CreateAthon becomes a nonprofit, plans to greatly expand

The VCU-sponsored organization puts together marathon events to provide pro bono marketing services to nonprofit organizations.

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CreateAthon — an organization backed by Virginia Commonwealth University that organizes 24-hour creative marathons to provide pro bono marketing services to nonprofits — has officially launched as a nonprofit organization itself and plans to expand its reach across the country.

"Our mission and our vision are really the same as it's always been: trying to get pro bono marketing to nonprofits that need it. That's why we exist," said Peyton Rowe, executive director of CreateAthon and associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. "We want to be known as the gold standard of pro bono in the communication arts, which most people think of as marketing and advertising."

The idea behind CreateAthon originated in 1998 at Riggs Partners, a Columbia, South Carolina, marketing, advertising and communications firm, when the firm's founders, Cathy Monetti and Teresa Coles, decided they wanted to provide pro bono marketing services to local nonprofits through a 24-hour binge of work.

Rowe joined Riggs Partners several years later while on a sabbatical from teaching at the University of South Carolina, and she soon became an evangelist of the CreateAthon concept. When Rowe joined VCU, she launched CreateAthon onCampus, an academic version of the program while continuing to develop the national CreateAthon program and organization.

CreateAthon at VCU, in which VCU student teams provide free marketing services to Richmond-area nonprofits, has helped dozens of local organizations by creating advertising campaigns, social media strategies, website design and more. Last spring, the students served 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.

Earlier in 2014, CreateAthon received a $25,000 grant from VCU's Quest Innovation Fund to support its expansion plans as a nonprofit organization and to fund internships for VCU students.

"If I had not been at VCU, I wouldn't have had the time and the commitment to build CreateAthon [into a] nonprofit," Rowe said.

In November, CreateAthon announced that Rowe had been named as the nonprofit's executive director and that it had formed a board of directors.

"As CreateAthon has grown over the past 17 years, it was important to us to find a way to nurture the movement and move it beyond the walls of our agency," said Coles, the board's chairwoman, in a news release. "Our goal in developing the national board was to assemble a group that shares the passion and enthusiasm for CreateAthon that all CreateAthon partners have; sees its potential to move more people toward pro bono marketing services; and possesses the mix of talent needed to help evolve CreateAthon from a volunteer-led project to a sustainable nonprofit organization."

Catherine Howard, Ph.D., vice provost, Division of Community Engagement at VCU, also serves on CreateAthon's board. She said she is particularly excited that CreateAthon is working to expand campus-based programs, similar to CreateAthon at VCU.

"If campuses around the country provide a CreateAthon for their local communities, the positive impact would be tremendous on the nonprofit sector in those communities," she said. "In addition the involved students would acquire a better understanding of their communities and what it means to be an engaged citizen, which has a long-term beneficial impact."

Howard added that CreateAthon is an example of VCU serving as an "incubator for an important means to address critical community needs though the work of our faculty and students, especially through service-learning courses."

Looking ahead, CreateAthon is aiming to expand the number of CreateAthons hosted by corporations around the country.

"We've already got lots of [marketing] agencies doing it," Rowe said. "We're getting the ball rolling on new universities — we added new universities this year. But corporations have the scale and reach that's really going to have an impact. So our biggest focus is going to be on finding those corporate partners."

Altria Group Inc., which sponsors CreateAthon along with VCU, has held its own CreateAthons for Richmond-area nonprofits for the past three years.

"Three years ago, we taught Altria how to do it," Rowe said. "It started because an Altria brand strategist came to VCU's CreateAthon and mentored [a team of students]. They were like, 'This is cool. We can do this.'"

Altria's CreateAthon in November provided pro bono marketing services to seven nonprofit organizations: Richmond Community Tool Bank, Culture Works, Leadership Metro Richmond, 1708 Gallery, Community in Schools Richmond, Keep Virginia Beautiful and CreateAthon itself. It was an example, Rowe said, of how corporations can greatly expand the number of CreateAthons, and thereby greatly help local nonprofits.

"From a big, hairy goal point of view, government can't solve all problems. So how can we as a community help to solve those problems? We know that CreateAthon helps those problems; it helps education, it helps health, it helps homelessness. It helps all the issues, one way or another. [Corporate CreateAthons] can allow us to scale it so it has the biggest impact."

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