Make-athon leverages top-notch talent to benefit local nonprofits

PITCHING IN: Chattanooga-area creative professionals volunteered their time to benefit local organizations through a 12-hour design marathon in 2017. This year, the Make a Mark organization expanded to Asheville and will host its first “make-athon” on Saturday, June 23. Photo courtesy of Make a Mark Foundation

Developing a website, social media campaign or brand identity often takes months, as periods of intense focus alternate with downtime while designers wait for feedback and direction. Make a Mark Asheville aims to speed things up considerably, while helping out a hand-picked roster of local organizations, by packing all the action into a single 12-hour design marathon.

The very first such “make-athon” — the brainchild of Make a Mark founder and director Sarah Obenauer — took place in Roanoke, Va., in 2015. Since then, the idea has spread to seven other cities. And although work on the first Asheville event has been underway since the beginning of the year, the real magic is just about to happen.

Makes well with others

Eric Pieper’s busy creative brain will be one of those buzzing with ideas on June 23. The designer, who co-owns Homestead creative studio in West Asheville with his wife, Ellen Soderberg, says applying creativity to help companies and organizations do good in the world is a big part of what motivates his work.

“I’m not a big user of Facebook,” Pieper explains, but somehow the Make a Mark event crossed his news feed when event organizers were first putting out feelers here. Within seconds, continues Pieper, “I had my email open and I was typing a response.” He’s since become part of the core team that’s been reaching out to other creative professionals, vetting nonprofits and figuring out which specialists would be the best fit with the projects selected.

Among the creative types who’ll take part in the event are graphic designers, web developers, photographers and illustrators. The organizers had hoped to include videographers as well, but only two applied, and neither was available on June 23. Pieper hopes the success of Asheville’s inaugural event will encourage more creatives to get involved in the future.

And in the meantime, he says, seeing local groups’ passion for those they serve has helped him understand “how much work is going on in this city.” During the make-athon, Pieper will pitch in on a creative team charged with enhancing a fledgling online giving campaign for Arts For Life, a statewide nonprofit based in Asheville. Executive Director Rachel Zink says her organization brings art and music to children receiving treatment for life-threatening and chronic illnesses in settings such as Mission Children’s Hospital.

Powered by design

Arts For Life launched its “Get Creative” campaign last year. The interactive fundraiser encourages participants to undertake a creative project of their own as a way to generate support for the nonprofit’s work.

“That could be painting or drawing or singing or cooking or gardening — however they flex their creative muscles,” Zink explains. The idea, she says, is “to share that on social media and then challenge their friends and family to make a donation to bring art lessons to young patients and their families.”

In its first year, the campaign raised $11,000 and engaged over 200 donors; this year, with new branding and ideas courtesy of the Make a Mark creative team, Zink hopes to bring in $25,000 from 300 donors. Over the course of a year, she reports, her organization reaches over 2,700 pediatric patients and their families in the Asheville area alone and more than 13,000 statewide.

“The idea is to work with the team to fine-tune the whole campaign, to make it something that can be fun and colorful and playful and inspire people to get involved,” continues Zink.

For his part, Pieper says he’s looking forward to working with a team of like-minded designers. He’s also excited about being able to influence the campaign’s overall strategy. With corporate clients, he explains, “More often than not you get the strategy from the company.”

This project, on the other hand, has “a broad goal, but it’s open-ended as to how we get there. It’s a different thinking cap to put on.”

Writing a new chapter

Retired accountant Julie Obenauer is Sarah Obenauer’s mother-in-law. Julie and her husband bought a condo in South Asheville a couple of years ago; they now split their time between Western North Carolina and New Jersey. “We can’t make living here happen full time yet, but that is the goal,” she says.

So when Sarah asked Julie if she’d be willing to bring the Make a Mark concept to Asheville, the answer was a ringing “Absolutely.” And while she lacks a background in either the creative or the nonprofit sector, “I have experience pulling people together and getting people organized to work on a project,” notes Obenauer.

Those organizational skills came in handy when Make a Mark’s initial outreach to area nonprofits yielded 40 compelling proposals. “I thought it would break my heart not to take all of them,” Obenauer recalls. Roughly half the applicants were invited for interviews. “Just to meet with so many people that are passionate about what they’re doing and working hard to solve problems for our community was really inspiring,” she says.

The selection committee based its decisions on a number of factors, including how well the organization’s goals fit with the make-athon format, the proposed projects’ potential impact, and the availability of creative professionals whose skills matched the project requirements. Tasks that couldn’t be accomplished within the highly compressed time period — such as those for which each of several aspects would need to be approved by the nonprofit’s board of directors — wouldn’t have worked.

In one-hour planning meetings in early June, each group met with its design team to go over project goals and get everyone on the same page. This ensures that, on the day of the event, the creative teams will have all the background information they need to jump right into developing viable design solutions, Obenauer explains.

Midday, the creatives will check in with their client organizations to get feedback. After lunch, the professionals will put their noses to the grindstone for another intensive session. The event will wrap up with a one-hour huddle in which the design teams share their solutions with the entire group.

Local restaurants and businesses, says Obenauer, have signed up to help fuel the creative process, with Celine and Co. providing breakfast, 12 Bones Smokehouse bringing lunch and Mellow Mushroom contributing dinner. Buchi Kombucha will hand out beverages, and two sponsors — Eurosport Asheville and the Magellan Strategy Group — have contributed cash. Hatch AVL is providing workspace in its facility at 45 S. French Broad Ave.

Unlike an open-ended engagement that could take on a life of its own, the Make a Mark format lets designers leverage their skills to benefit community groups in a targeted way.

“This is an opportunity for people to say, ‘Here, I can make a difference in a specific project that I know we can do.’ At the end of the day, the nonprofit is going to have something that they can use, and the commitment is limited to that time frame,” Obenauer points out.

Pieper, meanwhile, hopes this first year will go “super well,” creating an initial success that Make a Mark Asheville can build on going forward. “Some of the decisions about which nonprofits we could accept depended on the creatives who signed up,” he reveals. But once the design community sees what one day of intense creativity can accomplish, he believes, next year can be even bigger and better.

For more information, visit


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.