Open 24 hours
Robertson School’s CreateAthon tasks students with an around-the-clock challenge to benefit local nonprofits
By Brelyn Powell
“When you have that many creative minds racing under one roof, you can practically feel it,” says Efrain Valle of the energy that drives CreateAthon.
Last spring, he and nearly 100 other Virginia Commonwealth University students channeled their talents to benefit local nonprofit organizations in the daunting 24-hour creative marathon.
CreateAthon is a national nonprofit that, through pro-bono creative marathons, helps other nonprofits gain access to the marketing and communications resources they need to advance their mission. VCU’s CreateAthon is one of many held around the country each year.
At VCU, the annual event is the culmination of a semester’s worth of work for an academic course, Nonprofit Project Development, which is taught by Peyton Rowe (M.F.A.’96/A), associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.
After experiencing her first CreateAthon in 2004 via its founders Teresa Coles and Cathy Monetti of advertising agency Riggs Partners, the trio worked together to craft a semesterlong course based on the experience.
Students in the course are paired with select nonprofits to assess those organizations’ marketing needs. Throughout the semester, they prepare a strategy that will provide their clients with lasting communications solutions.
They arrive on campus at 8 a.m. on the Thursday of spring break, ready to bring that plan to life during CreateAthon. With the help of a team of student volunteers, who also receive academic credit, and local professionals volunteering as mentors, the group spends the morning conceptualizing ideas and developing sample materials.
“Everyone is so motivated to get the job done well, and it shows when you look around and see how hard everyone is working,” says Valle, a third-year student in the Robertson School studying creative advertising.
Adrenaline fuels the process, but pop-up yoga classes, massages and dance parties are among the many unexpected opportunities for rejuvenation provided throughout the event.
“If you hit a wall, you have to step away from the work for a minute or it only gets worse,” Valle says. “It’s the little breaks that keep you going.”
No one, however, loses sight of the fact that first thing the next morning, the groups must formally present their work to the organizations that will put it to use.
BUILDING A NETWORK
After a semester spent consulting with IT4Causes, a nonprofit that provides information technology solutions for other small and midsize nonprofits, Valle and team determined that its greatest need was consistency in its brand identity.
“For us, it’s all about building a network of people who want to be involved with our mission, and having a strong brand is key to that,” says IT4Causes founder and Chief Executive Officer Tom Anderson (Cert.’15/GPA). “We have to be able to match the organizations who need our services with individuals who have the right skill sets to help them.”
Valle and his team redesigned the IT4Causes logo and developed a brand guidelines toolkit. At the team’s final presentation during CreateAthon, Anderson immediately embraced their work.
“We started using the new logo that very day,” Anderson says, “and the brand guidelines have been invaluable.”
An added benefit of Anderson’s involvement in CreateAthon is that he is now more confident delegating important tasks to volunteers.
“Knowing that I can depend on volunteers to make consistent and usable promotional materials helps us keep our spending down.”
Testimonials like Anderson’s have garnered support for the program from donors including Anna Lou Schaberg (B.S.’66/H&S; M.Ed.’70/E) and her husband, Bob. By including the program among the many local organizations they support through the Bob and Anna Lou Schaberg Fund at the Virginia Nonprofit Housing Coalition, the Schabergs have contributed $160,000 to CreateAthon since 2008. Such gifts cover the cost of the materials produced for the client and meals for event volunteers.
“There are so many small nonprofits in our community doing fantastic work on limited budgets,” says Schaberg, who also serves on the VCU School of Education Advancement Council. “It’s important that those agencies have the opportunity to grow and increase their capacity to serve those in need. The services they receive through CreateAthon really help them move along that path.”
ROOM TO GROW
Rowe’s first CreateAthon experience left her hooked and full of ideas to share the opportunity with others.
“It was amazing,” Rowe says. “I realized that if I’d had experiences like that as a student, it might have really impacted the course that my career took.”
Rowe introduced the program at VCU as soon as she arrived at the Robertson School in 2005 and has shared the model with eight other universities, which have since held their own CreateAthon events.
Robertson School Director Hong Cheng, Ph.D., sees the program as a chance for students like Valle to help the community while gaining experience that could help them in their future careers.
“CreateAthon cultivates among its participants a strong love and dedication to social good and is a time-tested role model for community engagement, experiential learning and team work,” Cheng says. “The tremendous success of this signature program at VCU wouldn’t be possible without strong philanthropic support.”
Rowe, who has been the executive and creative director of CreateAthon since it became a national nonprofit in 2015, hopes that support for the program will allow it to thrive at VCU for years to come.
“I don’t like to think about it, but someday I’ll retire, and this program needs to live on long after that,” she says. “Skills-based volunteering allows students to prepare for their careers while using their skills to make the world a better place. I want CreateAthon to continue to give students a chance to experience that.”
To learn more about CreateAthon or the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, contact Lauren Stewart (B.S.’10/MC; M.S.’11/MC), assistant director for development and alumni relations, at (804) 827-3761 or firstname.lastname@example.org.