It’s In the Bag–The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project–part two

Last week, we published part one of our interview with Sue Kerr, founder  of The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project. The organization arose from Sue’s experience as a social worker, when she accompanied clients to a monthly food distrbution at the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. There, she noticed the wide variety of containers people had brought to transport food home: rolling suitcases, wheeled coolers, backbacks. She also saw the struggles of those who didn’t — or couldn’t — bring something of their own. Sue proceeded to form an organization that collects and redistributes tote bags to hunger non-profits. Here’s part two of my interview with Sue on why and how she has built the organization. 
You’re relying heavily on social media channels to build your effort.  How’s that working for you?  (any cool stories?)   What advice would you give to hunger organizations who want to use the channels to build their own online (and offline) communities?
Social media has been essential. We developed a rough social media plan utilizing Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a free “website” blog through blogspot.  The domain was registered and we began building the “Tote4Pgh” identity. It quickly became apparent that Facebook was our strongest tool, so we drove everyone in that direction with the blog providing an alternate landing spot for those who aren’t on Facebook. We now have a more professional blog which has already attracted more visitors.  Learning how to use Google+ is another new challenge.
The most interesting thing in relation to social media has been the networking angle … a blog post in a local fashion/purse blog led to a collaboration with the region’s largest Convention Center simply because a member of their team followed the blog and put two and two together.  She then connected us with the local chapter of Meeting Professionals International who organized a tote drive. The information about that tote drive on their website led a member to donate 200 tote bags. My informal discussion with that company’s marketing team led them to become a tote bag drop-off spot, establish a building wide tote bag drive and assist us with our holiday marketing tools. 

The other cool aspect has been our involvement with the Social Media Superhero project of The Pittsburgh Foundation. The goal is to use social media to promote doing good. We became one of their first projects (due to that long ago tweet) and the relationship grew into new drop-off spots, tote bag drives, and even our own cartoon character, Crafty Cabbage, super villainess.  

I wrote a blog post about wanting at least one tote bag from Comic-con. I’m not sure why that popped into my head, but I was pleasantly surprised that someone mailed two bags to me!  He also joined our Facebook page and is active in the discussion. And he does not live anywhere near Pittsburgh.

My advice?
• Educating about hunger, environmental and tote bag/crafting issues using reputable sources
• Creating links to our collaborators and natural allies. We posted reciprocal links, we liked their pages, we linked to them as appropriate and “shared” their relevant content.
• Building a hashtag brand #totedrive – it is action oriented, relatively brief and covers our range of activities
•  Recruiting supporters. We use our PR tote bags (donated by a local food co-op) to draw new likes on Facebook. We’ve given away concert tickets and other prizes.  Building up this base has been a long process.  It is difficult to get people to click on Like or Follow, even if they support us. That’s a very big challenge.
• LinkedIn has a lot of promise to help us set up corporate and workplace tote drives. We just set up our official organizational site.
• That being said, using Google to coordinate has been helpful. We use blogspot, gmail, calendar, and google groups. We use google documents behind the scenes to work on documentation.
• We use social media to give recognition as immediately as possible. The Patch sites are very community oriented so when I have an interesting donation story in a Patch community, I @ them on Twitter (say a Girl Scout troop does a drive.)  They typically retweet and sometimes pursue the story. I also try to stay on top of community twitter accounts and Facebook pages, tagging them as appropriate to keep connecting the project to the local community.
• Keep your social media content fresh and interesting. A series of posts about new tote drives gets dull, even if there are new angles. By interspersing those posts with information pieces and photos, it keeps people wondering what’s next. 
• Clarify the roles and expectations for each party. The Food Bank handles distribution so we don’t try to get involved in issues such as clients reusing their bags on a monthly basis. The Food Bank is aware that is a concern and has a plan to address it within their  timeframe. Instead, we focus on educating the general public which is a more appropriate role for us.
• Be open to the unexpected relationship. We’ve developed a great rapport with The Toonsem ( Not only are they a drop-off spot, they offer a discount to donors who include food AND they are running with the Social Media Superhero theme by including tote bags in the marketing around that project.  They even donated some artwork to us. An unexpected perk was that they too originated as a fiscally sponsored project so they have concrete institutional advice which they freely share with us.

Any advice for someone who might want to start a similar effort in their own community?
Go to the central food distribution organization and talk through the idea so you build a structure that meets the real needs of the clients without burdening the pantries with more work.  Do a lot of homework on how food is distributed, determine if there is interest in tote bags and develop a framework before you launch a single tote bag drive. It took us 18 months to get prepared for an official start.  If you back into it by simply organizing drives, you might miss the opportunity to have a systemic impact. 
Another critical issue is building up a volunteer base. Our team does all of the PR, transporting, counting, sorting and so forth. The bags arrive at the food bank ready to go. That takes a lot of volunteer hours. I am fortunate to be able to volunteer full-time which has made a huge difference.  It is very easy for this idea to escalate so you need a structure to handle the additional work.
•Where do you go from here?  What’s in store for the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project?
We are planning to expand our presence in the 11 other counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania. While the Food Band handles distribution, we need to establish tote drives, recruit volunteers and find community partners.  What works in an urban Pittsburgh neighborhood might not transfer to a rural community in Somerset County. 
We are also conscious of building a model that can be replicated, even our name and our Twitter handle.  We’d like to establish this project in other parts of the country once we have a more solid infrastructure ourselves.
There’s also the issue of other types of projects the need bags – backpacks for schoolchildren and homeless veterans, take out bags for local soup kitchens, messenger bags for students enrolled in community college and large totes bags/suitcases for youth in the child welfare system.  It is clear that there is a need for these types of bags, and this is a direction where we could expand, but it creates an entirely new set of questions for us to address. 
So our next step will be to do some planning and determine our priorities from these and other opportunities. 

Any questions you’d like to ask yourself (or, in other words, what great question did I fail to ask)?
Challenges – One challenge is the issue of reuse. With 3500 people entering the food bank client list each month, the need for new bags will always be there. So the education component of encouraging reuse is critical. Finding the right partners who are doing this work is an objective for us. 

 A second challenge is funding. We are an all-volunteer project and all expenses are donated in-kind, mostly by the Steering Committee.  We need to finalize our structural decisions so we can pursue support from the foundation community.  We still aren’t sure if we should roll into an existing organization or start our own project. 

Sustainability is another challenge. We are still in the process of tapping into people’s excess bags. At some point that will trickle down, particularly if bag bans and other concepts catch on in this region.  So expanding our relationships with corporate and conference partners is critical. 
Best tote bag? I am asked this one quite a bit. My response is that the best tote bag is the one that is being used.  There are a dizzying array of bags that pass through our hands – plastic, vinyl, canvas, tee shirt materials, denim, recycled water bottle material, etc – we simply ask that the bag you donate be something you would use for your own groceries in terms of durability, condition and strength.  But with our ability to redirect purses/small bags to human service agencies and the “past their prime” bags to repurposing projects, we are able to handle almost anything that comes through our door so to speak.

Do you have an office/storage space?  No. I’ve been working from my home and we try to avoid storing the bags for too long a period. My car holds quite a bit pretty much any day of the week.  A new opportunity for us is a “co-working” space called Catapult which brings together innovators in various fields. We are their only human services participant (1 out of 11 people) so it is an entirely new experience for everyone.  Being in an office environment for some portion of the week is necessary – we need access to a fax machine, a more heavy duty printer and so forth.  It also helps us forge all sorts of interesting new relationships with innovative people who all have something to bring to our work.  It is also mainly young adults in their 20s who grew up with the concept of “being green” that most of us learned in adult life. And their fluency in social media is such that we hope to continue expanding those opportunities.  This is just another example of tapping into creative collaborations.
Should people who don’t live in Pittsburgh send bags?  That’s another frequently asked question. There’s no wrong answer. If you can find a worthwhile organization in your own community that can use the bags – a food pantry, a shelter, a homeless outreach group, then you should donate your bags to them.  By doing this you will help your neighbors who perhaps might get a bit more involved in the work of the organization. That’s absolutely a good choice.

Since we are a one of its kind project, sending your bags to us will help us tackle the systemic change necessary to improve the community environment and address hunger and poverty issues.  We can leverage many small donations to stock entire pantries. This in turn means the pantry staff can begin working on the reuse education and empower an entire neighborhood to take ownership of creating a healthier environment.

It really is a personal decision. The important thing is to get the tote bags into usage somewhere rather than letting them accumulate in a pile. 

 Thanks, Sue!








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