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Charitable ‘icon’ curbed

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By Todd Cohen

The Salvation Army stands to lose one-tenth of the money it raises during its annual holiday kettle drive because Minneapolis-based Target Corp. no longer will let the charity’s volunteers ring their bells to solicit donations at its retail stores.

The kettle drive last year raised $90 million, including $9 million raised at 1,088 Target stores.

The loss of the Target locations likely will force local Salvation Army offices to cut programs that serve needy people, officials say.

In North Carolina, for example, the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte might have to close either its downtown shelter for women and children, or one of four Boys & Girls Clubs it operates in Charlotte Housing Authority developments, says Capt. Ward Matthews, executive director.

“They are the most likely avenue of cutbacks if we don’t find a champion,” he says.

Target, which has a long-standing policy barring solicitation at its stores but for years waived it for the Salvation Army, notified the charity’s national headquarters in January it was dropping the waiver, the retail chain says.

“We receive an increasing number of solicitation inquiries from nonprofit organizations each year and determined that if we continue to allow the Salvation Army to solicit, then it opens the door to other groups that wish to solicit our guests,” Target says in a prepared statement.

Major George Hood, national community-relations secretary for the Salvation Army at its Alexandria, Va., national headquarters, says the decision by Target to drop the waiver “is going to minimize the ability of local communities to respond to the needs of people.”

In Raleigh, N.C., the Salvation Army last year raised $125,000 through its kettle drive, $52,000 of it through six Target locations, says Amanda McGovern, director of development.

The move by Target is likely to hit even harder, she says, because the Salvation Army this year had planned to place kettles at 10 Target stores in Wake County.

The local Salvation Army unit uses $70,000 of the funds from the kettle drive to provide nearly 5,500 low-income children with nearly 40,000 new Christmas toys each year, McGovern says.

The loss of the Target locations will force the Salvation Army to “turn away nearly half the children who come to us and reduce the number of toys given to those we serve,” she says.

Target’s decision also will force the Salvation Army to eliminate a program that provided 1,429 families with holiday food vouchers valued at $40,000, she says.

And in Winston-Salem, the Salvation Army last year raised more than $167,000 through its kettle drive, including $14,700 at two Target stores, says Jim Rickard, director of development.

Donations at the Target locations covered the cost of roughly 9,800 meals the Salvation Army serves at its shelter at 1255 North Trade Street, he says.

“We’ll be looking for another corporate partner to make up the difference,” he says. “We just want to make sure we’re helping people in the community,” he says.

Target is one of three big retail chains the Salvation Army has counted on for its kettle drive, which last year raised $13 million at Wal-Mart stores and $6 million at Kmart stores, Hood says.

Wal-Mart also has a no-solicitation policy, he says, but waives it for the kettle drive for 14 days.

“That’s a nice compromise, he says. “They didn’t eliminate us. They just reduced the number of days four years ago, and it hasn’t impacted us negatively at all.”

The national office has encouraged local Salvation Army offices “to aggressively work with their business community to find alternative spots and to make sure the community understands there’s going to be a significant loss of revenue, and just hope the community responds in different ways,” Hood says.

Studies the Salvation Army conducted after the holiday season in 2001 and 2002 found nine of 10 shoppers who walked by a red Salvation Army kettle stopped and made a donation.

“The real scary thing for us is losing the visibility of the red kettles and the bell ringers because they are Christmas icons, and the public looks for them during the holiday season,” Hood says.

Diane Winston, a scholar who has studied the Salvation Army, says the kettles have become “an iconic symbol in the American landscape” since they debuted in San Francisco in the 1890s.

“The kettles telegraph compassion at the Christmas season and, for this reason, they’ve been incredibly successful,” says Winston, Knight chair in media and religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and author of “Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army.”

“I can see why Target chose to make this decision in an increasingly competitive charitable marketkplace,” she says. “But the fact is the Salvation Army has been helping people for more than 100 years, it has an outstanding track record and it has a strong hold on American heartstrings.”

The national Salvation Army office this year also will push the use of a free phone line at 1-800-salarmy, and an internet site at www.1800salarmy.org, for credit-card donations.

The Charlotte office also aims to enlist volunteers to register at www.ring2help.org to create personal online bell-ringing stands, and encourage their friends to make donations at the site.

Last year, the first year the national office offered the “virtual” kettles to local offices, the online effort raised roughly $40,000 nationally at a handful of sites, with the Charlotte office raising the most, $10,125.

The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte raised nearly $272,000 last year in its annual kettle holiday drive, nearly $98,000 of it from kettles at six Target stores in Mecklenburg County, says Matthews.

Total donations from the Target sites in Mecklenburg County last year would have covered the cost of operating one of the Boys & Girls Clubs the Salvation operates at Housing Authority developments, or the cost of providing 3,600 nights of shelter and three meals a day for women and children at its Center of Hope shelter at 534 Spratt Street.

“We’ll either have to say no to people coming to us for shelter, and that’s women and children,” he says, “or close one of four Boys & Girls Clubs.”

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