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At CreateAthon, VCU students provide free creative marketing and advertising services to Richmond-area nonprofits

Mar 14, 2018

Posted in: News

By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs, 804-827-0889,

Each CreateAthon team is led by a leader enrolled in a Nonprofit Project Management course. The rest of each team is filled with volunteer students from across VCU. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Public Affairs.)
Each CreateAthon team is led by a leader enrolled in a Nonprofit Project Management course. The rest of each team is filled with volunteer students from across VCU. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Public Affairs.)

It is Friday morning and senior strategic advertising major Allison Fitzgerald and her teammates have been working for 24 hours straight. Their task? Overhaul the logo and brand identity of St. John’s Church Foundation, which preserves and oversees the historic property at which Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech in 1775 that led to the American Revolution.

The students’ goal was to revamp the brand to emphasize how St. John’s is an important historic landmark, while also drawing a distinction between the foundation’s work and the religious aspects of the church.

Standing before the foundation’s leaders in Virginia Commonwealth University’s T. Edward Temple Building, Fitzgerald reveals the new logo. It removes any image of the church, replacing it with a silhouette of Patrick Henry gesticulating, as if giving his famous speech, and adds the word “Historic” before “St. John’s Church Foundation.”

“It sort of plays off the old format of your logo, but it emphasizes colonial, Patrick Henry. There’s a lot of emotion in it,” Fitzgerald said. “We think it super gets across the history part. There should be no confusion, no sense of religious affiliation that comes from this logo.”

Sarah Whiting, executive director of St. John’s Church Foundation, called the team’s logo concept “simple but effective.”

“It’s kind of like, ‘Wow. Why didn’t we think of that?’” she said. “It’s so smart. It was right in front of us. I’m trying to wrap my head around seeing [Patrick Henry] instead of the church in the logo. It’s wild. It’s kind of blowing my mind. You guys figured this out, and it was right in front of us the whole time.”

Fitzgerald and her teammates were one of 10 teams of VCU students who over spring break took part in this year’s CreateAthon@VCU, a 24-hour, work-around-the-clock creative sprint in which VCU students provide their creative marketing and advertising skills to Richmond-area nonprofit organizations pro bono.

“For the nonprofits, we want to essentially help these organizations in our community that don’t have the marketing resources or advertising resources to get their message out and do good things in the community,” said Peyton Rowe, founder and director of CreateAthon@VCU and an associate professor of design and creative advertising in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. “And so we want to give the nonprofits as much of a turnkey project as we can, from start to finish, so they can focus more on the good that they’re doing in the community.”

Launched 11 years ago, CreateAthon@VCU has provided pro bono marketing services to 113 Richmond-area nonprofit organizations worth upwards of $1.9 million in donated value. This year, the program’s 55 students worked on behalf of 10 nonprofits: Central Virginia Emergency Management AllianceColonial Heights Food Pantry, the American Civil War MuseumCommunity Food CollaborativeJames River AssociationKeep Virginia BeautifulPetersburg City and Schools PartnershipRenew RichmondRichmond Justice Initiative and St. John’s Church Foundation.

The services the students provide often involve a new “identity package,” which might include a redesigned logo, business cards, letterhead and envelopes. Teams often will redesign the organization’s website.

This year, one team went so far as to recommend a new name for the nonprofit client, the Richmond Justice Initiative, which aims to eradicate human trafficking locally and nationally through education. The students advised the organization to change its name to Prevention Movement, which they said would address RJI’s lack of brand recognition and clear and cohesive messaging.

“We’re moving from the darkness, which is the subject matter but also the ignorance of the topic — people don’t know, they’re not aware of [the problem of human trafficking],” said Shelby Eames, a strategic and creative advertising major and the team leader who worked on the Richmond Justice Initiative. “We want to move survivors and people who are being trafficked into the light and into the solution.”

Eames’ team provided a new logo, website and other marketing materials, as well as a revised mission statement: “We are modern-day abolitionists, educating communities to prevent human trafficking.” They also provided a new vision statement: “We want to end slavery in the U.S. and eventually the world.”

Heather Caleb, operations and engagement manager for the Richmond Justice Initiative, said she liked the team’s recommendations.

“It’s exciting. It’s engaging,” she said. “Very excited and encouraged to see what we do presented in a more engaging way. We definitely have some communication barriers, and they’ve given us some great ideas on how to break those down.”

By taking part in CreateAthon@VCU, Caleb said, her organization is able to tap into the creative expertise of VCU students and receive valuable marketing support.

“This would be so costly to our team to afford — all the time and work the students put toward thinking through these things,” she said. “I don’t know if we’d have been able to do all of this without this team.”

‘I’m impressed. And I’m very hard to impress.’

Another team, led by creative advertising junior Juan Steck, was tasked with developing new brand identities for two of the American Civil War Museum’s marquee events.

The museum’s annual symposium brings top civil war scholars to Richmond for a daylong event in conjunction with the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia and the Library of Virginia.

“We want to make [the symposium’s brand] as exciting as the ideas inside. How do you make something that on the surface looks like a lecture, but at the same time it really is an engaging conversation about how the Civil War and its legacies continue to shape us today?” said Stephanie Arduini, director of education and programs at the American Civil War Museum. “How do we create a look that encapsulates those ideas but that also helps to set expectations for visitors so that they know, when they’re coming to the program, that I’m going to hear a lot of people talk but it’s going to be very intellectually stimulating?”

The students provided the museum with a new, bold-colored logo, designed symposium credentials, and even mocked up a sign that could be affixed to a podium.

The team was also asked to create promotional materials for the Teachers Institute, which each year brings teachers to the museum to learn more about the Civil War and techniques they can use in their classrooms.

The VCU students designed a variety of marketing assets, including a new Teachers Institute logo that evokes a Civil War uniform button.

“We’re looking at one of their old logos and we don’t get the Civil War out of it,” said designer Tyler Conrad, a creative advertising major, as the team brainstormed ideas. “So we’re discussing how we make a design that looks era-appropriate while being legible and being a strong logo.”

When the team presented its design Friday morning, it was well-received by Penelope Carrington, creative services manager for the American Civil War Museum.

“I’m impressed,” she said. “And I’m very hard to impress.”

The team went beyond the project’s initial scope and also created and produced a short, promotional video. In it, a student dressed in a Civil War uniform borrowed from the museum writes a letter by candlelight. It tells the true story of a biologically female soldier who identified as a man and who fought in the war and then afterward continued living as a man.

The video, Steck said, is meant to fit within the museum’s goal of telling narratives from the Civil War that can resonate today.

“We want to change people’s perception of the brand, to show that it is not just about the Confederacy,” he said. “We want to convey that the museum is telling stories of people who did things in this historical context. We want to convey that they are relatable and relevant to today’s audience.”

Teamwork is key

Each CreateAthon@VCU team is directed by a leader enrolled in a Nonprofit Project Management course that Rowe teaches.

“If you think of them as account managers, they’re each assigned a nonprofit,” Rowe said. “So they are in the class the entire spring semester and earn credit. They’re very much taking a project from start to finish, meaning defining the project, understanding their needs, writing the brief, working with the creative team, following up with the client, production of the work, and then presentation in final form.”

The rest of each team’s members are volunteers from across VCU, including the College of Humanities and Sciences, the School of Business and the School of the Arts.

A big part of the job — for the team leaders and the volunteers — is working together on an extremely tight deadline alongside teammates they may have never met before, all while sleep-deprived.

“It’s a collaborative activity that requires a lot of teamwork,” Rowe said. “It’s very much a leadership challenge for those team leaders. And it’s a creative and strategic challenge for all of the students to produce this work in such a short period of time.”

It’s not all hard work, though. Throughout the 24-hour event (which had a 90s theme, complete with an alt-rock playlist), students had an opportunity to take an organized yoga break, enjoy improv from ComedySportz Richmond, and munch on snacks donated by Mellow Mushroom, King of Pops, Insomnia Cookies and more. Also on hand for stress relief was Rowe’s dog, Russell, who visited each team throughout the event.

Mentors from Richmond agencies

Mentors from the Richmond region’s marketing and advertising community have been an essential part of CreateAthon@VCU’s success over the years. At this year’s event, 43 professionals served as resources for the 10 teams throughout the event.

Alana Robinson, who works at Charles Ryan Associates, participated in CreateAthon@VCU while she was a VCU student and has served as a mentor for several years.

At her first CreateAthon@VCU, Robinson worked on behalf of the nonprofit Unique Perceptions Services that provides area youth ages 10-17 with programs that channel their intellect and talent, build their academic and interpersonal skills, and strengthen their investment in themselves and their communities.

“Creating that work that we did for [the Unique Perceptions Services representative], she actually wept,” Robinson said. “She cried during our presentation because she had this vision and she hadn't been able to reach it. I got to see how powerful this kind of work really is.

“At that moment, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to work in advertising. I want to work with these groups,’” she added. “And I’ve participated in every CreateAthon@VCU since then, as well as two alumni-based CreateAthon@VCU events called BoostAthons.”

Robinson has taken on just about every role at CreateAthon, including, this year, recruiting professional mentors and arranging sponsorships.

“This is something that I really connect with. Marketing and advertising and creating and designing is something that I connect with at my core,” she said. “You think about volunteering, you normally think about getting your hands dirty, planting plants or stuffing lunchboxes or those kinds of the things. But this kind of work has such an impact to help empower important work in our community.”


At the Friday morning presentations, each team of students — some in pajamas, all sleepy and exhausted — walk the nonprofits through the work they have completed.

For St. John’s Church Foundation, the students not only provided a new logo, but also a set of brand guidelines, which could be used for printed material, social media and elsewhere, as well as designs for printed brochures and even a redesigned template for the foundation’s newsletter.

“With this template, you can basically cut and paste any photos and articles you want into it,” Fitzgerald told the foundation’s leaders. “So it should make it pretty easy. … We made a bunch of different pages, so you guys can pick whichever fits best and then just drag and drop.”

Whiting and the other leaders from St. John’s said they were grateful for the students’ hard work.

“This is all really great,” she said. “Thanks for staying up all night working on this! Oh my gosh.”

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