October 21, 2015

Nonprofit Aims to Give Charities $100 Million Worth of Marketing Help by 2020

Courtesy of CreateAthon

Among the marketing materials that have come out of CreateAthons: work by J. Fitzgerald Group for the Kenan Center; by Riggs Partners for the group Protection and Advocacy for People With Disabilities; and by Virginia Commonwealth University students for the Sacred Heart Center.

Peyton Rowe has a "big, hairy, audacious goal": deliver $100 million in free marketing services to charities by 2020.

If successful, thousands of nonprofits eventually stand to benefit from the pro bono marketing marathons organized by Ms. Rowe’s nonprofit, CreateAthon.

This week, participating employees at 14 marketing groups in the United States and Canada will each spend 24 consecutive hours tackling communication projects for nearly 100 charities. Local Boy Scout councils, Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters, food pantries, and animal-rescue organizations, among others, will receive hundreds of hours of professional services otherwise unaffordable for them.

This week is the second National CreateAthon Week since the effort was spun off in 2013 from Riggs Partners, the South Carolina marketing firm that developed the marathon model in 1997.

To meet her $100-million target — the value of free services offered to nonprofits — CreateAthon needs to raise enough money to hire employees who can organize the events hosted by firms, universities, and associations. Ms. Rowe, CreateAthon’s executive director, hopes to have a budget of $130,000 by 2016; by 2020, she’d like $500,000 and five employees.

For now, Riggs Partners helps out, CreateAthon-style: On October 22, firm employees will work all night to improve the nonprofit’s website and develop its communications strategy — a project both groups hope will help CreateAthon fulfill its big dreams.

No Longer ‘à la Carte’

Nonprofit marketing has changed a lot since Riggs Partners hosted the first CreateAthon almost two decades ago. Previously, agencies worked on relatively simple "à la carte" communications projects like creating logos or public-service announcements, said Teresa Coles, a principal at Riggs and the board chair of CreateAthon.

"With the advent of all things digital," she said, "nonprofits have to be so much more strategic in their marketing."

That means CreateAthon partners tackle "a diverse portfolio of marketing tactics" and sometimes redesign nonprofits’ entire brand plans.

The firms that host CreateAthons look for nonprofits small enough to need marketing help but big enough both to carry out the solutions the agencies create and to accommodate the potential influx of donations that may follow.

It’s important to make sure the nonprofits are ready, Ms. Rowe said, "so they don’t feel like they’re drinking from a fire hose."

For those that are ready to participate, the opportunity to get professional help "can be transformational," she said. "It allows them to tell their stories way more effectively."

Fundraising From Friends

CreateAthon is considering a variety of funding sources. Headquartered in Richmond, Va., the nonprofit has received grants from the Community Foundation Serving Richmond & Central Virginia and the Robins Foundation.

Ms. Coles thinks peer-to-peer fundraising holds a lot of promise. She envisions the marketing professionals who volunteer for CreateAthon events asking their friends to make donations in honor of their 24-hour sessions, similar to runners asking for donations for races.

Interested nonprofits apply to the companies and colleges that host the CreateAthons three to four months before the events. Ms. Rowe hopes that raising additional money will enable her organization to take the burden of processing applications away from its partners.

She also wants to measure the outcomes of the marathons have for nonprofits.

"Does it help them meet their mission?" she said. "We know it helps the creative folks."

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.