It goes without saying that leadership is crucial to every business endeavor and project, whether nonprofit or for profit. Leadership is particularly important to a prospective soup kitchen project that invariably will be faced with a variety of external challenges and opinions on how to proceed.
One way to minimize difficulties at project inception is to create a clear and concise statement of your mission or purpose. This statement defines the reason you exist to all your constituents – board, staff, donors, volunteers and the community-at-large. Your mission statement is what distinguishes your nonprofit in the mind of the general public from other social service nonprofits.
It is also true that a clear mission statement can help you to avoid mission-drift, which can divert you from achieving your fundamental goals.
In most cases the crucial role of ensuring a soup kitchen project adheres to its mission statement is that of a Board of Trustees or Board of Directors. In other cases, this role could be played by the organization founders or a core committee of dedicated volunteers.
Change as You Grow
As the project matures, it may become desirable to expand the core group, be it a committee or a formal board. The expansion process should be done in a strategic manner. You might consider utilizing a two-part job-matching approach to recruiting board members. Begin by defining the specific needs the organization has and then attempt to find individuals who possess the skills to fulfill those needs. Many boards have too many lawyers and bankers. You should cast a wide recruitment net to ensure diversity of talent and ethnicity. Helpful skills for prospective board members include fundraising ability, public relations and marketing, communications and media experience, logistics, food transportation and facilities management expertise.
It is inevitable that the role of your board will change over time as your organization grows from being largely volunteer-based to having both paid and volunteer staff. During the early years of a soup kitchen a board often will, of necessity, assume certain hands-on duties that later become staff responsibilities as you grow. As the project grows, the lines of responsibility between staff and board need to be made very clear. The board determines the organization’s mission and purpose, monitors programs, develops policy and has ultimate fiduciary responsibility. They should not become involved in day-to-day operations or personnel matters.
Further, as your soup kitchen grows over time, different board talents and expertise will be needed. You should also be cautious with regard to expanding a board too rapidly. Err on the side of incrementalism so as to not disrupt the existing board dynamic.
Attributes of Effective Board Leadership
A strong, dedicated board chair is absolutely crucial to an organization’s success. The board chair needs to possess the assertiveness to lead (not necessarily aggressiveness) as well as the empathy necessary to promote the dialogue needed to forge consensus.
It is also very important that the person selected as board chair has a flexible schedule to enable him/her to respond to soup kitchen emergencies as they arise.
Every board chair should have a reliable number two or vice chair. The vice chair should be brought into every important matter and should be someone who is capable and comfortable to, at any time, step up in the chair’s absence. The vice-chair is the person being groomed to become the next board chair.
Another important element of an effective board is to have an active, functioning committee structure with committee chairs who have appropriate expertise in the given area, if at all possible. Each board member should serve on at least one committee and the committees should meet regularly. It is the role of committees to review matters within their purview and to make recommendations to the full board for policy determinations. A listing of typical soup kitchen committees is given in Appendix B.
Another crucial goal for a board chair is to establish a collegial working partnership with the executive director. They need to develop a shared vision of the future they are seeking to create for the organization. The board chair and the executive director should meet faithfully at least once per month, just the two of them. In this meeting, the board chair should ensure that there is a good two-way dialogue.
Attributes of Effective Management Leadership
It is highly desirable that the director have managerial and administrative experience, preferably, but not necessarily, in a social service setting. Running a soup kitchen is running a business. It may be a nonprofit business, but it is a business.
It is also very important that the director have excellent verbal and written communication skills. The director should be the public face of the organization.
A reality of soup kitchen work is that key staff will be surrounded by trauma and sadness as they interact with the patron population. While it is necessary to have empathy and compassion for soup kitchen patrons, it is also important that staff practice self-care. One cannot take care of anyone else unless one takes care of one’s self first – remember the airplane emergency video (put on your oxygen mask before putting on your child’s mask).
Simply stated, it is important for staff to possess a combination of empathy and savvy – being good hearted but not naïve.
As the soup kitchen project matures, there will be a need to develop a strategic plan – a shared vision for the future. The strategic plan should be consistent with the agency’s mission. It should set forth what you would like to accomplish in the future (goals and objectives) and how you intend to get there (strategies and implementation steps). The strategic plan becomes a blueprint that outlines the best way to accomplish your shared vision.
Offsite, weekend one day or half-day retreats can be useful for targeted tasks such as developing a strategic plan and monitoring annual progress in meeting goals and objectives. Once created, the strategic plan should be updated every three to five years.
Board and Management Leadership Tips
TIP #1 – Leaders of the soup kitchen must be above the fray and never become entangled with political campaigns or candidates running for public office. It is imperative to maintain nonpartisanship and be able to call on members of all political parties for help and support.
TIP #2 – It is important to provide strong support staff to avoid overloading the executive director. One way to accomplish this is to realize that management cannot have expertise in every area and that, from time to time, there may be a need to bring in outside experts or consultants. This allows key staff to concentrate on the ongoing operation and management of the organization. Areas where outside consultants can provide key support include software design, fundraising, kitchen design, and supervision of building construction.
TIP #3 – Do not seek funds for programs or new initiatives that are not consistent with your organization’s core mission. Such activity will dilute your focus. Don’t seek funding just because it is available.
TIP #4 – It is never too early to think about developing a succession plan for any organization. It is important to think in terms of who will succeed all key members of a soup kitchen project, for example the director, the board chair, and head cook.