How much of the world can you change in 24 hours? In 1998, Teresa Coles and Cathy Monetti faced a challenge. As principals with the West Columbia, South Carolina-based marketing consultancy, Riggs Partners, they shared a strong desire to donate their professional services to the well-deserved non-profits in their community. Unfortunately, trying to balance pro bono work with day-to-day business was not always easy. Labors of love were sometimes put on hold. This wasn’t a compromise Cathy or Teresa wanted to make.
“Well, what if we actually worked around the clock for charity?” Teresa asked. From this simple musing, CreateAthon was born. Now entering its 19th year, the annual 24-hour marathon of pro bono marketing services has grown far beyond its humble beginnings. Operating as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, CreateAthon has, over the years, built a network of 100 agencies, professional organizations, corporate marketing teams, and student groups from around the world, who collectively donated $24 million of free work on more than 3,500 projects for 1,600 nonprofit clients.
This Thursday, Riggs Partners will launch its annual CreateAthon event. Beginning at 8 a.m., creative strategists, writers, graphic designers, and account executives will collaborate and work through the night to provide free marketing services to six nonprofits, including Friends of Harbison State Forest, Gun Sense SC, Palmetto State Base Camp, Inc., Healthy Learners, Homeless No More, and NAMI Mid-Carolina.
In the weeks leading up to the event, volunteer account executives like fourth-year CreateAthoner Courtney Thomas Melendez met with clients to gain an understanding of how the CreateAthon team could best meet their needs. This year she will oversee projects for Palmetto State Base Camp, Inc, an organization that assists homeless veterans by providing transitional group housing, and NAMI Mid-Carolina, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for people living with mental illness and their families.
“I do my heaviest lifting pre-CreateAthon actually. It’s my job to learn the client inside and out – I meet with them prior, review their goals and needs, and get as much of a download of info as I possibly can. Then I work with one of our strategists to brief out the project, so we’re equipped to kick off the full team first thing on CreateAthon morning,” Courtney explains.
As the event kicks into gear, Courtney will be on-hand during the entire 24-hour period to answer the creative and strategic team’s questions, clarify details with her clients, and check in on progress. But the demand of the deadline doesn’t overshadow her commitment to CreateAthon’s mission.
“I think it’s such a humbling experience. It’s so easy to get caught up in our day-to-day lives and how busy, tired, overworked, and spread thin we are. Then I meet our CreateAthon clients. And I see the amount of work and effort they put forth each day with a smile on their face because they’re passionate about their cause. For example, my two clients this year have a staff of one. ONE person. In fact, one of the executive directors doesn’t even take a salary; he works another full-time job to make ends meet and leads this other organization in his free time because he cares that much. Once you meet people like this, you want to move mountains for them,” she says.
Though the teams won’t be officially assigned until the day of the event, Julie Smith Turner, a freelance writer, and Maria Fabrizio, a graphic designer and illustrator, are just two of the volunteers who will be on hand to lend their creative talents in support of client goals.
“For the volunteers, it’s quite a test,” Julie says. “To work for 24 hours straight without you either breaking down or your brain becoming a quivering blob of jelly is a personal challenge. You really have to pace yourself so you can write that last case for support at 5 a.m. Sometimes a creative team member can flame out in the middle of the night or hit a huge creative block. You have to work through it together. Knowing how happy and surprised your client is going to be at your presentation makes grinding through so much work much easier.”
After close to 14 years of volunteering with CreateAthon, she’s managed to work in a few self-care strategies for powering through the night. Thursday morning bacon, comfy pajamas, and avoiding junk food binges are key, Julie says. Yet her favorite tradition may be her annual venture outside into the wee hours of the morning and the silence of the sleeping city.
Maria, who not only owns her own design studio but also maintains the popular illustration blog, Wordless News, will serve as an art director and is no stranger to early morning deadlines. Yet she agrees with Julie. There is something magical that happens in those 24 hours of CreateAthon.
“I think the mixture of heart, freedom, need and teamwork just creates the perfect space. The stress often sparks creative thinking that doesn’t allow you to linger with indecision,” she explains.
“There is nothing like CreateAthon, it gives you the greatest creative high, it builds friendships and gives you the chance to collaborate on meaningful work. It’s worth the loss of sleep. Try it once and you’ll want to do it every year.”
Want to support current network volunteers or think your agency, professional organization, corporate marketing team, or student group would be interested in hosting its own CreateAthon? Be a part of helping the national organization reach its goal to donate $100 million dollars in pro bono services by 2020. Visit createathon.org for more information.