VCU students begin 24-hour advertising effort to help local nonprofits

VCU students will spend a marathon 24 hours to help area nonprofits bolster their marketing strategies.  

Update #1 — March 7, 2013; 6:42 AM

Over 70 VCU students will create free marketing and advertising projects for area nonprofits in a 24-hour creative blitz beginning this morning.

Now in its sixth year, the CreateAthon brings together both students and mentors from agencies, corporations, and professional organizations.

The event began in 2008 (see below) and is part of the national CreateAthon network developed by Teresa Coles and Cathy Monetti of Riggs Partnership in Columbia, SC. Since beginning, 57 local nonprofits have received marketing materials valued at over $700,000. Nationwide, over 1,100 nonprofits have received materials valued at $15 million.

This year, students will help 11 local nonprofits.

“The nonprofits have been well-prepared and interested in the process and they are definitely prepared for the help and work we will provide,” said Peyton Rowe, associate professor of advertising at VCU and director of the project. “I have a strong core of leaders in my group who, without a doubt, will produce some amazing ideas for these organizations.”

The nonprofits students will be assisting this year are:

  • Arts in the Alley
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond
  • Brain Injury Association of Virginia
  • Capital Region Land Conservancy
  • Children’s Home Society of Virginia
  • HomeAgain
  • Junior League of Richmond
  • Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America
  • The Giving Heart
  • Tricycle Gardens
  • Virginia Association of Free Clinics

Student will begin this year’s CreateAthon at 9:00 AM.

The event will be documented live through the CreateAthon onCampus blog, on Twitter at @createathonVCU, and on Facebook.

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Original — March 13, 2012

While many VCU students have left campus to enjoy their week-long spring break, at least 89 students will remain and assist local nonprofits, organizations that have little or no advertising budget, to develop creative initiatives. There is, however, one little catch: these students have only 24 hours to make it happen.

The CreateAthon onCampus VCU, now in its fifth year of operation, is touted as a “24-hour, work-around-the-clock creative blitz.” Teams of students are assigned to work with a local nonprofit the way a typical advertising firm works with a client. However, unlike other advertising firms, students have just one day to brainstorm and develop a professional-quality advertising initiative. Peyton Rowe, Director of the CreateAthon and Associate Professor at VCU, calls the event “incredibly unique and valuable,” not only for nonprofits looking to advertise their services, but also for the students themselves.

In 1998, Riggs Partners, an advertising firm based in Columbia, South Carolina, used an ad hoc 24-hour creative marathon to do pro bono work for nonprofits in their area. Proving both successful for nonprofit groups and creatively fulfilling for the advertisers, Riggs Partners began work on making CreatAthon a nationwide event in 2002. Since then, over 2,500 projects have been created to help over 1,100 nonprofits at a combined estimated value of over $15 million.

In 2004, Peyton Rowe got involved in the event while teaching at the University of South Carolina. Two years later, she began teaching at VCU’s School of Mass Communications. With VCU’s Mass Comm program and surfeit of neighboring ad agencies, Rowe realized that Richmond was “the perfect place” to start a CreateAthon program. Since 2008, VCU students have assisted 46 local nonprofits and contributed nearly $800,000 worth of creative material. Not only do cash-strapped nonprofits benefit but so do the students who assist them. “You have that permission to just do it and have it be creative and fun,” said Peyton Rowe about the focus and creativity that the event inspires. “It’s an incredibly powerful energy.”

Just like last year, twelve teams of roughly six students will take up three floors worth of classrooms, computer labs, and conference rooms in VCU’s Temple building beginning Wednesday morning. Former student Curtis Reisinger, who participated in last year’s CreateAthon assisting FIRST Contractors, recalled the event: “Sure, we were all laughing and having a pretty good time,” he said “but make no mistake: it’s 24 hours of work.”

Rowe said that the unique and extreme time constraint under which the students work facilitates their individual creative development within a larger group. “If [students] embrace the collaboration,” the event will create “a more confident creative.” This, she said, is the ultimate benefit for the students, albeit one that comes at a price.

“I ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, and breakfast slaving over concepts, logos, letterheads, print ads, and QR codes,” said Reisinger. “If you’re not sweating over every detail, wondering how the hell you’re going to get this on time, you’re probably doing it wrong.” While he admits to feeling frustrated by the time constraint, Reisinger said the event “creates an environment of unbelievable focus,” adding: “you can see it in the eyes of everyone who’s working their ass off to do something fantastic.”

Nonprofits apply to be a CreateAthon client in the fall of the preceding year. Among the aspects looked at by Rowe and others in considering an organization are: how small a nonprofit’s budget truly is, if their proposed advertising goals are in the scope of what students can realistically provide, and a particular nonprofit’s sustainability as an organization (i.e. are they a viable long-term group). This year, not only will local nonprofits be featured (among them CARES, Inc., Unique Perception Services, New Visions New Ventures, and others), but a team of students will also work to develop a marketing strategy for the CreateAthon event itself.

Rowe points out that the event benefits not only nonprofits but individual students as well. “I see it impact how they approach their own creative work,” she said. She recalled one student who discovered her project management skills as a direct result of a past CreateAthon. So taken with the role, she went on to intern at a local firm, JHI, where she earned the nickname “the velvet hammer”–a nod to both her compassion and strictness as a manager. “She’s just one story,” said Rowe.

Despite the frenzied, rushed atmosphere, Reisinger said he “loved the experience and challenge” afforded by the CreateAthon. Last year, after many students had left to return home and sleep, he remained on campus. He watched as the participating nonprofits were presented with briefs of completed student work. “So many tears of gratitude,” Reisinger recalled seeing. “That was incredible.”

photo courtesy of Matthew Reamer

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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