For more than two decades, bell-ringing Salvation Army volunteers collected donations outside Giant Food stores, a holiday season ritual that gave shoppers a convenient way to help the less fortunate.
Last fall, Giant enforced a sharp reduction in the number of hours that charitable groups could operate in front of its stores. Now, the Salvation Army says the policy change helped cause a steep drop in its end-of-year fundraising drive across the Washington region.
Overall, the organization raised $1.1 million, or 25 percent less than its goal, the Salvation Army announced this week. In front of Giant stores, Salvation Army volunteers raised $270,000 — 60 percent less than what it collected outside the chain's supermarkets last year.
"We believe the economy played a role and we believe our lowered visibility across the community played somewhat of a role," said Ken Forsythe, a Salvation Army spokesman.
In past years, he said, volunteers could set up red kettle collection bowls for up to eight hours a day, Monday through Saturday, from Nov. 12 until Christmas Eve. The Salvation Army does not collect donations on Sundays. Under Giant's new policy, the Salvation Army could collect donations for four hours a day for one week in November and eight hours a day for one week in December, Forsythe said.
In the Baltimore region, kettle-giving at all locations declined by about 6 percent, said Rick Mikles, the general secretary for the Salvation Army's Maryland and West Virginia branches. At Giant stores, donations went down $32,805, or 27 percent, compared to the 2009 holiday season, Mikles said.
In response to the Giant policy, ringers in the Baltimore area focused more on soliciting donations at anchor department stores such as J.C. Penney, according to Mikles.
Jamie Miller, a Giant spokesman, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in a statement, the chain said it changed its policy to allow more not-for-profit groups to raise money in front of its stores.
"Our primary goal, especially in this challenging economy, is to be supportive of as many of these organizations as we can to best meet the needs in our communities," the Giant statement said. "Because these needs have dramatically increased, we wanted to offer more opportunities both during the holiday giving season and throughout the year."
Giant's policy change irked some advocates for the needy.
"It's hard times like these when we need our corporate partners to step up and do more rather than less," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.
Other retailers have banned the Salvation Army in the past, including Target, Best Buy and Home Depot.
As the economy has declined, nonprofit organizations across the country have struggled to raise revenue, with some reporting that donations are down between 5 percent and 20 percent.
Overall, donations to the Salvation Army in Maryland and West Virginia were actually up by nearly 3 percent in the 2010 holiday season compared to 2009, buoyed by big increases in mail-in donations — up nearly 14 percent — and online giving. Online holiday donations in Maryland and West Virginia totaled $85,000 in 2010, a 35 percent increase over 2009, Mikles said.
"I think people were just stepping up to the plate and saying, 'We know you're serving people and are hurting with kettle donations,' " he said.
The Salvation Army's National Capital Area Command serves the Washington region, helping 83,000 people in 2009, the group reported. The red kettle campaign helps the Salvation Army raise funds to rent warehouse space from which it dispenses Christmas gifts to impoverished children. The campaign also raises money to help families pay their rent and utility bills, and buy clothing and groceries.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.