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CreateAthon@VCU goes virtual, providing pro bono services for Richmond nonprofits

“Creating work for our client … allowed me to channel my newfound free time into something productive and beneficial for an organization that I've come to truly care about over the course of the semester.”
Screenshot of Zoom call about CreateAthon

The excitement around celebrating 13 years of CreateAthon@VCU turned into frustration and uncertainty when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture to cancel the annual event. But the ingenuity and tenacity of professors and students led to an alternative: the first virtual CreateAthon.

Peyton Rowe, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies, implemented the first college CreateAthon in 2008 at the Robertson School in the College of Humanities and Sciences. This year Rowe, along with assistant professor Jessica Collins, pioneered a new twist.

The event, usually a 24-hour marketing blitz, was originally scheduled to be held March 13. But after VCU announced that classes would go online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a couple of weeks were spent adapting the format and students began working remotely and delivered the final presentations on April 13.

"Thanks to our professors and students for their amazing Robertson spirit and to their clients for their continued participation in our signature academic program," said Robertson School interim director Marcus Messner, Ph.D. "It has been great to see how they all came together under difficult circumstances to do good for our community."

CreateAthon is a nonprofit initiative that gathers creative talent in the communications field to help nonprofit organizations develop marketing strategies and content. Robertson School students volunteer to serve local nonprofits and this year had five clients: Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center, OAR of Richmond, Paws Unleash Potential, Richmond Parkinson’s Dance Project and Richmond Story House.

In prior years, each group of students would work over a 24-hour period for one nonprofit and deliver a project presentation. This time, for the virtual modality, Rowe and Collins allowed students to choose either a “creative jog” or “creative sprint.” For the jog, students worked for 12 consecutive days at their own pace to deliver the final result. In the sprint, students worked in three separate eight-hour sessions to create content for the nonprofits. Students used videoconference platforms such as Zoom, the messaging app Slack and shared content via email and on the cloud.

“Jess [Collins] and Peyton [Rowe] have gone above and beyond to ensure that this class is everything we wanted it to be, even in an online world,” said Khalied Bashri, a senior in the public relations sequence. “They've worked tirelessly with us to individualize the experience to each group, thus creating the sprint and jog methods for CreateAthon. They've both put [their] all into making this class feel like a community that is heard.”

Bashri worked over a two-week period to help Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center, which provides education, advocacy and support to Spanish-speaking individuals affected by violence and injustice. Bashri said the CreateAthon project helped ground his day, and he took advantage of working from home.

“Creating work for our client … allowed me to channel my newfound free time into something productive and beneficial for an organization that I've come to truly care about over the course of the semester,” he said.

Natalie Lundin, a senior in the strategic advertising sequence, said the cancellation of CreateAthon was a disappointment so she wanted to do anything needed to make it work.

“Even though CreateAthon was canceled I still wanted that experience,” Lundin said. “To me, there was really no other option. I just wanted to create great work for my client in a time of uncertainty.”

Lundin worked in a sprint group to create marketing strategies and content for Paws Unleash Potential. The nonprofit is a rebranding of Sprite’s HERO. Its mission is to provide vulnerable children with life-changing relationships with dogs. The pairing improves the children’s health and welfare by increasing self-esteem and empathy, and lowering their stress and anxiety.

Lundin said Collins and Rowe challenged the students to think about the logistics and alternatives behind a virtual CreateAthon. Lundin said she is grateful that the professors dedicated the time and effort to help students be successful.

“No other university tackled this problem, everyone has different circumstances,” Collins said. “But I just think this shows the commitment of VCU and our students to say, ‘We'll do it, we'll be the first university to ever do virtual CreateAthon.’”

“Truly, this couldn’t have happened without them,” Lundin said. “They were all hands on deck, bringing in mentors to give feedback. They were there every step of the way, constantly checking in on us and giving us feedback.”

Collins said she was amazed by the enthusiasm and tenacity of the students.

“No other university tackled this problem, everyone has different circumstances,” Collins said. “But I just think this shows the commitment of VCU and our students to say, ‘We'll do it, we'll be the first university to ever do virtual CreateAthon.’”

Rowe said this CreateAthon would be one to remember. She said diving into a virtual dynamic prepares students for the international job market. Public relations and marketing companies work closely with organizations all over the world so participating in a virtual experience like this CreateAthon will make students more prepared to embrace that.

Rowe participated in her first CreateAthon before arriving at VCU in 2004, with Riggs Partners, founders of CreateAthon, in South Carolina. Rowe said the Robertson School had all the potential to introduce CreateAthon at a college level and worked to make it a reality.

“It was such a remarkable experience for me from a creative side, and I thought, ‘I've got to give this to students,’ and they were very supportive,” Rowe said. “I realized that this was the place to do it because we had multiple disciplines, we had creative and strategic advertising, broadcast and print journalism, and public relations. There was a way for everybody to work together.”

Jeanne McNeil, a board member of Paws Unleash Potential, said the CreateAthon@VCU gives them a chance to rebrand Sprite’s HERO and improve their website, marketing strategy and content.

“With a more clear identity, we should be able to be in a position to attract not only more volunteers, which we desperately need, but also funding,” McNeil said. “They're designing a new website, and it's just a huge gift to us. Because we don't have the time or the expertise to do that for ourselves, and we don't have the money to hire someone to do that.”

McNeil, who is also director of operations and administration at VCU Life Sciences, has seen the work of VCU students in the past.

“All the accolades to those students, and to the faculty for standing up behind them, encouraging them and giving them the tools that they need,” McNeil said. “I'm always impressed with what our students at VCU do, but this just really knocked my socks off. It's just amazing.”

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