Chapter Five: Marketing and Public Relations

When one thinks of starting a soup kitchen, one automatically thinks of food. However, strange as it may sound, another aspect that should be uppermost in your early considerations is that of marketing and public relations, both of which are key to volunteer recruitment and fundraising.

Given the sometimes hectic pace of daily operations at a soup kitchen, it is common to feel that there is just not enough time to do everything that needs to be done. But you should be careful in how you respond to this phenomenon because it can lead to a penny wise/ pound foolish approach in the long run. Under such circumstances, it may be easy to dismiss marketing and public relations as needless tooting of one’s own horn, but that would be a profound mistake. Failing to do a good job in these areas will negatively impact the effectiveness and long-term viability of your project. What follows are some practical suggestions for implementing a robust marketing and public relations program.

Start-Up Public Relations

To the extent possible, your soup kitchen launch strategy should take advantage of a wide spectrum of communications resources. For example, a website should be established as early as possible. T.V. and radio need to be brought into the picture in addition to a press release and news conference kick-off event to solicit funding and volunteers. You should invite media, local leaders in government and the faith-based community, and the non-profit sector. You should consider using blogs, Twitter and Facebook. In this day and age, if you’re genuinely serious about getting your message out, these tools should be utilized right out of the gate.

In terms of publicity for soup kitchen patrons, the underground network or grapevine is very effective, but it is advisable to display large weather-resistant banner type signage providing the days and hours of the soup kitchen. This should be done weeks prior to the opening of the soup kitchen and should include a removable strip that provides the date of start of operations. Depending on the patron population, these signs should be in English and Spanish. The message should indicate that all are welcome to come in and enjoy a meal.

Another early task is to create a one-page flyer and/or basic brochure and distribute it widely to the community (other nonprofits, food pantries, shelters, welfare and unemployment offices, houses of worship, etc.) via mailing and e-mailing. Try to have a photo on the brochure cover that tugs at the heart. Local libraries often allow nonprofits to display brochures in the lobby or the main reading room. Assign volunteers to ensure the supply of brochures is constantly refilled.

Ongoing Marketing and Public Relations

As soon as possible, once your soup kitchen is up and running, start building your mailing list and send out a newsletter. The newsletter is the prime vehicle for promoting the soup kitchen. Your newsletter should not be overly slick. You should strive to have a mix of human interest stories and thoughtful columns on the reality of poverty in your region. You should certainly describe and promote your good work. Focus on people. Include profiles of board members, volunteers and staff. Whenever possible, put a face on your work by doing patron interviews (you may need to change patron names to provide anonymity). As the project matures, publish the newsletter on a quarterly basis and mail it to all donors, volunteers and local leaders in the government and nonprofit sector. You should also make a real effort to broadcast your newsletter in electronic format and utilize e-blasts for quick news updates.

Become a media hound. Develop excellent relationships with newspaper editors, reporters, photographers, TV reporters, and radio hosts. Make a special effort to promptly return all phone or e-mail messages from the media as they are often on deadline.

As the soup kitchen project matures, you should be on constant look-out for events that are opportunities for press coverage. You need to make it a priority to have an on-going presence in local media. Typical examples of noteworthy events to publicize would be new programs, new board members, facility expansion, etc. The goal is to keep your project in the minds of the public at large.

You will want to develop good relations with local elected officials and key government personnel such as the city business administrator or township manager and heads of departments that deal with social service programs. Other entities with which you should develop relations are your local schools and religious organizations.

In addition to talking about your meal service, the director should be an advocate in the community for soup kitchen programs that promote patron self-sufficiency and quality of life. The director should be very visible and be seen as a credible spokesperson in the region. The director is the face of the organization, not the board president or the director of development. The organization needs one voice on a day-to-day basis and particularly should a crisis arise. A consistent spokesperson helps to instill your message with the public.

Specific ways to accomplish public advocacy include writing op-ed pieces or letters to the editor for the local newspapers and readily accepting all TV and radio public service program interview invitations.

Related to the above, it is important to use multiple media to generate visibility and to reinforce your main message. In addition to promoting specific programs and events, you should generate background noise or “buzz” on the soup kitchen project. Strategies to accomplish this include, but are not limited to the following: billboard messages, 8 x 11-inch posters on store windows and library bulletin boards, appearances on local cable TV public affairs interview programs, public service announcements (PSA’s) in local newspapers, point-of-purchase countertop display boards.

An important part of your message should be that your organization is frugal and prudent in all of its operations. Stress that you are prudent stewards of all donations to the soup kitchen. This message and philosophy should be emphasized in all promotional material and through word and action.

If possible, create a soup kitchen website. Keep it lively and current. Use it to begin capturing volunteer and donor e-mail addresses. You can offer the newsletter via postal or e-mail depending on the recipient’s preference. As news events occur, consider communicating via e-mail blasts.

As the project matures, it will become important to develop more advanced marketing strategies utilizing the power of the Internet. Social media is everywhere. It encompasses blogs, social networks (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Friendster and MySpace), professional networking portals such as LinkedIn, creative sites like Flickr, a photography-sharing website, and sites offering online news such as These websites are particularly popular among the 18-to 30-year-old set, but among others as well. Increasingly, the electronic venue will become the medium of choice for telling the community why your soup kitchen exists and how people can join in its noble work.

Marketing and Public Relations Tips

TIP #1 – A bar chart or line graph that shows the numbers of meals you are serving over time is an excellent tool to keep the public aware of your project.

TIP #2 – Consistency of message in all your promotional material is important. In general, you need between six to sixteen exposures to make an impression in the mind of the average person.

TIP #3 – If a local newspaper does a favorable story on your soup kitchen, reprint it in your newsletter and post it on your website. Not only does this save you writing and editing work, but stories that appear elsewhere lend credibility to your organization.

TIP #4 – To maximize soup kitchen exposure, consider using social networking sites that are aimed at special racial or ethnic groups. Some examples are the following: Black Planet, MiGente, MyBatanga and AsianAve, as well as religious audiences such as FaithBase and MuslimSocial.

TIP #5 – As mentioned above, Twitter can be an effective online marketing tool. It is freely available and is sometimes called “micro blogging.” You have 140 characters to get your message across. Twitter can help get your message out, but equally important, it allows instant feedback by facilitating two-way conversations.

TIP #6 – If a crisis should occur (food-borne illness, funding cuts, damage to the facility, etc.) it is important that one person be authorized to speak on behalf of the organization to the press and that that person be forthcoming and truthful. The person should demonstrate the organization’s concern and determination to resolve the crisis. Every effort should be made to protect the privacy of the soup kitchen patrons.

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