All in a day’s (and night’s, and morning’s) work for VSA

Saturday, April 12, 9:00 am: nine VSA Partners employees gathered in a computer lab at DePaul University and awaited word of the nonprofit they were about to meet—and work with for the next 24 hours—to build a new website from scratch.

It was the start of the 2014 Overnight Website Challenge, an annual hackathon created by The Nerdery, an interactive development firm with offices in Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City. The Challenge paired teams of “webpros”—designers, developers, strategists, writers and many other professionals—with nonprofits who request their help. The nonprofits ranged from IDEAco, a coalition for education in “changemaking,” to the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks to En Las Tablas Performing Arts—all united in their need for a stronger web presence. Chicago’s Challenge featured eight such pairs, but the pairings weren’t announced until start time.

To VSA’s surprise, the one nonprofit that stood out in their pre-event research turned out to be the client assigned to them: VOCEL (Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders), a unique community-based organization focusing on language and social-emotional development of pre-kindergarten children in low-income families. VOCEL’s goal is to open a classroom co-located in a private school in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago this fall; their involvement in the Challenge came from seeking a partner to build an informative, robust new site that focused on engagement from prospective families and donors.

VOCEL was represented by founders Jesse Ilhardt, Director of Education, and Kelly Lambrinatos, Executive Director, who came armed with surprising statistics on education in Chicago that lent an urgency to VSA’s participation. Only 4% of children in low-income families graduate college by the time they’re 25; by age 4, a child in a low-income family has heard 30 million fewer words than his or her higher-income peers. This impacts third grade reading scores, which are used to predict a number of future life events, including prison sentences. In the Austin neighborhood Ilhardt and Lambrinatos selected for VOCEL’s first classroom, there are 1,200 children who qualify for government assistance. The classroom aims to serve 17 preschool-age children in 2014 with full-day, year-round care, expanding to dozens of students and multiple classrooms in 2015 and 2016; the site needed to point donors to their crowdfunding campaign, which would raise enough to cover a year’s operational budget before converting to a mix of federal and private funding.

VSA’s team was led by Associate Partner and Development Lead Andrew Falconer, who had a number of reasons for getting involved. “I wanted to showcase what a complete team representing the majority of VSA’s disciplines could bring to the table, and see what we could accomplish in an absurdly short amount of time,” he said. He was impressed by how the team quickly absorbed, prioritized and focused in on the VOCEL site’s biggest challenges. He also wanted VSAers to use their talents on behalf of the company’s Purpose Day program, which encourages one-day involvement with an organization doing community good. The team joining Falconer included Developer Travis Astor, Senior Project Manager Luise Barnikel, Strategist Lauren Clark, Senior Writer Claire Keys, Designer Hannah Mowrey, Senior Designer Brian Pelsoh, Writer Sierra Swanson and Associate Creative Director YanYan Zhang. Content Strategist Jess Dillard joined the team in the planning stage but regrettably couldn’t make the Challenge due to illness.

With the Sunday, 9:00 am deadline on the horizon, the team worked to simplify and broaden VOCEL’s site, organizing its hierarchy, unpacking its messaging, focusing on its voice and tone, expanding its color palette and using its best creative assets, including VOCEL’s beautifully done Crowdtilt film. The team emphasized the offerings available to VOCEL’s primary audiences—potential investors and prospective families—with clearer tools to support VOCEL through donations, volunteers and communications streams. VSA’s writers and strategists created a new tagline for VOCEL, “Redefining early education, child by child,” and worked with Ilhardt and Lambrinato to generate vital new content, keep an editorial calendar and start a social media strategy. Meanwhile, the designers created large, striking illustrations to be deployed throughout the site and the developers built a custom calculator that determines prospective families’ eligibility for enrollment. And the site was built on WordPress for ease of updating content, especially a new blog that will launch soon.

All of these decisions encouraged strategic and long-term communication with prospective families and donors, which parallels VOCEL’s emphasis on continuous language development. As they told the VSA team about their ultimate goal, “We view our teachers as ‘intentional language builders.’ We want engagement over compliance.”

“VSA brought a team filled with immense talent and a gusto for the work they do,” praised Ilhardt and Lambrinato. “They rapidly learned our mission, values and personalities inside and out so they could create a site that represents VOCEL perfectly. We believe that any parent who visits VOCEL’s new site will immediately feel a sense of comfort, belonging and a desire to be part of the VOCEL family. Our VSA team is now part of this family.” Ilhardt chimed in, “We want to be a gamechanger for our kids and families, and VSA has truly been a gamechanger for VOCEL.”

Falconer echoed the VSA team’s conclusion that it was a pleasure to work with VOCEL, and that the company’s first hackathon experience was a success: “Having a great non-profit partner helped immensely. It kept spirits up, because we all very quickly knew we could invest the effort (and sleep deprivation) in Kelly and Jesse, who were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. We instantly had very open and straightforward communication with them, and got honest input and decisions where and when we needed them. All of their new assets will help what VSA knows will be a growing organization.”

The VSA team is putting the finishing touches on the new VOCEL site; follow VOCEL on Twitter and Facebook to find out when it launches. You can also support VOCEL’s Crowdtilt campaign and pledge a donation to help their first classroom open this fall; tickets are also available to join VOCEL on May 8 for a fundraising event celebrating the campaign’s end. VSA provided updates on the fly throughout the Challenge on Twitter and offered an expanded gallery of images on Facebook; see those posts for additional glimpses into the Challenge experience. And follow The Nerdery on Twitter for details about their activities and initiatives, as well as early notice for signing up for the 2015 Overnight Website Challenge next spring in one of their host cities.

We’ll see you there, bright and early.

This post has been updated to include links to VOCEL’s new site.