The Salvation Army’s bell ringers will gladly accept your pennies, nickels and dimes, your rumpled dollar bills or, should you be in an especially generous mood, your Benjamins and Krugerrands.
But credit or debit? Neither, at least not in Chicago. But that could change next year as the local Salvation Army continues to look for ways to keep up with today’s increasingly cashless society.
Despite consumers’ willingness to use credit and debit cards for the smallest of purchases, the local Salvation Army’s iconic red kettles, part of the charitable organization’s holiday fundraising campaign, remain stubbornly cash-reliant.
The kettles still bring in millions of dollars in donations each year. But the organization is working to find a 21st-century version of the kettle that makes helping others as convenient as pulling a spare dollar from your pocket. That’s harder than it sounds, according to the nonprofit, which says it’s tested several versions of “cashless” kettles over the past decade.
The red kettle dates back to 1891, when a Salvation Army captain in San Francisco used a pot placed at the ferry landing to collect donations to provide free Christmas dinners to locals in need. But the transactions the old-school kettles so successfully encourage — fast, easy, anonymous and open to any sum, no matter how small — are tough to replicate with noncash payments. And that’s before you factor in Chicago’s battery-sapping December weather.
Several years ago, the Salvation Army tried using portable credit card machines but ran into problems with battery life. Plus, the machines were slow — not a good fit for passersby accustomed to sliding a dollar or two through the kettle’s slot midstride.
“It took three minutes to connect. People just want to put their money in and be quick,” said Jeff Curnow, spokesman for the Salvation Army’s Midwest region.
The Salvation Army also tried Square, a small smartphone attachment that accepts credit card payments, but getting donors comfortable swiping their card through a stranger’s phone was a challenge.
More recently, the Salvation Army looked into developing technology that would send an alert to a smartphone near a kettle, inviting passersby to send donations. It was fast and felt comfortable since donors never had to hand over a credit card, Curnow said.
The Salvation Army hoped to do a wider test of the technology this year but put those plans on hold amid concerns about the cost and potential security issues.
“That’s the most important thing we have, the trust from the donating public,” said Scott Justvig, executive director of development of the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division in Chicago.
The organization is smart to be planning ahead, said John List, chairman of the economics department at the University of Chicago.
Campaigns like the Salvation Army’s red kettles are effective because they combine social pressure — an enthusiastic request from a volunteer — with an easy way to give.
“As we move to a cashless society, that gets harder; and we need an innovative way to make it just as seamless,” said List, who has studied charitable giving.
But it also can’t be too seamless. The smartphone notifications the Salvation Army considered testing could backfire if not paired with a request from a bell ringer since the phone’s request is easier to ignore, he said.
Other Salvation Army units across the country are experimenting with technologies too. At nine locations in Chattanooga, Tenn., this holiday season, the Salvation Army is using DipJars — digital tip jars that let users swipe a credit card to make a donation. The dollar amount is preset, and donors don’t have to punch in a ZIP code, allowing slightly faster transactions.
Last weekend, people donated about $100 using the DipJars. “It’s not a lot, but it’s money we didn’t have,” said Kimberly George, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Chattanooga.
The technology may be more useful in other settings or special events throughout the year, George said. At a fundraising banquet, a single donor gave $1,500 with a trio of $500 swipes.
But like credit card technology, the DipJars have processing fees that can eat into donations, so the local Salvation Army is waiting to see whether they bring in enough extra donations to cover the cost, Justvig said.
Even if fewer people carry spare change, donations to the overall kettle campaign generally have been rising, according to the Salvation Army. Last year, the red kettles on street corners brought in $147 million nationally — down slightly from $149 million in 2015, but up from prior years, Justvig said. Over the past four years, they’ve consistently accounted for about a quarter of Christmas fundraising campaign dollars. The Salvation Army also accepts donations online, by text and from other sources.
“That’s a lot of cash from people that are ostensibly not carrying cash,” Justvig said.
Still, he expects the Chicago-area organization will have some form of cashless technology to test next year. “There is a certain aspect of, ‘If it’s not broke, how much do you want to fix it?’ ” he said. “But do we need to stay with the times? Heavens, yes, of course we do.”
The ubiquitous red kettles and volunteers ringing bells also have value beyond the cash they collect, said Brenda Asare, president and CEO of The Alford Group, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits. They raise awareness and promote the idea that everyone can contribute, however small the sum, she said.
“They really do own the season,” she said.
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