The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, a 501(c)3 that launched in 1980, distributes 35 million meals across 11 Western Pennsylvania counties annually. With nearly 500 community partners, 6,000 volunteers and a fleet of trucks that deliver millions of pounds of nourishing food, the Food Bank is an expansive operation that’s working to end hunger in Southwest Pennsylvania.
Justin Gilmore, the Food Bank’s Decision Support Analyst and a 2019 Who’s Next under-40 leader, recently led BlastPoint staff writer Janeen Ellsworth on a tour of the agency’s Duquesne, PA, warehouse. With a background in teaching and theater, Justin explained his current role in leading the Food Bank’s transition to Salesforce, how he made the leap to the tech world, how he uses data to tell the organization’s story, and why humans are the most important source of reliable data. In honor of Hunger Action Awareness Month, we invite you to read Justin Gilmore’s full, Spotlight Q&A below.
*The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How does data help the Food Bank carry out its mission?
We think hard and deeply about the services we provide to the local community, and by that, I mean the City of Duquesne and our surrounding communities. We’re well equipped to serve our 11-county region, but we have a special obligation to this community that we’re physically in.
We have the Compassion Corner, where a family can come in three times per year and get food last-minute in case of an emergency situation. We wanted to share with our funders a story about how the Compassion Program is growing, and we needed to talk about how many households had been served in the last year.
Our instinct was to pull a list of ZIP codes and provide a list. I knew we could do better than that. I wanted to look at mailing addresses. But a lot of people have a Pittsburgh mailing address that don’t actually live in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t until we were able to provide a heat map of ZIP codes that we were able to create a giant bullseye on our location and understand just how much we’re serving this community.
You’ve been leading a transition to Salesforce. How is the Food Bank using it and what kinds of results are you seeing?
We’re using Salesforce for the places we haven’t, historically, had systems: as a platform to engage our partners and volunteers, two areas where technology can be a multiplier.
We’re working on being able to have reports on demand that will empower our partners to share data with their own community that shows their impact. We need to have a way for our partners to tell those stories, to provide maps and visualizations so that people can use them.
Nonprofit workers are good at putting something together and getting the job done. But if I’m able to supercharge that, to provide a real solution that accelerates them so much further, I’m happy. It’s about supporting others to further our mission.
And it’s all about progress. We’re strengthening internal capacity, and we’re having good wins. If I can give you one hour a week through technology, you can catch up and figure out how to save yourself two to four hours. That’s when we can shift the conversation from how to keep things running to, “What can I do better?”
Can you talk about how you’re using technology now that wasn’t possible in the past?
Our volunteer team of three staff members schedules over 6,000 volunteers each year who contribute 53,000 hours to feeding their neighbors in need. Before Salesforce, that scheduling was all done with paper and pencil. Now we can pull up a calendar to see how many volunteers have registered in real time. It helps us plan and manage our operations in a more consistent and thoughtful way. What those three volunteers do now is equivalent to the work of 26 full-time employees.
For our Network Development team that manages relationships with those who run Food Pantries, Soup Kitchens and other community food programs, we’re just beginning. Those partners need to sign a membership agreement, so we started leveraging e-signature technology in January 2019. In April, some rules changed related to The Emergency Food Program and we needed to get a separate contract signed to continue distributing this particular government source of food for our partners.
Instead of having to commit to an entirely new process, we were able to quickly adapt the e-signature technology we used for our membership renewal process and apply it to this agreement. It saved this team close to 100 hours—a whole month’s worth—of work.
Being able to see, track, and report on that operational data is just the beginning. Soon we’ll be able to devote more time and focus to strategic planning, having conversations about what the Food Bank is going to look like, working with partners, increasing distribution and driving the organization forward in the most mission-oriented way possible.
What kind of data do you wish you had access to but don’t?
I’m concerned about the next Census. We have one Census tract in McKeesport where, in 2010, the response rate was about 50 percent. When you get to those places, it becomes really challenging. We’re talking about how to better serve those communities. That data is fundamental. It allows us to understand those that we don’t reach, and pushes us to do better.
The reality is, there’s food insecurity everywhere. I could create a map that shows where there’s the highest need, but every community in Southwestern Pennsylvania has people who are struggling with food insecurity. My biggest challenge is building tools that allow every community to communicate its own set of needs.
You have a degree in teaching social studies. How did you get into data?
I’ve benefitted greatly from my background as a teacher in knowing how to communicate effectively. Government and history are about how decisions get made, how values and information translate into action. My biggest benefit in doing this work is that I focus on how values translate into decisions, rather than on the tools that need to be used. I think that has been the foundation to my success.
My first nonprofit job had a fully functional CRM, so I have, since then, been focused upon helping nonprofits use data to engage with people and move them to action. I did that for advocacy organizations, for political candidates, for arts organizations.
Right now, I’m focused on our partners who sign a membership agreement. A key part of that effort will be a branded, login-based website called our Partner Community, to give us greater ability to communicate with these individuals. They can see how many people they’ve served in three months, in graph form, not on a spreadsheet. We’ll also be able to see the actions they’re interested in taking and find ways to cultivate them and give them the resources they need to do more.
What other challenges do you face in your work?
The stakeholders that come to the table to solve hunger in their communities have a mix of values. Everyone wants to be compassionate, fair and use resources wisely. I’m most effective when I can tell a story with data that shows how the Food Bank is resourceful, compassionate and fair.
Anticipating the audience’s order of those values, getting beyond metrics of efficiency, those are my biggest challenges. When we, as an organization, can accomplish that, that’s when we activate new supporters and grow our movement to end hunger in Southwestern PA.
Huge thanks to Justin Gilmore and the whole team at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for feeding our neighbors and for spending time with us to talk about using #dataforgood.
Read more here on how you can participate throughout September for Hunger Action Awareness Month!