How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

For Savvy Donors Due Diligence Is a Duty

U.S. 1 Newspaper
By Michele Alperin

Nonprofit consultant Irwin Stoolmacher once wrote a column for the Trenton Times where he said that the rich had an obligation to pay for the poor; and in response he got a firestorm of letters calling him a socialist. In actuality it was his Jewish background speaking. “In Judaism it is an obligation,” he says. In the Jewish tradition, even the poorest Jews are expected to put something aside for those less fortunate; and medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides specified seven levels of charitable giving, the highest of which is helping others to become self-sufficient.

Whether giving is viewed as an obligation or simply as generosity, potential donors have to decide where their funds should go, given the thousands of nonprofits in need of support. This decision on where to give has to start with deeply held personal values. “It has got to fit your sense of what is important,” says Stoolmacher, who has been advising central New Jersey nonprofits on strategy and fundraising for many years through the Stoolmacher Consulting Group.

Last fall, when a controversy erupted over the decision by the United Way of Greater Mercer County to reduce funding to a consortium of eight area nonprofits, Stoolmacher had several reasons to weigh in with a letter in the December 12 issue of U.S. 1. His wife, Phyllis, is head of the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, one of the affected charities. And he is also former board president of the Princeton area United Way that was a predecessor to the current United Way Greater Mercer. And for the past 25 years Stoolmacher has been a consultant to central New Jersey charitable organizations, including the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, which was also involved in the United Way funding dispute.

Now with the pressure of year-end tax deadlines over, Stoolmacher answered some follow-up questions regarding how to evaluate charitable organizations and how to ensure that your hard earned money is well spent if you choose to donate it.

Although personal values vary widely, Stoolmacher says, they are the prism through which each individual interprets what societal needs are most important. What for some are obviously critical, others view as only secondary. People also vary on whether they want to support only local organizations. Some feel their donations will have greater societal impact through national advocacy groups. Regarding the arts, some people say, “In these times, I’m not going to give to the arts,” while others continue to support them through economically challenging periods because they believe that the arts are what make us people.

Once individuals and families have decided what causes are most important to them, they must choose from the panoply of nonprofit organizations those with missions that will best realize their vision of a just society and are worthy of their charitable dollars. “They have to see whether the mission or purpose corresponds and is compatible with their core set of values and where they want to invest their limited resources,” says Stoolmacher.

But this too is not clear-cut. Suppose, for example, that a person believes that the only appropriate way to respond to the unfortunate and homeless in our society is to make them self-sufficient. Then, asks Stoolmacher, what do you do with a place like the Rescue Mission of Trenton, which serves the most basic of basic needs — providing food, clothing, and shelter to homeless people? Does providing emergency shelter make people self-sufficient? No. If it is just a stopgap measure, is this bad or good? Or, perhaps it is a way station toward self-sufficiency?

In reality, many among the homeless may never get a job. “People who go to an emergency shelter have a long way to go. So you must make a decision about whether it is important to you,” says Stoolmacher. “I don’t believe that in America we should let people die in the streets; that’s my America.”

Having decided that an organization’s mission is appealing and matches a person’s values, potential donors must then examine the agency itself — whether it is run well, has good values generally, and is successfully fulfilling its mission.

A good place to start exploring criteria for choosing nonprofits for charitable donations, says Stoolmacher, is Charity Navigator (see sidebar, page 31), with a website that uses a complicated four-star system to rate nonprofits according to financial measures, accountability, and transparency — based on information the agencies supply on the IRS 990 form and on their organizational websites. Of course, he adds, donors must decide whether these criteria are important to them.

Although using Charity Navigator’s carefully figured numbers may sound simple, he says, these criteria are constructed from several components, each of which are subject to personal interpretation and may be estimated somewhat differently by the people who fill out the information on the IRS 990 form.

As an example of how Charity Navigator’s analyses are not foolproof, even though they are based on hard numbers, Stoolmacher turns to the category of fundraising expenses — how much the agency spends on fundraising as a proportion of total expenses. This number is used to indicate whether the nonprofit is on target or perhaps spending too much or too little on fundraising. “The problem is what you classify as fundraising expenses,” says Stoolmacher. Some count only the salaries of the fundraising staff and fees to fundraising consultants. Others may include mailings that share what the organization is doing, whereas comparable agencies may classify such mailings as public relations or marketing.

And even if we accept the 990 estimate of the percentage of expenses spent on fundraising, a question remains on how the “correct” percentage is determined. The ends of the spectrum may be clear — with telephone solicitations, we know that it is not good if 90 percent goes to the solicitor and only 10 percent to the agency — but where do you draw the line?

Stoolmacher concludes, “We all agree that one element in evaluating the success or failure of nonprofits is looking at performance-based measures, but even if on the face of it, it is so simple, they are very complicated, and it is difficult to realize what is being measured.”

In addition to the qualities measured by Charity Navigator, Stoolmacher notes a growing trend among nonprofits toward quantitatively fulfilling their missions. “This is becoming an important basis by which funding sources and donors are evaluating who they give to,” he says. “But just making it quantitative and not having the qualitative element would be doing a disservice — because the numbers can lie.”

For a long time the way we evaluated nonprofits, and for that matter government, was by what came through the system — throughput instead of output. But this has changed. “More and more funders are asking nonprofits to show that their programs are producing measurable change,” he says.

But Stoolmacher again cautions that quantitative data can be looked at in very different ways. For example, education or tutoring programs that previously measured their success by saying they had enrolled 150 students and provided 9,000 hours of tutoring services are now being asked something different: “So they went through x hours of tutoring — did the people get a better education as a result of the tutoring they got?”

And sometimes there are no obvious numerical data to measure success. Unless an organization whose mission is to bring its clients to self-sufficiency is specifically involved in job training, for example, what numbers can usefully show change? How does one measure whether basic education or personal finance training programs are successful in improving self-sufficiency?

Stoolmacher, who has expertise in developing performance-based criteria to evaluate programs and has even taught courses at Rutgers on this subject, says that the effort to quantify the qualitative may require a certain amount of reductionism. “In order to measure success in a quantitative way, you have to reduce something to a point at which you’re not really measuring the essence anymore,” he says. “If you have to justify a performance or arts program on the basis of data — to make it work, you may have to devise data that does not surely measure the essence of the program.”

Certainly it is possible to create a quality-of-life indicator, but will that really measure success? For example, to measure the effectiveness of an arts program, you might develop a questionnaire that enables you to create a scale for quality of life. Or, you might administer a test that measures self-confidence both before and after participation in a program to see whether self-confidence has gone up.

Another example of the difficulty inherent in determining the quality of life improvement is a daycare program. Would data on whether the children go on to high school or college measure an improvement in quality of life? What about the level of education that staff members have? Stoolmacher recalls a visit he made to an agency where he made his own judgments about potential changes in the children’s quality of life. “I went to a daycare center once and saw half of the words on the bulletin board misspelled,” he says.

In his work Stoolmacher has developed criteria for various agencies that they could use to measure program success. Each measure, he emphasizes, is specific to a particular program and takes time to develop and administer — resources an agency may not have. For a program that is working with young moms and trying to make them better mothers, he developed a series of criteria that answered some important questions: Did working with the moms improve the physical environment in which the children were brought up? Was there an improvement in the mom’s ability to provide sustenance to the child and to link the child to social and medical entities? Under each of these questions or categories he developed quantitative criteria.

As stand-ins for the category of improving the physical environment alone, he looked at: Was there a reduction of household hazards, like knives or electric cords lying around? Did sanitation improve (for example, if the kids fell and scraped themselves, did the mom wash off the wound)? Was the house a mess?

Moving to whether the mom was able to provide sustenance, he examined: Was the child clean? Was the child dressed when the mentor came in? Was the child fed regularly? How much interaction existed between the adult and child (at the beginning of the mentoring relationship, for example, the mother might have been watching television while the child played elsewhere)?

Finally, as to whether the mom connected the child to necessary parts of the social, medical, and educational infrastructure, he asked: Did the child get up in the morning and attend school regularly? Did the mom get the child to medical appointments on time? Was the child getting immunizations as necessary? Did the child and parents participate in social events?

As an example of how complicated it is to actually decide on a particular charity and evaluate how successful it is in achieving its mission, Stoolmacher raises the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) from his own work as a nonprofit consultant to the soup kitchen.

TASK has a three-pronged mission: it feeds those who are hungry in the Trenton area and offers programs to encourage self-sufficiency and to improve the quality of life of its patrons.

Regarding TASK, the first question a donor might ask is straightforward: “Do I think feeding hungry people is something I want to invest in?” To some, it seems like “yes” would be the obvious answer, but others might argue differently — if you feed them today and don’t give them a fishing rod, they will not be able to feed themselves tomorrow.

Whereas it is probably fairly easy to measure the degree to which TASK alleviates hunger on a day-to-day basis — it serves about 195,000 meals a year and in the last two years has added kitchens in Princeton and Hightstown — it is harder to determine whether its programs improve self-sufficiency and quality of life.

To enable people to support themselves, TASK offers a GED program through which attendees can earn a high school diploma. The program has a full-time director and tutors who are all volunteers. Participants are under no obligation to participate, but come voluntarily whenever they feel like it or have time, and they get something to eat while being tutored.

Traditionally success in such a program might have been measured by the number of hours of tutoring or perhaps by how many people got a GED. But, says Stoolmacher, “in a good year maybe a dozen get a GED, and we have 100 to 200 people being tutored.”

Yet TASK has found that tutoring may improve a person’s self-sufficiency even if that person does not get a GED. Many people who start the program reading at a first- or second-grade level may never get a GED, but they may learn enough on the way to change their lives. “If they can take somebody and bring them to the seventh grade, and they can now read a book to their child,” says Stoolmacher. “For me, that is transformational.” Others, however, may not be as impressed.

TASK has also seen people who came in at a second or third-grade reading level and were not able to complete a job application, who moved up four or five grades and then were able to pass a test to become truck drivers and support themselves.

But if the numbers say that only 13 people got their GED and 8 others got jobs, is that sufficient to qualify as success for TASK’s tutoring program? That is a determination that individuals have to make for themselves, based on their values.

What it means to improve quality of life is equally hard to determine. In its effort to promote self-esteem and quality of life, TASK hosts two art programs. The first is an artists’ cooperative, the A_Team Artists of Trenton, which produces artwork that it sells in galleries. “They make some money, and their self-esteem goes way up,” says Stoolmacher.

The second program, the Share Project, is in the performing arts, and participants write poems, songs, short stories, and plays and share them with each other. When the members of Share perform, potential donors must evaluate the effect on their sense of self, but how does one do this quantitatively? Asks Stoolmacher: “Does it improve their quality of life? Do they feel better about themselves? And is that important?”

Of course there is no test for whether these experiences raise self-esteem and quality of life, but for Stoolmacher the visual evidence is sufficient. “If you see the faces of those people when they are performing and people are clapping and they are smiling — that improves people’s sense of self,” he says.

In an announcement made just last week, TASK itself was smiling, thanks to the successful completion of a $2 million endowment campaign. Might this news make some donors decide it is doing so well financially that it does not need their donations? Stoolmacher says that the discerning donor will think instead, “These are smart people; they are putting a little away for a rainy day.”

In his opinion, the endowment fund is an indication that TASK is being a prudent steward of its resources. “When interest rates get better, it will generate a little money each year, so TASK doesn’t have to raise all its money (except for a little government money) from ground zero each year,” he says. “Put in non-risky investments, it cushions you against a big shortfall and creates a little more financial stability for the soup kitchen in years to come.”

Good news like an endowment campaign and other quantitative measurements attest to an agency’s success. But, says Stoolmacher, a lot of effort is required to share these in a meaningful way with the larger public, for example, by comparing them to earlier data. And even if the data has been gathered and compared, and even reported to foundations as a quid pro quo for receiving grants, potential donors may not see this information. “They don’t have the mechanisms in place to publicize the data,” says Stoolmacher. “These agencies struggle to do their mission; some of the best agencies are those that spend the least on PR and marketing because they want to put all their money into services. So you’re caught; on the one hand, you’ve got good data, but how much time do you have to put it out?”

Stoolmacher notes a few other areas where potential donors can look as they try to decide whether they want to donate to a particular agency. One is what agencies are paying in salary to their executive director, since some far exceed others. He says, “If you go to the 990, you can find out what the executive director makes; but it comes back to the core values question: how much do you think somebody should earn?” In the case of nonprofits, he states his own opinion succinctly: “I think this sector is underpaid.”

Another possibility is to go visit the agency, ask about particular programs they are interested in, and talk to the volunteers. “If you don’t have that much money, but want to give to the right one, invest some time; go down and take a look and ask some hard questions,” he says. Stoolmacher suggests asking volunteers: Why do you do this? What do you know about this agency? What’s good and bad about this place?

A potential donor should also look at who else is funding the agency and whether they are reputable. Princeton Area Community Foundation, for example, does a very thorough job of vetting nonprofits before giving them money. Also, foundations like Robert Wood Johnson have stringent reporting requirements and require careful performance-based measurement before they provide funding. If foundations like these support the agency in question, donors can feel comfortable with it.

Donors should also make sure that an agency has actually filed a 990 report with the IRS.

Stoolmacher was raised in public housing in the Bronx until his family moved to Long Island in third grade. His father had a small power-tool repair business.

Although Stoolmacher is unable to trace what exactly motivated his passion for politics, public affairs, and government, he knows it was there from an early age. Noting that he was a “terrible student” before college, he says that nonetheless he always had a strong interest in current events.

He got into Suffolk County Community College with the help of his baseball coach, who also worked at the college, and a friend who tutored him all summer to get him through a required math course. At the college “something clicked,” he says, and he remembers telling himself, “You can do this.” He ended up graduating third in his class and decided to go to the State University of New York at Binghamton. His reasoning? That’s where the valedictorian of his high school had gone. And Stoolmacher managed to do him one better, graduating magna cum laude.

He then got a fellowship to Rutgers’s Eagleton Institute, which offered a degree in what Stoolmacher calls “practical politics.” That’s where he met his wife, Phyllis, also a fellow, who for 25 years has been at Mercer Street Friends as director of the food bank.

Stoolmacher describes his first job as an aide and “coffee lugger” to Richard Hughes, governor of New Jersey. He then moved to St. Peter’s College, where he served as director of urban programs. When the president of the college became president of the Jersey City Board of Education, Stoolmacher became his chief business official.

Having worked in government, Stoolmacher wanted to see what the private sector was like. He had met J. Robert Hillier, who was doing a project at the board of education, and Hillier mentioned that his next-door neighbor was looking for someone to head his company, Personality Dynamics, which is now Caliper. Stoolmacher was hired and spent 11 years, first as administrative vice president then as president of one of the company’s divisions. While at Caliper, he was president of the board of the Princeton Area United Way, which in 1994 merged with the Delaware Valley United Way to become the United Way of Greater Mercer County.

In 1986 Stoolmacher decided to run for freeholder in Mercer. “Fortunately I lost,” he says, noting that at the time he was devastated and wondered what he wanted to do next. A friend of his was on the board of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, which was looking to hire someone to raise money. Stoolmacher made a presentation to the board, was hired, and managed to raise $600,000. He loved it.

Then at age 46, he had a heart attack. “I thought about what I had done, and the thing I liked best by far was being in the nonprofit sector,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years and I love it.”

In 1987 he started a strategic planning and fundraising consulting firm. In his firm he has worked with more than 100 nonprofits, helping them do public relations, marketing, and fundraising. Sometimes he does a specific assignment like doing a new donor acquisition direct mail project, helping an agency develop a strategic plan, evaluating fundraising efforts, and creating a fundraising plan for them. Most of his work involves either direct intervention fundraising or strategic planning; he does some grant writing; and he implements individual giving programs, corporate fundraising, and foundation programs.

The reasons for his affection for this sector are several. Mostly it is the people. “They don’t generally have the kind of resources that the private sector has — and even government — and they try to jimmy-rig things more and are entrepreneurial,” he says. He also finds them extremely caring and intelligent. “The people I’ve seen who are good at what they do in the nonprofit sector could do what they do in the private sector very well and very successfully,” he says.

“If I wasn’t doing it as a professional and getting well paid to do it, I would probably be doing it as a volunteer,” he says. “I really believe we have to reduce the gap between the haves and have nots in this country; if we continue in this way, we are in horrible shape.”

Stoolmacher has taught seminars on fundraising and strategic planning for the Volunteer Management Certificate Program at the Rutgers School of Social Work and courses on fundraising and proposal writing at Princeton University to students who participate in the Student Volunteer Council. He also has taught fundraising at the Nonprofit Management Development Program at the College of New Jersey.

He and Phyllis live in West Windsor, and his daughter, Ellen, resides in Massachusetts, where she has followed in the family tradition, working until recently as director of member services for council people and personnel directors for the Massachusetts Association of Municipalities.

Stoolmacher has high esteem for the people served by the agencies he has worked with. “I see the people, and they are not the evil people that folks think they are; they are not lazy,” he says. “They have conditions, maladies, and problems that are difficult.”

But despite their challenges, many of the people at the agencies he visits are exemplary human beings. “They are not replete with lazy, good-for-nothing people; there are bad poor people as there are bad rich people. I have met so many wonderful people at these places; I wish I were as good as them.”