Salvation Army kettle makes way for online giving

As donations decline, charity tries new appeals

Salvation Army might shift efforts to computer

December 11, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Threatened by competition, bad weather and thieves, the Salvation Army's red kettle - long a symbol of holiday alms for the poor - might be on its way out of the cold and into a computer.

One of the nation's most successful fund-raisers for human services, the Salvation Army has relied for more than a century on bell-ringing workers who stand outside stores collecting change to help the needy eat, buy toys and pay electric bills during the winter.

But restrictions from some retailers and a tough economy are leading the organization to expect a lean year and to try fund-raising techniques unheard-of when the first kettle was hung in 1891.

At the organization's Baltimore Area Command, which covers Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties, kettle campaign collections are more than a third below the total at this time last year. The local campaign raised $274,372 in 2002, a sum that has stayed basically level for the past few years.

Nationally, kettles raised $89.7 million in 2002 - about $1 million less than the year before.

"We've predicted we're going to see a slow demise of the kettle," said Lafeea Watson, spokeswoman for the local Army command. "In 10 years, I would question whether this program is going to be even close to what it is today."

The Army hopes that more high-tech fund raising will pick up the slack. Donors can now plunk money into a "virtual kettle" online (at www.salvation armyusa.org), while volunteers can sign up as "virtual bell-ringers" who solicit friends and neighbors from the warm environs of their computers.

Other charities are also taking street-corner fund-raising online. Volunteers of America, a similar human-services organization, started a "Sidewalk Santa" bell-ringing campaign in Los Angeles in 1900 with street-corner Santas who asked for change in their "chimneys." Now Sidewalk Santas are seen only in New York City, but Web surfers elsewhere still can give them change by clicking on a picture of a chimney (www.sidewalk santa.org).

The Salvation Army is taking its campaign indoors in other ways. In Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, for example, the SuperFresh grocery chain has started an "angel" program inside stores that allows shoppers to buy gifts or donate money at the checkout for needy children through the Salvation Army. The Army no longer has bell ringers at those stores.

"This has been the promotion that we have found to be the most successful," said Mark Hamilton, vice president of marketing for SuperFresh. "It is a pleasant way that we can continue to support the Salvation Army."

Over the past few years, bell ringers have faced increasing restrictions from retailers. Wal-Mart won't allow any charity to raise money outside its doors for more than 14 days a year. Solicitors must stand at least 15 feet from the entrance and can't be at the same Wal-Mart for more than three days in a row.

Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman said the 1999 policy was adopted because a growing number of charities wanted to raise money outside stores. "This allows lots of groups to have the same kinds of access," he said.

The kettle campaign has faced other challenges. In California, donations are down because a strike by supermarket workers has kept shoppers away from the stores.

A man made off with a kettle outside a Kmart last weekend in Fredericksburg, Va. In Racine, Wis., two teen-agers were charged this month with beating a 14-year-old bell ringer and stealing his kettle outside a Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

The Salvation Army of the Greater Baltimore Area has had a hard time attracting volunteers to ring its bells, and now it pays most of its 45 kettle solicitors. Even so, many drop out of the program as the holidays approach, leaving some locations unstaffed, Watson said.

Raymond Richards, 29, makes $7.25 an hour manning the kettle outside the Target Store on Putty Hill Avenue in Towson. On a good day this year, he said, he will take in $400 - but his bosses have told him the same spot often yielded $1,000 in a day last year.

"I've heard a lot of people complaining about being out of work," said Richards, who is unemployed, aside from the seasonal job.

Though he attracted a few donors on a recent morning, most shoppers sped by Richards on their way to the parking lot. Still, he kept his bell ringing constantly to attract attention, and tried to make eye contact and say, "Good morning," to everyone who passed.

"You have to be extra nice to everybody because it might change their mind," he said.

Demand for services the kettles pay for has risen, Salvation Army officials say - more than 10 percent nationally from 2001 to 2002 alone.

"These are people who normally give to the Army, and some of them may now be coming to us for services," said Theresa Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the organization.

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