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Pulling an All-Nighter for Charity

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South Carolina-based RIGGS Partners may be the only marketing firm in the country that has paying clients stop by to feed them breakfast in the middle of the night. The secret? CreateAthon, a program dreamt up by Teresa Coles in the shower one morning. Teresa recently shared the CreateAthon story with me.

Many students and professionals pull all-nighters -- where did you get the idea to do one to support nonprofits?

Well, we had been thinking very critically at that point about how to manage our pro bono work in a focused way, rather than constantly judging, assessing, and responding to requests for pro bono marketing to very worthwhile nonprofits throughout the year. We were always struggling with how to do pro bono and who to do it for in a way that's fair and effective.

So, one night Cathy Monetti and I were joking that if we just stayed up all night one night, we might actually get caught up on our work. And the next morning, I believe I was in the shower, the thought hit me. I went straight into her office the next morning and said hey, remember last night when we were talking about pulling an all-nighter (and she kind of looked at me) and I said well I've decided that we really need to do that. Then she really looked at me as if I had three heads, and I said -- only I think we should do it for charity.

So, has that worked? Do you do more pro bono?

We do more pro bono as a firm. Every year that goes by we gain confidence to do more in that 24 hours. Also, during any given year, we may have a special project from a nonprofit in a community that we want to work on. We do 10-12 projects during every CreateAthon, for a total of about 18-20 throughout the year. Before we only did a few projects per year.

CreateAthon lasts 24 hours -- can you walk us through the day?

We gather at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. We identify the teams -- talk about who's going to be working on what type of project. After that, we jump into launch meetings. More often than not, there's an "aha" moment that comes out of this launch meeting that really guides the language and messaging that we use for this client.

Throughout the 24 hour period, we are constantly grabbing one another to get feedback. We also schedule regular check ins to keep progress steady, and often our paying clients will come in during these times to feed us and express their support for the work that we're doing.

At 8:00 a.m. on Friday we all gather again to present the work to the charities. 8 am on Thursday and 8 am on Friday are my favorite parts of the whole process.

Is your team able to produce quality work under these conditions?

Some of highest quality work actually comes out of the CreateAthon. We did a piece for Big Brothers Big Sisters that started as just a little yellow sheet of paper that was supposed to be a church bulletin. It said -- I know you're sitting in church and you're supposed to behave, but what we really want you to do is see if this thing will fly. And we had instructions on it to build a paper airplane, and people started folding it up and throwing paper airplanes during church service -- and that was the first National ADDY® Award that our firm ever won.

73 other marketing firms have now adopted CreatAthon.

Our original intent for this program was to get other agencies to serve nonprofits in a way that is really productive for them. We wanted to put something together that allowed more agencies to say yes to pro bono work without being afraid of losing a grasp on their paid business. It really has helped a lot of agencies to follow this model, and a lot more pro bono gets done with the dedicated time and space for it rather than the a la carte model throughout the year. And our clients are completely on board -- we have had many of them come in here overnight and make us breakfast.

How does a marketing agency get started?

The very best thing is to call us here, specifically me, and I'll explain the very basic criteria of how the program works, send along a two page letter of agreement, we then issue a password to get to the how-to section of our website that lays out sample press releases, sample correspondence, timelines, and everything that you need to make the process as seamless as possible.

We hold the CreateAthon in September, so in order for us to work with agencies throughout the vetting, selection and preparation process, it's best to get in touch by June 1st.