This chapter will address the subject of the management of paid staff although many of the issues herein also apply to an all-volunteer staff or a mix of paid and volunteer staff. Indeed, most soup kitchens start out with an all-volunteer staff. Specific practices and procedures for working with volunteers are covered in more detail in Chapter 11 – Recruiting and Managing Volunteers.
The Soup Kitchen Team
Soup kitchens tend to have a small staff that is required to perform as a team. As such, it is important for all employees to be team players and to realize that every person on the team is important and essential to the operation.
In all cases soup kitchen staff should be empathetic toward patrons and sensitive to the circumstances of the needy. Staff should be flexible and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It is also very important that staff be able to work well with volunteers.
If you are able, it is best to have at least one strong second-in-command staff person as back-up for the executive director. It goes a long way to reducing director burn-out. One way to address the dangers of staff burn-out is to enlist the aid of an external employee assistance program. EAPs offer a wide range of supportive services and counseling to help staff with the many challenges they may face at the soup kitchen. These services can also be useful in employee performance improvement programs.
Specific Staff Positions
There are specific staff positions that are core to the working of a soup kitchen. The staffing model for most mature soup kitchens would generally include the following key positions: director, floor manager, volunteer coordinator, receptionist, head cook or chef, book-keeper, custodian, and van driver.
In reality, one or two of the founders of a start-up soup kitchen may wear multiple hats in performing the above roles. However, as the soup kitchen grows, these positions will require the dedicated time of one individual.
Key attributes for each of these positions are discussed below:
The director is the team leader, the ultimate authority, and the one at whose desk the buck stops. Sometimes the directorship can be shared between two people, particularly in a start-up operation. A soup kitchen director is a very hands-on position requiring budgetary, purchasing and management skills. It is also important for the director to have good verbal and written communication skills.
The director should be the public face of the organization. It is very helpful for the director to have had previous business experience. Running a nonprofit is, in many ways, akin to operating a small business – business acumen is needed. The director of a soup kitchen, or any other agency for that matter, should be a good listener and should solicit staff input on soup kitchen operations.
The floor manager greets soup kitchen patrons as they enter. This is a central role that sets the tone for the dining room. The floor manager ensures that meals are served efficiently and courteously. It is critical that the floor manager possess good people skills with a mix of empathy and savvy.
The volunteer coordinator may initially be a volunteer, but as the soup kitchen matures this can easily become a full-time job. This person is responsible for ensuring the optimum number of volunteers to serve the meal. Too many as well as too few volunteers can become an operational burden. This position requires someone who is detail oriented and has good administrative skills.
The chef/kitchen supervisor/head cook is a critical staff position. While culinary skills are important, people skills are just as important.
The receptionist is the initial contact and therefore can be the face of the soup kitchen for those who call or visit. The receptionist should have a pleasant phone manner and be able to answer basic questions about the soup kitchen, while referring more detailed questions to other staff.
The bookkeeper is responsible for accounts payable (expenses), accounts receivable (income), maintaining the general ledger as well as the payroll function.
The custodian is responsible for cleanliness of the dining room, the rest rooms and trash disposal. The custodian shares responsibility for kitchen cleanliness with the cooking staff.
The van driver is a position that a start-up soup kitchen may not be able to initially fill, but as the soup kitchen grows a dedicated driver will become necessary to pick up food and other donations. In hiring such an individual, it is important to determine that the applicant has a clean driving record. Other requirements are that the person be reliable and have good people skills.
Compensation and Hiring
As your soup kitchen becomes more financially able, you should try hard to provide a competitive living wage to all employees as well as a decent benefits package (vacation, sick leave, holidays, health insurance, etc.). The work being done at a soup kitchen is very important work. It should be done well and be compensated accordingly. It makes no sense to advocate for social and human services for those in need and not be a good employer.
Hiring of employees should be done on a probationary basis, since some potential problems are not evident early on. A three to six month probationary period is good management practice. You should do general background checks (and where appropriate, criminal background checks) for all new prospective employees. You should also obviously check on the driving records for potential van drivers. It is desirable to try to fill some of your lower level positions with former patrons. If you do so, you should recognize that the criminal background check may uncover activities that you may want to individually evaluate.
If they are available, you should strongly consider bringing on so-called hybrid employees such as student interns, work-study students, welfare-to-work participants, and AmeriCorps and VISTA members (some of whom receive scholarships to work at a nonprofit). All these “employees” can perform important work that helps to supplement the efforts of regular staff.
Training and Supervision
Employee training is an important part of running a soup kitchen. It not only increases the skill level of your staff, but is also a morale boost for employees. Since most soup kitchens are small, sending an individual employee to a class or seminar requires planning to back-fill their duties. Retreats can also be used for staff training and team building.
Obvious kinds of training for soup kitchen personnel include in-service food safety and sanitation training as well as self-care training for staff working directly with those living in poverty. Staff burn-out is a very real danger when operating a soup kitchen. Staff members need to be resilient. Working closely with people living in poverty can sometimes be distressing. Employees of a soup kitchen need to practice self-care so that they do not become overwhelmed with the circumstances of the individuals they are serving. Staff members also need the ego strength to be able to say no to some patron requests such as for money or rides.
The pace of a soup kitchen can be very hectic. Despite this, it is important for the director to conduct frequent staff meetings. You should give people the big picture, tell them of all the good things that are happening and the challenges that the organization as a whole must address.
As the soup kitchen grows, you should formalize some of your personnel practices, such as creating an employee manual with job descriptions, performance appraisals, performance improvement programs, and grievance and termination procedures. All these processes should be done in a businesslike manner.
Staff Management Tips
TIP #1 – At times you should consider hiring per diem staff. This can be a more economical approach than hiring part-time staff to perform occasional duties such as quickly sending out thank-you notes in response to year-end donations.
TIP #2 – Utilizing contract employees or short-term consultants can also reduce fringe benefit costs. Such positions can be useful for construction projects and renovations or special fundraising initiatives such as capital or endowment campaigns.
TIP #3 – In addition to the duties stated above, the director should be available for occasional weekend and evening speaking engagements. Encourage board members, other star and volunteers to share these assignments.
TIP #4 – Succession planning is necessary to accommodate retirements or departures for all critical staff positions particularly as your staff ages.