Volunteers are the life blood of a soup kitchen. Most soup kitchens would not be able to survive if they had to pay for all the work that volunteers perform. Volunteers know the agency, are committed to it, and are your best potential donors.
Just as in fundraising, the first rule of recruiting volunteers is to ask. You should cast a broad net when seeking volunteers – seek all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions and generations.
Sources of volunteers include religious groups, area businesses, civic and service organizations, business and professional groups, retirement communities, unions, families and friends, public and private high schools, and college students. When recruiting volunteers you may find some who are reluctant to drive to an unfamiliar part of town. One way to deal with that concern is to suggest that groups come in their own van. You should also try to get volunteer groups to commit to a regular, repeating schedule (e.g., the first Wednesday of every month).
Corporations look for projects that will engage large employee groups at one time, e.g., serving the meal, restocking the pantry, or doing a painting project. Utilizing corporate volunteers can often lead to corporate donations and also financial support from the individuals who volunteer.
Occasionally you may have an outside group volunteer to adopt the soup kitchen for the day. Typical group activities would be to decorate the dining room and provide food, bag lunches, and hygiene articles. Staff should provide guidance to these groups as to how best distribute the donations in a way that ensures control and does not disturb meal service.
Try not to overbook volunteers – you don’t want them standing around with nothing to do. If, on a given day, you find you have too many volunteers, consider providing a sit-down meal where the volunteers act as waiters and waitresses.
When planning a volunteer visit, remember that all volunteers are entitled to clear expectations, good working conditions, and appropriate supervision. You should tell them what specific tasks they will be performing, what time you expect them to arrive and what time they will be finished. Make sure to remind volunteers to eat before coming to the soup kitchen – you don’t want anyone fainting due to low blood sugar. Additional information to provide is what to wear and what not to wear – examples of the latter are open-toed shoes or flip-flops and halter tops. You should also have a minimum age policy such as no children younger than 13 – you are not running a childcare service.
You should instruct volunteers that upon arrival at the soup kitchen, they should ensure their cars are empty and locked. They should not be seen stowing valuables in the trunk of their vehicles. If you are serving an evening meal, it is important to have a well lit parking lot.
When volunteers enter the building, they should be greeted and asked to sign-in. A nice touch is to provide self-adhesive name tags – first names are best. Volunteer valuables such as cell phones, pocketbooks, and outer garments should be stored in a secure place.
Before volunteers begin their duties, they should receive a thorough orientation including the following:
- Thanks for coming
- Short history of the soup kitchen
- Brief discussion of poverty
- How many they will be serving; specific duties
- Service with a smile; people respond in kind
- Inappropriate behavior (by anyone) is not tolerated and should be immediately reported to staff management
- Proper boundaries; no money, no gifts, no rides
- Questions and answers
- Pass around sign-up sheet – names, addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers to be entered into data base for newsletters, etc.
Based on the specific needs of the day and a quick assessment of the volunteer group, you will now make assignments for the meal. Try to match volunteers to tasks that are appropriate to their skills and capabilities. Volunteers are precious resources but need to be managed in order for them to be most effective. Some volunteers do not possess the required flexibility and people skills to work in a soup kitchen environment. If volunteers behave in an incorrect or inappropriate manner, it should be brought to their attention. Although hopefully rare, every once in a while a volunteer may have to be asked to leave.
Be flexible and open minded in using volunteers; however, remember that volunteers are there to serve your organization, not the other way around.
Volunteer Recognition and Feedback
Before you start meal service, the floor manager or director should greet the patrons and make announcements which should include saying where the volunteers are from (be it a school, business, church, etc.), and thanking them for coming.
At the end of the meal ask your volunteers how it went, were there any surprises or anything different from what they expected. Ask for suggestions or improvements. When the volunteers are ready to leave, see them to the door while thanking them for their help. Hand out your brochures as they leave.
Volunteers need to be recognized for their contributions to the organization. A well-planned annual volunteer recognition event is a must. Try to secure a prominent guest speaker, such as the mayor of your town or another well-known person.
TIP #1 – A good way to recruit and nurture volunteers is to feature volunteer profiles in your newsletter. This will highlight the important role they play in your organization.
TIP #2 – As the soup kitchen and the number of volunteers grow, you should consider moving from an unpaid to a paid volunteer coordinator to properly recruit, oversee, evaluate and recognize your volunteers.
TIP #3 – As the meal gets underway, monitor your volunteers to make sure they are comfortable in their assigned duties. For elderly volunteers, plan sit-down assignments such as wrapping plastic ware in paper napkins. Make sure no one is getting overly tired or overwhelmed. Provide rest periods for specific volunteers as required.
TIP #4 – Volunteers should be considered as potential appointees to your Board of Trustees or as non-board members of committees such as fundraising, finance, etc.
TIP #5 – The soup kitchen director should invite VIP volunteers into his/her office for a private briefing.
TIP #6 – As stated in the previous chapter describing the attributes of the Volunteer Coordinator, it is important to schedule the required number of volunteers to serve the meal. Having too many volunteers can be as much of a problem as having too few.
Tales of TASK – The Picture Lady
TASK would not be the special place that it is without some very special volunteers. The driving force behind TASK’s highly successful A-Team Artists of Trenton is “The Picture Lady”. Many years ago she began taking photos of patrons with an old point-and-shoot camera. She would develop the photos and give them to the subject. Many of these patrons had never had photos taken of them and were thrilled to now possess something which many of us take for granted. Word quickly spread that there is a lady at TASK who would snap a photo of you for free, no questions asked. Soon the number of patrons seeking photos to keep or send to family members became quite large. This original project has grown immensely and now includes many patron artists dealing in watercolor, acrylic and folk art. The A-Team Artist Cooperative has grown to over 30 artists who exhibit their work at many shows each year.