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!








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.