‘It’s crunch time’: Over 24 hours, VCU students create marketing solutions for Richmond nonprofits

At CreateAthon@VCU, held during spring break, student volunteers work round-the-clock to provide communication solutions to local organizations.

Theo Haggins, a junior creative and strategic advertising major, shows Andrea Wright of the Black...
Theo Haggins, a junior creative and strategic advertising major, shows Andrea Wright of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center his team's social media content designs for the museum. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Virginia Commonwealth University student Theo Haggins and his teammates were up for 24 hours straight, developing T-shirt designs, a brochure, an email blast template and an integrated social media campaign for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

“We did basically a month’s worth of work, but in 24 hours,” said Haggins, a junior creative and strategic advertising major in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Haggins and his teammates were among roughly 70 students who volunteered their time during spring break to participate in CreateAthon@VCU, an annual 24-hour, round-the-clock event in which VCU students provide pro bono marketing and communication services to Richmond-area nonprofit organizations.

CreateAthon, a signature program of the Robertson School, marked its 12th year last week. Heading into this year, more than 950 volunteers had provided an estimated $2.1 million worth of services to more than 100 nonprofits organizations since the event was launched.

Ciara Reed, a senior creative and strategic advertising major, shows Andrea Wright of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center t-shirt designs created by her team. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)
Ciara Reed, a senior creative and strategic advertising major, shows Andrea Wright of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center t-shirt designs created by her team. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

“The big-picture goal here is to help nonprofits that don’t have the capacity to promote themselves or do advertising work. CreateAthon gives them the tools to do that,” said Peyton Rowe, CreateAthon@VCU founder and director and an associate professor of design and creative advertising at the Robertson School. “The goal is also to give these students an experience that is very much real-world and very much hands-on, one that allows them to use their talents and what they’ve learned in the classroom to serve nonprofits and the Richmond community.”

Helping the students were 30 volunteer mentors, including professionals from Dominion Energy, Charles Ryan Associates and a number of different creative agencies.

“Some of the mentors have been coming every year, all 12 years,” Rowe said. “Their role is to be the bumpers on a bowling lane. The students are bowling the ball, it’s their mentors’ job to keep it in the lane. The students are the ones doing the work. We’re there to guide them.”

In addition to the Black History Museum, this year’s nonprofit clients included: Brain Injury Association of Virginia, Daily Planet Health Services,Ezibu Muntu African Dance Company, Family Lifeline, The READ Center, REAL LIFE, Richmond YPQI, LearnRVA, UnBoundRVA, VESAP for Belize and Virginia Head Start Association.

Jenna Thacker, a senior creative and strategic advertising major, shows early designs for an infographic for UnBoundRVA to a team of volunteer mentors on Thursday. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)
Jenna Thacker, a senior creative and strategic advertising major, shows early designs for an infographic for UnBoundRVA to a team of volunteer mentors on Thursday. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Jenna Thacker, a senior creative and strategic advertising major, was part of the team that provided services to UnBoundRVA, a nonprofit that provides talented individuals from low-income communities a path to entrepreneurship.

“I wanted to do CreateAthon because it’s my last year [at VCU],” Thacker said during a break about halfway through the event. “It’s a really good cause to help all these nonprofits, as well as getting good portfolio material for myself. And it’s [taking place over] 24 hours. It’s crunch time. It’s about seeing how much we can really squeeze out in that time.”

Friday morning, Thacker and her teammates presented their work — including a presentation to donors, an infographic and a variety of social media content — to Sarah Williams, executive director of UnBoundRVA.

Aaron Keen, leader of the team that worked on UnBoundRVA, shows executive director Sarah Williams the team's final infographic design. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)
Aaron Keen, leader of the team that worked on UnBoundRVA, shows executive director Sarah Williams the team's final infographic design. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

“This work is really, really impressive,” Williams said. “I really appreciate it, more than you can imagine. Thank you on behalf of all the great entrepreneurs out there who are trying to change the world.”

At least one team made a set of recommendations that went beyond just marketing and communication services.

The team working on VESAP for Belize recommended the organization — which provides repurposed equipment, training and technical expertise from Virginia to the Belize National Fire Service — change its name to Belize Heroes. Along with the name change idea, the students provided a new logo that uses two colors, emphasizing the words “Be Heroes.”

“I’m extremely happy,” said Archibald McFarlane, founder and president of VESAP. “I don’t have the words to describe it. What the students gave us, it’s amazing.”

The team that worked on the Black History Museum received similar praise.

Andrea Wright, a consultant to the museum, told the students they did an outstanding job.

“We asked a lot of you because we want to fulfill our mission,” she said. “And you really captured the essence, I think, of what we’re trying to do.”