Salvation Army Gets Creative

By Lydia Coutre

With consumers shifting their shopping online and their in-store purchasing from cash to plastic, the Salvation Army’s familiar red kettle campaign isn’t the reliable source of donations it once was for the nonprofit.

Local Salvation Army chapters, which on average raise between 40% and 50% of their annual budgets during the holiday season, are facing mounting challenges in bringing in enough donations to meet growing needs.

The volunteers ringing bells outside businesses have historically brought in most of that crucial holiday fundraising.

But the kettles are harder to fill when 80% of consumers use debit cards for everyday purchases like gas and groceries, according to the nonprofit organization American Consumer Credit Counseling.

“It worked every year, and now we’re finding that every year we have to find innovative ways to keep the cash coming in at the same level that it did previously,” said Major Lurlene Kay Johnson, the Salvation Army’s divisional secretary for Greater Cleveland.

The Salvation Army’s Northeast Ohio Division, the umbrella organization for the Cleveland branch, typically raises between $3.5 million and $4 million during the holiday season through the red kettle campaign. This year, the chapter needs between $4 million and $4.5 million, said Major Evan Hickman, the divisional commander for the Northeast Ohio Salvation Army, which serves the region from Bellaire to Newark, up to Toledo and across to Youngstown.

He said the number of people requesting assistance is up by about 50% to 60% just since last year.

“With the amount of people that are knocking on our doors for assistance compared to what we got in last year, to be able to meet the critical need with more people asking for help, it would be nice to get a bump in our red kettle income this year,” Hickman said.

But technology and shifting consumer habits demand innovative approaches just to maintain the historic fundraising levels, Johnson said. The Salvation Army offers red kettles online for electronic donations. Corporate partnerships allow customers to add a donation to their purchase total or buy red shields that hang on businesses walls.

Johnson said she believes all of the new fundraising avenues will begin to add up to what the Salvation Army needs, but that takes time.

A new era

A number of factors beyond simple convenience have played into the shift toward credit cards, said Brendan Hickey, director of business development for Twinsburgbased Solupay, an electronic payment processing company.

Electronic payments offer security and often don’t hold card holders liable for fraud, he said. Credit card rewards can be a big draw and people don’t want to carry around thick wallets full of cash. Even not knowing where a dollar bill has been can push some germophobes to plastic payment alternatives.

“I just think that as we see more and more alternative payment types were going to see more and more digital payments as things progress,” he said.

The Greater Cleveland division of the Salvation Army needs to raise $639,000 from the red kettle campaign alone, Johnson said. Cleveland will have a little more than 100 kettle locations this year, which has kept pace with past years.

Many of those kettles, however, are no longer in hightraffic areas that were important to the campaign. As locally owned stores are bought by national corporations and as companies change their solicitation policies, there are fewer and fewer high-traffic sweet spots available, Johnson said.

“It’s not just the Salvation Army,” Hickman said. “I think every nonprofit should have a chance to solicit, but it’s getting tougher and tougher for permission to stand.”

The Salvation Army’s national headquarters handles agreements with larger chains, and local chapters meet with local businesses to find ways to maintain red kettle locations, Johnson said.

“In many cases, we’ve known the owners for many years, and so they’ve kind of grandfathered the Salvation Army in, even if their policies have changed some,” she said.

But even those arrangements cannot overcome consumer habits. Many shoppers opt to avoid the crowds on Black Friday, which historically raises a lot of donations, and shop from the convenience of their living room on a computer or phone. For those who do venture out during the major shopping weekend, stores’ extended hours drive consumers to be out late at night or very early in the morning when volunteers aren’t out ringing bells, Johnson said.

Competitive field

The holiday season is a critical time for the Salvation Army’s fundraising, but the same goes for other area nonprofits. Decades ago, the Salvation Army was the main street solicitor, but now, Johnson said, when the organization approaches a store to do a red kettle campaign, there may be 20 other people waiting in line to do something similar.

“We’re competing against other really wonderful nonprofits to do the same type of ideas,” she said.

This can also create an “ongoing battle” to recruit volunteers when there are so many organizations looking for help, Hickman said.

Although many people know the Salvation Army, many may not know what it does beyond housing the homelessand feeding the hungry, which Johnson said could be a barrier to bringing in donations. The organization also offers senior services, community art and learning centers and assistance to those with drug and alcohol dependencies.

Last year the Cleveland division served 143,000 people and that number climbs annually, Johnson said.

Every January, the division adjusts its budget based on the money raised over the holidays. If the Cleveland division doesn’t raise the money it needs, Johnson said she and her staff will have to come up with an immediate plan to fill the gap with other fundraising methods, “or we have to cut our budget, which means we cut programs.”

She hopes it won’t come to that.

Hickman was also optimistic. The iconic red kettle campaign offers a nostalgia that people tend to respond to, he said. “We’re hopeful, and we’re counting on that, and we’re needing that again.”

Tags: Division, Greater Cleveland