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

The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project arose from the experience of its founder, Sue Kerr, 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 one of my interview with Sue on why and how she has built the organization.

Thanks to Beth Kanter for introducing us to Sue and her work. 

Tell us how your project got started.

The “a ha” moment came in July 2009. I was at a food distribution, waiting for clients to finish their business and live tweeting various observations just to put that experience out there. I noticed that some folks came with bags, baskets and other devices to carry their food. The vast majority depended on the very thin plastic bags and paper shopping bags (made for clothing, not cans) passed out by the Food Bank (this was at the Food Bank itself, not a food pantry). One man came out with a bunch of plastic bags. One broke and a cabbage rolled away from him. He dropped his bags and ran after it. It struck me that the cabbage was pretty important and too heavy for a thin bag. I just had this moment where I considered that donating tote bags instead of plastic and paper bags would be more helpful. So I tweeted that thought. Little did I know, the region’s largest community foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation, was monitoring my tweets (as was the local Department of Human Services, in fact).  Christopher at the foundation offered to send me some totes. A few arrived in the mail that week and our first tote drive was launched.

I don’t remember the exact thought and we can’t find the tweet. I didn’t realize I would be launching an entire project. It just seemed like a cool idea, something I could do with my personal network.

How were you drawn to working with food banks and in hunger relief?

When I was 25, I had the opportunity to spend a year in a rural Kentuckytown as part of a social justice ministry project with the Catholic Church. I helped convert an old airport building into a community center with a food pantry.  As I met the various pastors and their communities, I learned that there were dozens of very small food pantries all over the county of about 10,000 people. I began asking them if joining forces would be more effective, if perhaps we could provide a week’s worth of groceries rather than a few days. They agreed and we soon had a rotation worked out with 2 or 3 faith communities doing a food drive each month so no one was overburdened and the pantry had a steady source of food. It worked!  I took care of signing families up for the pantry, passing out the food and making sure the churches had a list of what we needed. We were not connected with a food bank. I had no idea how that system worked, we were just literally winging it.  The local extension project did the meal planning and the shopping lists.

 Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is one of the mostly highly respected organizations in this region. The sheer magnitude of their efforts – distributing 1.9 million pounds a month – was something I vaguely knew about. This project has taught me an immense amount more about their work.  As a social worker, hunger and poverty have been consistent memes in the lives of the people I’ve served. Whether it is working with women who left abusive partners or families rebuilding their financial lives after an economic blow, food resources have always been part of the dialogue. I’ve worked in housing, foster care, residential, and workforce development programs. The Food Bank has played some part in that work since I graduated from the School of Social Work. 

You’ve brought together some “unlikely suspects:”  environmental groups, artists, hunger groups, and other human services groups.  How did you do that, and what’s the secret to creating a successful diverse collaboration?

That’s been an interesting development. Our original plan was to work with the local hunger relief organizations and the business community to tap into those tote bag sources. As we began using social media tools, word spread and two themes emerged – the environmental aspects and the connection with the crafting/arts communities.  We started talking and soon we had a whole new array of organizations serving as tote bag donation drops and/or organizing tote bag drives.

And there was overlap. We made a commitment to use each bag we received, so repurposing the bags that were torn, soiled or stained was a goal. We reached out to crafting organization/crafters for ideas of what we should create. That led us to thePittsburghCenterfor Creative Reuse. We pass on the bags and they organize occasional workshops focused specifically on tote bags. Otherwise, the material goes into their regular programming.  It is a win/win. They also serve as a bag donation spot.

The key to our success has been to bring a value to the organizations with whom we partner, a reason for them to invest in our work. For example, we provide a regular supply of crafting materials to the PCCR so it is a natural alliance. Our marketing emphasizes the benefits of reducing dependency on disposable bags which attracts environmental organizations.

We also tapped into the relationships of our volunteers. One woman is a quilter. She knew two very community oriented store owners who happily agreed to serve as donation drops. Another volunteer approached her boss with a request to donate an e-newsletter; there is a strong history between her steel industry heritage organization and the emergence of the food bank (via the demise of “big steel” in the 1980’s.)  I approached the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh because of their Downtown location, non-traditional hours and the opportunity to partner with a diverse array of supporters.  

By tapping into our various networks, online and face to face, we drew in partners who were invested in us and, eventually, the project itself.  It isn’t a hard sell to a potential collaborator. I often say “you need a flyer and a box” in terms of resources. Marketing is the biggest investment.  

One secret for us has been to respect the boundaries and resource constraints among our collaborators. If a site can accept totes, but not food for whatever reason, we do our best to share that information. In return, if someone does bring food, the site understands it was an honest mistake and we work it out.  We also work very hard to promote our collaborators using social media. If they have any social media presence, we link, connect, retweet or do whatever we can to keep them engaged within that medium. That effort builds the relationship and shared investment in our respective missions.  We truly want to support them and promote their good work to our fans/followers/tweeps/supporters.

Guest post: Beth Kanter Interviews Dan Michel from Feeding America on Social Media Measurement

Dan Michel, Digital Marketing Manager, Feeding America Twitter: @dpmichel

Social Media Measurement is this month’s theme on the Zoetica Salon hosted on my blog Facebook page. Last week, Dan Michel offered an intriguing answer to this question: “What form of social media measurement does your organization engage in; Community participation, advocacy (earned mentions, discussions), or donations ($ or time)? ”

I thought it would useful to have a more in-depth conversation in the Zoetica Salon with Dan so we could delve into KPIs for social media. The conversation was fast and intense on Facebook, so that’s why I’m taking the time to summarize out here.

Dan is the Digital Marketing Manager for Feeding America where he oversees the execution of their external digital strategy which includes social media. Feeding America is the nation’s leading hunger organization with a network of over 200 food banks serving 37 million Americans struggling with hunger.

Feeding America’s strategic plan has a broad goal to mobilize the public in three outcomes areas: donations, public policy advocates and brand awareness and foster engagement. One KPI (Key Performance Indicators) they use for their social media strategy is share of conversation. As Dan Michel notes, “Our social media strategy focuses on brand awareness and engagement and is part of an integrated communications strategy. We spend time identifying and building relationships with super-advocates online and engage them — similar to the way you engage major donors or champion advocacy constituents. “

For example, during Hunger Action Month in September, Feeding America created a tab on their Facebook page where people could share a different action every day. The theme was “30 Ways for 30 Days“. Dan says, “We measured that through each action and each was track-able. At the end of the month, we could gauge our share of conversation in the hunger through listening tools. “

Using Radian 6, a listening tool, they do a pre/post share of Conversation about hunger. Says Michel, “We did increase our share of conversation during that month about 150%!” They also track how many fans and followers as a way to gauge how effective their tactics were. Michel reports that those increased during the month of September at a faster rate.

Social media results are also reported to senior management as part of their organizational reporting for their strategic plan. Says Michel, “In this specific case, we share our social media measurement results as part of the overall campaign report. For digital and social, we have a cross-departmental team creating digital goals together with each department acting as a subject matter expert. The team is creating an overall digital dashboard that can be shared with the organization as a whole.”

Feeding America also tracks conversions for donors using Google Analytics so they can follow the path of the donor – from a like or comment on Facebook to online donation form. “It is still a little clunky and requires work but that information is very valuable. We are low on the donation conversions but we are seeing social media become very important in helping with public policy efforts – like the recent Child Nutrition Bill. We saw a lot of interest and click thrus from Twitter particularly.” They used Google Analytics to see where traffic is coming from specifically to their advocacy pages surrounding the bill and looked at Twitter retweets.

Dan also emphasizes that social media acted an accelerator and that it was a multi-channel campaign both online and offline and used both grassroots and grasstops tactics. As Michel notes, The bill passed and our advocacy folks are taking a well-deserved break.

Source: Social Marketing Analytics by John Lovett and Jeremiah Owyang

Feeding America uses KPIs for social media to not only support bigger organizational goals but also measure Dan’s job performance. To come up with goals, notes Michel, “We took a snapshot of the previous and determined a “reach goal” for the next fiscal year.” Michel says you need the rights goals and the right KPIs. Another internal challenge is to get the different departments on the same page about what to measure. This done on the front-end through cross-departmental teams where each department acts a subject matter expert and a shared dashboard that can be shared with the organization as a whole. Michel also observes, “It is important to realize that all these different measurements (donations, constituents, policy actions, conversation) are dependent and can affect of each other, it isn’t an either/or.”

Dan says, “I have been doing web for a long time and increasing unique website visitors was always a KPI. With social media now is that as important anymore? Maybe?” (See this research report from Altimeter on the new social media analytics and the accompanying links from this blog post by Jeremiah Owyang.)

Dan offers this advice to other nonprofits about social media measurement:

Examine existing strategic plans/board outcomes and ask “How can social media support those?” Realize that there may not be an apples-to-apples comparison but examine how your social media efforts are helping you achieve your bigger organization goals. Also, social media is a great way to work cross-departmentally and begin conversations that should have been happening earlier between departments.

Have questions about social media measurement? The Zoetica Salon continues the social media measurement conversation with this excellent discussion facilitated by Kami Huyse “Social Media Measurement: Attention, Attitude, Action

Would you pledge to end hunger?


For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be involved in a collaboration with a number of great partners, including our longtime friends Share Our Strength.  Designed to increase engagement in hunger relief, the Pledge to End Hunger will be highlighted in an online effort peaking at Austin’s South by Soutwest festival, by social media superstars Beth Kanter and Chris Brogan

You can find out more about the Pledge to End Hunger here.  For every person who signs the pledge, Tyson will donate 35 pounds of food to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.  If we get 1000, signatures (a truckload of food), we’ll continue donating, up to two truckloads of food to the states with the most signatures.

At Tyson Foods, we’ve always donated food to hunger relief.  But only in the past nine years, have we taken a strategic approach to doing it.

Some critical things we have learned:  We can leverage what we’re doing in making donations beyond the value of the food delivered.  We can use donation events to shine a spotlight on the need in our country.  We can engage new stakeholders.  We can create new awareness of the groups and people on the front lines of the fight against hunger.  And if by doing so, we bring a return on investment to our shareholders, we can keep the efforts sustainable, even when our company is not making a profit.

Social media have already proven to be natural and effective tools in expanding a critically-needed conversation in our country about hunger. 

We’re excited about the Pledge to End Hunger.  It brings new partners into the issue of hunger, and allows us to support Share Our Strength, who came alongside Tyson as a phenomenal partner when we made a formal commitment to hunger relief in 2000.  It’s built around the energy and enthusiasm of South by Southwest and offers the prospect of bringing thousands of new minds and fresh ideas to bear around a social problem that’s inexcusable in a country with the finest food production system in the world.

We can’t wait to see what happens. Please join us.


Boston Donation Arrives



Donation Arriving at the Greater Boston Food Bank


We got word from our friends at the Greater Boston Food Bank that the second of two truckloads of product generated by the comment-for-food effort in Boston arrived safely at the food bank yesterday.

Thanks to Beth Kanter for connecting us with Bob Collins and the folks from Boston’s Social Media Breakfast. Thanks, Beth, for all you do to educate people on the use of social media for social good.  

Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment.  Please continue to get involved with hunger relief.

And most of all, thanks to the hard workers at the Greater Boston Food bank and all in our world who devote their lives to feeding those in need.  Happy New Year to you, and may the blessings you bestow on others be doubled back upon you in 2009. 


Hunger in Eastern Massachusetts–And How You Can Help

Hunger is a silent epidemic. 
Each year, more than 320,000 people seek food assistance in eastern Massachusetts alone.  They are the most vulnerable among us:  children and seniors.  They are people we know: our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  They live in each and every one of our communities, and are quietly seeking help from the more than 600 member hunger-relief agencies in the nine counties and 190 cities and towns of eastern Massachusetts that receive food from The Greater Boston Food Bank.  




Hunger is a growing problem.
This fall, The Food Bank conducted a survey of some of its member food pantries and soup kitchens to assess the need for emergency food assistance in eastern Massachusetts. The survey revealed disquieting results, showing that the region’s hunger-relief organizations are struggling with the burdens of increased client loads and fewer food and monetary donations, among other challenges.  About 90 percent of the agencies have seen demand for food increase since September 2007, 60 percent of those saw demand increase 10 percent to 30 percent, and another 15 percent saw demand rise by up to 40 percent.


Hunger is solvable. 
There is more than enough food available, and The Food Bank is the critical link between those who have food to give and those who need it most.  More than 83,000 people benefit from the stable supply of nutritious food that The Food Bank distributes each and every week. 

Everyone has a role in ending hunger. 
All that The Food Bank does depends on the combined support of compassionate financial contributors, food donors, and more than 16,000 volunteers.   You can help today!   For every comment this post receives indicating it has been read, Tyson Foods, in partnership with Boston’s Social Media Breakfast, organized by Bob Collins of  SHIFT Communications,  will donate 100 pounds of food (up to a truckload full with 35,000 pounds) to The Greater Boston Food Bank.  Help fill the truck.  Comment here (even one-word comments are acceptable – BTW, since the comments are moderated, it might take a bit to get them up, but the comments WILL be posted). 

UPDATE:  The first truck was filled in less than two hours.  We’ve added another truck to the mix (probably can’t do more than that this time).  But if you continue to comment, we’ll donate up to two truckloads of food)

For more information about other ways you can become involved in the fight to end hunger, please visit or

Thanks to Beth Kanter and Bob Collins for bringing Tyson Foods into this effort.

 UPDATE #2.  The 2nd truck is full. Wish we could do more, but we need to help some other food banks around the country, too.  Thanks to all who read this post. Now go out and help your local food bank. In the Boston area, go to the Greater Boston Food Bank, or elsewhere around the U.S., visit Feeding America.