CMO ClubHouse Conversations with Jessica Crimmins

We chatted with Jessica Crimmins from the Greater Boston Food Bank, on feeding an ever-growing number of people, how to pivot quickly in a crisis, and the hope she feels for the future.

Jessica Crimmins is the VP of Marketing, Communications, and Brand Integrity at the Greater Boston Food Bank, a vital lifeline to families in need. The food bank distributes emergency food and supplies to over 530 local pantries and food programs serving Eastern Massachusetts’s most vulnerable populations. Mrs. Crimmins sits on numerous advisory boards that serve communities in both Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. She is the former SVP of Corporate Communications and integrated Marketing at Santander Bank, part of the core team that led an 18-month rebrand of Sovereign to Santander, a global banking institution based in Spain. She also had leadership roles at both MetLife and John Hancock Financial Services in her long, distinguished career. She lives in both Boston, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island with her husband and daughter.

In the five weeks from March 19th to April 23rd, there were over 653,000 new unemployment claims filed in Massachusetts. That is nearly equivalent to the entire population of Boston (695,000) and higher than the number of people who were already living with food insecurity in Massachusetts (estimated at 616,000). During March alone, GBFB distributed 8.1 million pounds of healthy food, a 50 percent increase from the same time last year and the largest one-month total in the 40-year history of the organization, creating ever-increasing challenges in raising funds, managing donations, and securing volunteers to help distribute those resources in safe and effective ways. Here’s how she helped lead the way forward. 

CMO Club — Welcome, and on behalf of The CMO Club, thank you for all you do in helping to feed hungry people. Can you tell us where you grew up and what your childhood was like? 

Jessica Crimmins “I grew up in a small town in South-Eastern, Massachusetts, close to the ocean. My father was in the sailing business, a VP of sales, and a marketer for a sailboat and yacht hardware company. He was an engineer by education but coupled his engineering degree with the positioning of product. He took a position on the east coast, so we moved from the Midwest, where I was born.”

CMO Club What were your parents like?

Jessica Crimmins “My parents came to America from the same town in Northern Yugoslavia called Ljubljana, now part of Slovenia, near the borders of Italy and Austria. As my mother tells the story, she came over on a ship into Boston Harbor and was given twenty dollars by the Red Cross welcome group. This was literally all the money she had to get her by train to Cleveland, Ohio. Both my mom and my dad were from families that had means, but it was all taken away by Josip Broz Tito, everything when the Communists took control. They fled empty-handed to Austria, then to the US.  My parents didn’t know each other in Yugoslavia, but both ended up in Cleveland for work, and they met there. I am a first-generation American.”

CMO Club What’s the one thing above all the others that you remember hearing from them that influenced who you eventually became?

Jessica Crimmins “That is very clear to me. Be independent. Work hard. Never depend on anyone else for money or lifestyle, just depend on yourself so you can always support yourself. I still believe that, and am teaching my daughter the same philosophy.”

CMO Club So with that kind of advice coming from your parents, what kind of kid were you? 

Jessica Crimmins “I was the geeky kid, not a popular athlete or the kid who skipped class. I was just a conservative, diligent student. It was a conservative family. I was in the marching and concert band, second seat, first clarinet. When I was in High School, I wanted to travel and had a desire to be in the hospitality business, maybe run a hotel. That’s what I remember. I skied in Innsbruck, Austria, with the HS ski team and was lucky enough to ski in Vail, Colorado, on a regular basis. Later, I developed a passion for running and became a committed athlete.” 

CMO Club So how did you come to marketing?

Jessica Crimmins “It wasn’t until I went to college and started taking business courses that I pushed myself into finance, and then eventually figured out how to market financial concepts, moving closer and closer to leadership marketing roles across amazing financial brands. I developed a fascination with all things marketing after that. I consider myself a natural salesperson and a creative, so it just made sense to gravitate to marketing. It comes naturally to me to take things that look very basic and spin them to “wow, that’s amazing!”

CMO Club And now you are leading marketing for the Greater Boston Food Bank during one of the largest social and financial upheavals on the history of American society. How has the coronavirus changed things from how they were before?

Jessica Crimmins “It’s completely changed everything. From the first week of March to the third week of March, the number of people that are coming to our partner agencies for help with food has nearly doubled. We normally distribute 200,000 pounds of food on any given week. We are now up to 400,000 pounds each week and growing. We serve 190 towns across eastern Massachusetts, and in those areas, we serve 590 pantries and programs that distribute food.” 

CMO Club Traditionally, where does your funding come from?

Jessica Crimmins “We raise part of it through corporate and individual donations and a large amount through our digital channels, specifically. Some funds come from federal and state sources. We are one of the largest food banks in the country. With financial donations, we buy food and supplies in bulk for distribution to the local agencies and for our programs. We also get food donations from grocery stores and other food suppliers, which rounds out the intricate food acquisition puzzle.” 

CMO Club We often think about how important our companies are, but in your case, it could literally mean the difference between families going hungry or having food, and maybe even life and death.  With all of that responsibility riding on your decisions, what were some of the immediate steps you took when this first hit?

Jessica Crimmins “Corona hit our business hard around March 11th, but I could see the wave coming. I had a fundraising newsletter about to go out, and I held the presses off because the newsletter delivers in-home about two months after we sent it to print. The thought of the newsletter coming out with no mention of the coronavirus and its devastation was unthinkable to me. We put up a peer-to-peer opportunity for people to set up direct team-based fundraising. Our business operations depend on volunteers, and many big groups were canceling, so we made sure people knew how to volunteer. People wanted to help us, so we made it as easy as possible. We usually have 20,000 volunteers a year through various corporations and academic institutions, so the loss of volunteers and the process of replacing them was a large focus. An even bigger and more important focus was getting information to people on how to find food. 

CMO Club So you have all these volunteers not showing up all of a sudden and there’s food that needs to get to those pantries out there. What do you do?

Jessica Crimmins “We quickly pivoted from companies sending teams of volunteers to individuals, members of the community filling in those roles, helping their neighbors. We also re-deployed people who work at the food bank to do volunteer shifts. I do think people know in their hearts that this could easily be them. We get letters from the community, “I don’t have much money, but I see what people are going through, and here’s $25.00.” We’re getting a lot of those right now. There are also companies out there that we never asked to help, never even reached out to, who are calling us with $250,000, even $500,000 donations. It’s amazing how so many foundations, companies, and their employees have come together so quickly, how they saw the impact that the food bank makes, and how they wanted to be a part of that impact. It’s coming from everywhere. Many partner agencies (pantries) have had to close because of a lack of volunteers and the fear of the virus. Once they get operations back in place, they do re-open, and we helped them with that. There have been changes in our distribution models because of COVID-19 safety concerns. We went from a shopping model to more of a curbside pick-up, pre-packaged model to help keep everyone safe. We’re changing and adjusting our business model to help get everyone the food they need safely. It’s all fluid right now. No matter what we do, the ask keeps rising and we will do our best to always meet that need, even if that means newer and bolder methods of distribution.”  

CMO Club How does marketing affect collecting and distributing food for the needy?

Jessica Crimmins “We tell the stories from the ground. We are responsible for getting those stories out to help raise awareness and the funds to put that food on the tables of families in need. There’s a direct correlation, because of those stories we’ve raised critical funds in the last seven weeks than we allowed us to double our distribution. It’s been like that since mid-March. These are people who went from never entering a pantry to struggling out there with the real possibility of not having food to eat. Most people hear those stories and are moved to do something. That’s what we do.”  

CMO Club  Can you share one of those stories?

Jessica Crimmins “I received a letter two weeks ago from a mother of three boys who also takes care of her mother, five altogether in her family. She thanked God for having us in her life, how every little bit helps put food on the table, and what that’s meant for her family. Others give donations in the name of people who have passed and who are now ill. It means so much to all of us. These stories of thanks come into us every day.”    

CMO Club Do you see your way clear to meeting all of this new demand?

Jessica Crimmins “That’s the plan.

CMO Club Do you think companies, in general, have a social responsibility to the greater good?

Jessica Crimmins “I do think companies have a greater responsibility, especially in times like these. Just in a business sense, the millennials care what the company stands for and what they support. Young people want to work at companies that give back into the community. It’s true even more so right now. Most companies understand that by investing in their community, they, in turn, get the positive exposure they need. Beyond all that, we are all human beings, and we are all going through this pandemic together. People find comfort in being part of our community and the impact we have on so many.” 

CMO Club What’s the number one thing you’ve learned over the past few weeks? Any timely advice for CMOs on what needs to happen when a crisis hits the fan?

Jessica Crimmins “It seems I’m always looking ahead, but in a time of crisis, that’s even more important. You have to constantly look at what’s happening ahead in the marketplace to understand what you need to pivot towards instead of reacting to things that are already here. It’s almost like studying companies, stocks, and trends. I have a team, and we have to deal with the day-to-day, but I am constantly thinking about what the world will look like in the fall, winter, a year from now, and what our message will be.”

CMO Club When you look back at your career, besides the good work you are doing now, what are you proudest of?

Jessica Crimmins “No doubt, it’s the rebrand of Sovereign Bank to Santander. I left John Hancock and started this huge rebranding, one of a team of six over an eighteen-month period, all while doing my core job. I worked 70-plus hours a week on things like employee engagement, procedures, messaging, multi-faceted events in New York and Boston, public relations, media, sports sponsorships, customer impact, and the physical changes to over 700 branches. It was truly transformational, inspiring, exhausting, and exhilarating all at the same time.” 

CMO Club Any passions outside of work?

Jessica Crimmins “I have quite a few. Part of the reason I wound up at a non-profit is that I’ve been involved in non-profit boards since I graduated college, mostly local community boards that work on issues related to women in business, parks, education, and living in Boston. My most recent passion is Chairman of something called “TeamFAME,” part of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, and the USTA. TeamFAME provides after-school activities to help the underserved community reach their goals, learn new skills, and change lives on and off the tennis court. Many of these kids have almost nothing, no direction at home, struggles at school, are food insecure, and have very limited access to resources. The USTA has over 350 TeamFAME-like chapters across the country, working to support and help these children.”

CMO Club “What inside of yourself attracts you to these issues of always helping people?

Jessica Crimmins “I have a soft spot for kids who come from backgrounds that don’t have a lot of opportunities, opportunities like I had growing up. I feel like if I have these skills and with just a little extra push of myself I can help these organizations, why wouldn’t I? Seeing the sparkle in the eyes of those that benefit, young people, young kids who maybe never hit a tennis ball, or never even seen the ocean even though they live within driving distance, that’s important to me. You’d never believe how much poverty there is in a place like Newport, Rhode Island, with all its beautiful mansions and beaches. It opens your eyes to the need out there. It’s not all altruistic, though. I meet such great people through doing this. By putting myself onto all these committees, offering up my marketing, PR, and communication skills, they appreciate it, and I get a lot back in all of those incredible people I’m able to meet along the way.”   

CMO Club Is there anything you can share with fellow club members about yourself that most people don’t know? Something that you carry with you?

Jessica Crimmins “What comes to my mind is how I manage my life through the lens of my older sister, Eva. My sister passed away from cancer four years ago. She was my hero. For all the things I go through or maybe complain about in my life, never did I ever call her and hear her complaining or be negative. Here she was, dying of cancer, in pain, and she was always positive and upbeat, so very brave. I swore I could hear her smiling over the phone. She had this beautiful life, everything you would ever want, but it didn’t matter, any of it, because she was sick. For the first time in my life, I became a caretaker, which had not been a natural part of my personality. When going out to see her, I found myself going into action, taking care of her and helping her immediate family when they were stricken with disbelief. I’ve never done anything like that. I have full respect for doctors and nurses, and their remarkable motivation to take care of people. That caretaker role had never been a part of who I was, but when she was dying, that’s what I became.  It’s a part of me I found in myself, a part of me I’d never seen before. It has changed my life.”

CMO Club Thank you for sharing such a personal story. Do you still carry that with you in your daily life?

Jessica Crimmins “Absolutely. I still tell the stories that she’s a part of every day, and I have a renewed sense of gratitude for simple things.” 

CMO Club— What has being a member of The CMO Club meant to you?

Jessica Crimmins “It’s been great to meet all of these incredible people from across so many industries and to learn how they lead their marketing efforts. Marketing is similar no matter what industry, but it’s still interesting to learn how these great leaders apply the marketing model to their industries. I’ve done so many big production events for huge corporations, and I can honestly say the meetings and events the CMO Club has, like their Summits are the best I’ve been to. Just the level of engagement, the ability to meet peers, ask for help, learn, not to mention the speakers and the entertainment, Pete connecting the dots between the sessions, there’s no meeting like it. I come away full of energy and renewed. I’m very much in “the weeds” in my day-to-day work life. To be able to be part of The CMO Club, I can lift out and see more clearly the bigger, more strategic picture. It would be so hard to meet these people without the club, and I feel like I could reach out to anyone at any time for help.”

CMO Club What’s the one thing you want people to remember you for?

Jessica Crimmins “That I gave of myself in positive ways with impact, without asking for anything back.”    

CMO Club Coming from someone who tells the stories of people trying just to survive and put food on their table, during this trying time, can you give us something to be hopeful for?

Jessica Crimmins — “I’ve seen so many people not thinking about themselves now, trying their best to help others every day, risking their health and safety, doing even the smallest of things to try and encourage others, that chain of so many selfless people doing something to help will bring us out of this somehow. Count on it.”