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Holiday icon fights slowdown by 'tweeting,' texting

  • Story Highlights
  • Amid economic fears and slow donations, Salvation Army tries new tech
  • Charity group reports many longtime donors are now asking for aid themselves
  • Holiday icon harnesses text messaging, Twitter, Facebook to attract youths
  • Online Red Kettle partners with Jonas Brothers, NHL, Dallas Cowboys
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By Thom Patterson
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LOGANVILLE, Georgia (CNN) -- Jerrye Lail's heart attack took her by surprise, but when overwhelming medical bills forced her and her husband, Dan, to ask for help from the Salvation Army, that was a real stunner.

The Salvation Army in Atlanta, Georgia, began accepting donations via cell phone text messages November 19.

U.S. Salvation Army kettles like this one in Anaheim, California, raised $118 million last year.

"It was more surprising to us that we had to ask for help," said Dan Lail. "It's not easy to go someplace and not start crying -- because you get very emotional."

The situation posed an odd turnabout, said 65-year-old Jerrye Lail, because she'd been donating hundreds of dollars to the Salvation Army every holiday season for years.

The December 2007 heart attack piled on to another health crisis that began five years earlier. A neurological disorder forced her to retire from her job as a warehouse administrator in 2002, she said.

When the Salvation Army stepped in to help this year, it "was an answer to a prayer," she said this month at the couple's home outside Atlanta in Loganville. "They paid three months of our mortgage payments, which allowed us to catch up on medical bills."

Salvation Army officials at its national headquarters in Virginia said the Lails' turnabout isn't unique. "We're hearing anecdotes from across the country that people who have given in whatever capacity are now coming to us for help," spokeswoman Melissa Temme said.

The charity group often helps victims of devastating illness, but 1.2 million jobs lost this year amid a U.S. financial crisis have officials concerned during the most critical fundraising season.

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Contributions to the thousands of iconic red kettle donation stations that dot the nation each holiday season are slowing, officials say, and demands for help are rising.

To boost donations, the Salvation Army is expanding its fundraising campaigns from traditional shopping centers and direct mail to cell phones and Internet social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

"One of the things we're interested in doing is reaching out to a younger generation and figuring out what makes them tick," said Maj. James Seiler, a top Salvation Army official in Atlanta. He believes younger donors will be attracted to the convenience of giving via cell phone.

The group is testing its new cell phone donation system in Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio. Contributors can give $5 to the Salvation Army by texting a code to a special number. The donation is then added to donors' cell phone bills.

Hoping to harness the generosity of millions of online social networkers, the Salvation Army now has a Twitter feed for so-called "tweets" about its Red Kettle Campaign. "Chris Rock and his wife were at The Salvation Army / Target event today!" wrote a Twitter user named "bansheewigs" on November 12.

Text Message Donors

  • Donors can use cell phones to text $5 to the Salvation Army in Atlanta, Georgia; and Columbus, Ohio.
  • Atlanta: Text the letters "TSA" (The Salvation Army) to 90999
  • Columbus: Text KETTLE to 90999

Source: Salvation Army

Another Web-based strategy -- the Online Red Kettle program -- allows anyone to set up a virtual kettle and solicit donations by e-mail from friends, relatives and associates. Although it's now in its fourth year nationwide, this year, Online Red Kettle offers a Facebook component. Facebook members can add a widget to their pages that tracks the progress of their kettle and allows Facebook friends to easily donate.

The charity also has enlisted the National Hockey League, the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and the Jonas Brothers as partners in the Online Red Kettle campaign.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas, a separate Salvation Army test program adds credit card swiping machines to the traditional red kettles, as a way to entice potential donors who aren't carrying cash. In Dallas, Cowboys NFL legend Tony Dorsett kicked off the credit card kettle campaign November 20.

Fundraisers are hoping these nontraditional methods can stave off a slowing donation trend that began in 2007 -- "the first year in eight years that the donations slowed down," Temme said.

The Red Kettle Campaign brought in $118 million in 2007, a .7 percent increase from the previous year, Temme said.

The slowing increase in donations, she said, is causing concern within the organization because preliminary data for this year show increasing demands for Salvation Army services.

Salvation Army Facts

  • Number of people helped in U.S. in 2007: 29 million
  • Red Kettle 2007 campaign donations: $118 million
  • Increase from 2006: .7 percent
  • 2007 was first time in eight years the donation rate has slowed down
  • 2007 Online Red Kettle campaign raised $585,000
  • Red Kettle campaign founded in 1891 in San Francisco, California
  • Salvation Army based in 115 nations

Source: Salvation Army

"Not only are Americans being affected by the economy and concern over jobs and housing -- so everyone has seen it hit their budget -- but they also are busier than ever," Temme said. "I think it's why we are seeing it become more difficult to find volunteers for our traditional red kettles."

Shortages of volunteers at the kettles have forced the Salvation Army to pay some bell-ringers. Numbers vary from region to region, Seiler said, but in the Atlanta area overall, more than half of bell-ringers are volunteers, and most paid kettle attendants work during weekdays when fewer volunteers are available.

Bell-ringers can be paid anywhere from $6.55 to $8 an hour in some cases -- a cost of raising money that makes cell phone texting more attractive.

Gathering donations via text messages would cut the Salvation Army's operating costs, and as a result would free up more money for the needy.

"If you pay someone to stand next to a kettle, it costs between 15 and 25 percent of each dollar raised," Seiler said. "Texting saves money because it only costs 12 to 15 cents for every dollar it brings in."

Seiler said the future of Salvation Army fundraising probably will always include the traditional red kettle, which first appeared on the streets of San Francisco in 1891.

"I can't see a day when all red kettles go virtual, because the sight of someone standing next to a red kettle has become an icon -- a symbol of Christmas to people," he said. "It's become a part of people's lives, a realization that Christmas is here."

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