CreateAthon marks seven years of providing marketing help to nonprofits

Eight nonprofits taking part in this year's 24-hour creative marathon on March 13 and 14

CreateAthon marks seven years of providing marketing help to nonprofits

When The Faces of HOPE was launching in 2008, the nonprofit childhood obesity program was in desperate need of advertising and marketing. So founder and CEO Jeannette Cordor applied to take part in the inaugural CreateAthon at VCU, a 24-hour creative marathon in which student teams provide pro bono marketing services to Richmond-area nonprofits.

The VCU volunteers worked around the clock and designed The Faces of HOPE's letterhead, envelopes and popup banner, produced a marketing research plan and a media list, tweaked and improved its logo design, and came up with a slogan: "In the fight against childhood obesity, hope now has a face."

"It meant millions, literally millions to us," Corder said. "There was no way I could have paid them for all the time, the energy and the creativity. Their work was absolutely amazing. They were able to take all my words, all my needs and all my desires, and put it all together."

The Faces of HOPE is one of 68 nonprofit organizations that have benefited from VCU's CreateAthon over the past seven years. In total, the work is worth more than an estimated $1.3 million in pro bono services. To date, 469 volunteers have taken part in the event.

"We want to help nonprofits do what they do, better," said Peyton Rowe, an associate professor of advertising in the College of Humanities and Sciences' Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture who brought CreateAthon to VCU. "The learning piece is important, but we're also really focused on giving these nonprofits what they need."

This year's CreateAthon will be held during spring break, beginning the morning of Thursday, March 13, and then continuing on through the night and into the following morning, when the student teams will present their work to eight local nonprofit clients.

Students spend the entire semester preparing for the 24-hour CreateAthon event in a course on nonprofit project development. Taught by Rowe, students in the class meet with their nonprofit clients and learn the strategic tools needed to develop an advertising campaign in a 24-hour format.

The nonprofits taking part this year will be the Fan Free Clinic, First Things First, MathScience Innovation Center, Nonprofit Learning Point, Resources for Independent Living, Riverside School, Sailing 4 All and the Church Hill Association.

"This year, we have fewer nonprofits, so we'll be able to go even deeper in our planning for them," Rowe said.

Each nonprofit has been assigned a team of five student volunteers, each led by a student team leader enrolled in a leadership course taught by Rowe. An additional 12 student volunteers are assigned to the CreateAthon's "go team," providing event coordinating, social media outreach, publicity and other support roles.

The CreateAthon concept originated in 1998 at a Columbia, S.C., marketing, advertising and communications firm called Riggs Partners. The founders at the firm, Cathy Monetti and Teresa Coles, decided to provide pro bono marketing services to local nonprofits over a 24-hour marathon.

Several years later, Rowe took a sabbatical from higher education and worked as art director at Riggs Partners, taking part in its creative marathon in 2006.

"I just loved it," she said. "I worked on an anti-bullying campaign for the Girl Scouts of the Midlands. I thought, 'This is got to be something that students should have. If you can give that experience to a student, and also serve the community, it's just got to happen."

The around-the-clock model works, Rowe said, because it brings together creative minds, under deadline pressure, all focused on providing great marketing support to the nonprofit organizations.

"It's like how Saturday Night Live is written all week long overnight. It's that collaborative energy you get when people are all focused on one thing," she said. "It just is amazing. It's really amazing."

The Brain Injury Association of Virginia was among the nonprofit clients that took part in last year's CreateAthon at VCU.

Students designed two logos for the organization, one for its 30th anniversary and the other for one of its signature programs, Camp Bruce McCoy, a two-week resident summer camp for adults who have had brain injuries.

"We've been using the 30th anniversary logo in newsletters and on our website, email signatures, and everything," said Anne McDonnell, executive director of the organization. "And we'll continue to use the camp logo for years."

The students were "great to work with, enthusiastic about the creative process and jazzed about the real-world application" of the project, she said.

"It was evident they researched how the brain works in the materials they provided to us," she said. "We received comments from across the country from our colleagues about how great the main BIAV 30th anniversary logo was, and one professional in Richmond wanted to know the company we used."

The camp logo recently helped the organization receive a $25,000 grant, McDonnell said. Last year, her organization applied for a small grant from the annual Deep Run Dance Marathon fundraising event to leverage what they received via CreateAthon to enhance public awareness.

"When we got the camp logo, we were able to go back to them this year and say, 'See what you helped us create? Would you like to help more people go to camp?'" McDonnell said. "And this year we're getting $25,000. We were able to tell those kids, 'You helped us create this logo.'"

The CreateAthon also provided the Brain Injury Association of Virginia with designs for postcards and an idea for a brain injury awareness event in which attendees would visit different stations, each representing a part of the brain and explaining its function.

"They really went above and beyond to learn about how the brain works and to make it a creative thing," McDonnell said.

Safe Harbor, a nonprofit shelter for people experiencing domestic and sexual violence, was yet another CreateAthon client. The VCU students established a Facebook and Twitter presence for the organization, and designed a new logo and branding materials.

"In 24 hours, our student team completely transformed the look, tone and effectiveness of our external communications," said Kathleen Demro, executive director of Safe Harbor.

A year ago, CreateAthon itself incorporated as a nonprofit, led by Rowe and focused on spreading the creative marathon model to other ad agencies, universities, corporations and professional organizations. Since the program’s founding in 1998, 81 events have been held, serving more than 1,275 nonprofits with upwards of $15 million worth of pro bono materials and services.

CreateAthon recently received a $25,000 grant from VCU's Quest Innovation Fund to support its plans to expand and to fund internships for VCU students.

"It's a big, big, big opportunity for students to learn, but also to help CreateAthon grow," Rowe said.  

 

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CreateAthon at VCU participants weigh a logo design in 2010.
CreateAthon at VCU participants weigh a logo design in 2010.
Peyton Rowe, associate professor in the Robertson School of Media and Culture, brought the CreateAthon to VCU.
Peyton Rowe, associate professor in the Robertson School of Media and Culture, brought the CreateAthon to VCU.
Representatives of the Brain Injury Association of Virginia happily display the work they received from their team at the 2013 CreateAthon at VCU. From left: Anne McDonnell, Dee Couvelha and Morgan Bailey.
Representatives of the Brain Injury Association of Virginia happily display the work they received from their team at the 2013 CreateAthon at VCU. From left: Anne McDonnell, Dee Couvelha and Morgan Bailey.