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Salvation Army adapts to keep holiday kettles full during pandemic

Seventy percent of the charity’s income comes from holiday campaigns, including its iconic red kettles. Will people still slip in their dollars this year?

TAMPA — Andy Miller, the Salvation Army captain who oversees the nonprofit’s Tampa corps, has a feel for the rhythms of the organization.

His family has held positions in the Salvation Army for six generations, and this year will mark his 13th Christmas as an officer.

But for the first time he can remember, Miller said, he’s feeling some uncertainty as the holiday season approaches.

Christmas is the core of the 155-year-old charity’s fundraising efforts. In the Tampa Bay area, Miller said, about 70 percent of annual income comes from holiday-season projects.

The reliability of Christmas fundraising goes hand-in-hand with the Salvation Army’s iconic image: the bell-ringer standing outside a supermarket or department store, dressed perhaps in a Santa suit or red apron, collecting coins and small bills in a red kettle.

Volunteers will still collect money outside stores this season, but with masks required and distance encouraged. And they’ll be at fewer locations — about 60 in Hillsborough County versus 100 in a normal year.

The Salvation Army has made adjustments like adding a QR code for credit card-giving so bell ringers like Regina Tolliver can keep the money flowing in. Tolliver was working Wednesday at a Walmart on North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.
The Salvation Army has made adjustments like adding a QR code for credit card-giving so bell ringers like Regina Tolliver can keep the money flowing in. Tolliver was working Wednesday at a Walmart on North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

There are fewer volunteers to go around, Miller said, as the risk posed by the coronavirus deters some reliable sources such as seniors’ groups. And there are more people than ever asking for the Salvation Army’s help. The organization has seen a 30 percent increase in calls during the pandemic compared to the same time period last year. In 2019, according to the organization, the Salvation Army in Hillsborough County provided more than 686,000 meals and 386,000 nights of shelter to more than 131,000 people.

“I see the Salvation Army 365 days a year, and so I have the opportunity of knowing that the gift that we get at Christmas lasts us all year long,” Miller said. “My concern is, if we don’t raise the funds that we need, what’s going to happen throughout the year? The clearest thing I can say — and I hesitate to say it because I don’t want to sound overly dramatic — but if we raise less money at Christmas, that’s less people we can serve.”

The pandemic has strained nonprofits from the beginning, especially those that rely on face-to-face interaction.

Tampa’s Metropolitan Ministries, which normally serves holiday dinners under a huge tent, announced last month that it would instead offer only grab-and-go meals — and to an estimated 11,000 more people than last year. The nonprofit said last week it is short on food after spending triple what it did last season.

Not all of the Salvation Army’s holiday fundraising comes from the kettle campaigns, which originated more than a century ago. But it’s the organization’s most visible, familiar tool.

A single hour of collecting outside a grocery store on a normal Saturday can pay for a night of shelter or several meals, Miller said. He thinks that familiarity, combined with the quickness and anonymity of dropping a couple of bucks into the kettle is why they have endured.

Donors “want to do it quick and easy,” he said. “It takes like two seconds.”

Motivations for giving are complicated, said Ragan Petrie, an applied microeconomist at Texas A&M University. People are influenced by altruism, social pressure, tradition. The pandemic doesn’t clarify what drives people.

Campaigns like the Salvation Army kettles work, Petrie said, because of how they sway “marginal givers,” people who may be hesitant to donate to charity but aren’t set against it.

“For these marginal givers who may need to be asked but may be reluctant to give, it’s more difficult to say no to someone when you’re face to face,” she said.

The kettle campaign can adapt to pandemic restrictions, she noted, since volunteers stand outside, can wear masks and keep their distance. But it remains to be seen whether shoppers will be willing to linger, even for a second, as they exit stores.

The Salvation Army offers some more modern ways to donate. Miller hopes they will balance any losses in kettle donations so the local charity can meet its $4.5 million annual budget.

Volunteers can collect in virtual kettles. One, presided over by the family of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, has already brought in more than $10,000. The Salvation Army will also put QR codes on signs near kettles so people without cash can scan and donate remotely.

The QR code wasn’t a big success when it debuted last year, Miller said, netting just “a couple thousand dollars.”

The internet offers a number of ways to solicit donations, Petrie said, but it can also make giving more complicated.

Donors may have to go through several steps, entering credit card information and other details before actually giving. Research has suggested that more steps result in more people opting out. It also changes the kinds of donations. Kettles draw a few dollars or cents at a time but people may be reluctant to go through an online process to give so little, Petrie said.

That could be good — they might give more — but they also might not give at all.

“While there’s a lot of noise about online giving, there still is a lot of giving that’s done not like that,” Petrie said. Online offerings make up only about 10 percent of all charitable donations, she said.

These variables help make it hard to predict holiday donations this year, Petrie said. The reduction in face-to-face opportunities could hurt. So could burnout among people who donated earlier in the pandemic. But the sheer need could compel people to give more than usual, too.

Miller said he can think of only one year where there was ever doubt of meeting the red kettle fundraising goal. A series of rainy Saturdays a few years ago kept people inside and slowed donations.

This year, the challenge is more sweeping, and the stakes feel higher with the local Salvation Army shelter and rehab center full and the organization spending more than ever.

“This is kind of new territory for me.”