What Change Can You Create in 24 Hours?

VCU Advertising Students Help Nonprofits in CreateAthon onCampus

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Sept. 16, 2004, changed my life forever. That was the day I participated in the most rewarding professional event of my career, CreateAthon. I walked into Riggs Partners' offices at 8:30 a.m. that Thursday, excited and nervous about creating an anti-bullying campaign for the Girl Scouts. I left around 10:30 Friday morning with the most fulfilling creative experience I'd ever had, clients with tears of gratitude and a determination to bring this experience to college students.

CreateAthon was the brainchild of Teresa Coles and Cathy Monetti, born of a late-night conversation in 1998. "We should work around the clock once in a while," Cathy recalls. "Then maybe we could get ahead." Teresa agreed, with the look of a brainstorm on her face, "but we should do it for charity." That year Riggs Partners, a marketing, advertising and communications firm in Columbia, S.C., offered pro bono marketing services to nonprofits in the area during a 24-hour creative marathon.

Since 2002, when Riggs Partners expanded the program nationally, 73 agencies have participated. Each has selected local clients, defined how they could best serve them, then hit the ground running bright and early one morning without stopping until the clients returned for presentations of the work the next morning. It's controlled chaos for good.

My career path took me to Virginia Commonwealth University, and the spirit of CreateAthon came with me. After my first year teaching design and creative advertising for the School of Mass Communications, I knew this was the time to create a college version. I knew that a program designed for professional organizations to serve their communities had to take a different shape with undergraduate students. It needed an academic component (a class that students took to learn more about serving nonprofits), a service-learning component (the 24-hour creative blitz itself) and opportunities for mentorship by local professionals.

How would I create an academic program from the ground up that taught undergraduate students how to work with clients, serve nonprofits and create innovative work? More important, how would I retain the spirit of CreateAthon, using that focused energy and collaborative power for social good? With the guidance, help, creativity and inspiration of Teresa and Cathy, CreateAthon onCampus was born.

With an extraordinary amount of time, passion and energy from students and colleagues, we held our first CreateAthon onCampus in March 2008. With that event, we served 12 Richmond-area nonprofits with 43 student volunteers and 18 professional mentors who worked from 8:30 a.m. Thursday to 8:30 a.m. Friday to create more than 70 projects valued at more than $133,000. Our most recent event, our fourth, last month involved 60 students and 20 professional mentors working around the clock for 12 more Richmond nonprofits. That brings our four-year total of organizations served to 46, cumulative volunteers to 264 and total market value of work to more than$450,000 -- all to help nonprofits do their jobs better.

People often want to know what products have come out of CreateAthon onCampus—what has been developed or created. The work has varied, including new identity systems, website redesigns, posters, promotional brochures and collateral, microsites, public relations plans, PSAs and social media tools. I show people the beautiful work, and I am justifiably proud of the incredible ideas and pieces created by the students.

But the real product is the students themselves.

CreateAthon onCampus aims to mirror its professional counterpart by serving nonprofits that need it. A deeper goal is to inspire young students about the power of design for social good. That inspiration seems to have sprouted. Seven alumni of the CreateAthon onCampus class and event have participated in subsequent events as the Brain Trust, professionals who mentor teams during the 24-hour creative blitz. Not only did they return, but they also inspired co-workers from local agencies -- including the Martin Agency -- to help. These former students came back because they know the power of CreateAthon -- how it helps nonprofits do their jobs better and how it changes the creative people who serve.

CreateAthon onCampus continues to change, too. This year, we created more logos, PSAs and posters because many nonprofits still need the most basic of communications tools. Not satisfied with simple surface messaging, though, the students dug deeper. Events were coordinated and developed; marketing plans were written and pitched; mission statements were reconfigured to have more power. Social media tools were implemented that will now be followed up with guidelines on maintenance. Five or 10 years ago, a logo and new brochure really could have made a significant impact. Now, it takes much more. And these students are learning how to do more and do it well.

One more exciting change is the addition of a new CreateAthon onCampus partner. Leslie Jensen-Inman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga organized the first CreateAthon onCampus partner program earlier this month, working with an energized group of students, professionals and community partners to serve a local middle school.

I hope all students who participate in CreateAthon onCampus will take the power of the experience with them wherever they go in their careers. I hope that the choices they make about how to use their talent are affected by CreateAthon onCampus. I hope that one day, one of those students will feel compelled to hold his or her own CreateAthon, shaping it into a unique and powerful event that brings talented people together to use design for social good.

That would be the true product of CreateAthon onCampus.

Peyton Rowe is associate professor of design and creative advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.
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