being in a room with all these different types of people, just brainstorming and bouncing ideas off each other,” said Camryn Anderson, a senior strategic advertising major, who worked with He, She, Ze & We. “It’s amazing to see what other people come up with, like ‘Wow, I’ve never thought of that.’”

For Jackson Amirshahi, a junior majoring in public relations at the Robertson School with a minor in marketing insights, the 24-hour event helped crystallize the learning that he and his classmates had gotten in their classes.

“It’s interesting to see how one class can make a big difference,” said Amirshahi about the experiential learning aspects of the course. “I think we can lose sight of (the importance of experiences) when it comes to learning because, if you’re not in a class like this where you have that real experience, sometimes it’s just a one-off concept that you’re thinking in your head.

“I wish everybody could get this experience.”

Ian Fulton, a senior in the CreateAthon class who is majoring in mass communication with a concentration in strategic advertising and worked on social media templates and planning for UGRC, appreciated the opportunity to help nonprofits keep up their brands’ presence while nonprofit leaders do the work of running a nonprofit.

Three people are hugging in the front of a room and three other people are standing to their left.
Us Giving Richmond Connections and Black Pride RVA co-founder and leader Cheezi Farmer (center) hugs Ian Fulton of the student team who created branding guidelines and social media templates for UGRC after their presentation on Monday. (Mary Kate Brogan, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“We understand that, even though we’re helping them, we’re also only helping them for this one semester,” Fulton said. “And we want to make sure that, in addition to us helping them out over the course of the semester, that they have the tools that they need to succeed and be sustainable after we stop working with them. And that's really what our plan is: It’s all about sustainability.”

Collins, who has been running CreateAthon@VCU since 2020, said the experience always stands out as one of VCU’s biggest opportunities to give back to the community. That stood out to Cheyenne Boyd, a senior majoring in strategic advertising who served on the team for He, She, Ze & We.

“It’s real but also the work’s going to do good things for the community that VCU is so intertwined with,” Boyd said.

He, She, Ze & We’s executive director, Shannon McKay, said she was “honored” that their organization was among those chosen to receive the free marketing services from VCU students, especially after seeing Monday’s student presentation.

“I have goosebumps,” McKay said. “I was very impressed with what they came up with today. I really feel it’s going to be usable, and it’s definitely nothing that I could have done.”

Farmer, who founded and runs UGRC and Black Pride RVA, agreed.

“Because we are small organizations – pretty much Shannon runs her organization, I run my organization – we’re like one-man teams,” Farmer said. “To have an extra set of eyes (through these students) to see some things and bring some things into focus is a big help to a small organization.”