CINCINNATI -- For 125 years, during the weeks before Christmas, the Salvation Army has collected cash and change in kettles set up at retail outlets, kettles watched over by people ringing bells.
It’s a familiar sign of the holiday season. It’s also the single biggest fundraiser of the year for the Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit and its local subsidiary, the Salvation Army Southwest Ohio-Northeast Kentucky Division.
Through Tuesday, though, the local division had collected $509,000 at its 101 kettles and was asking for a Christmas miracle to meet its goal of $800,000.
It’s the first Christmas season in several years that giving at the kettles has declined year over year, said Maj. Larry Ashcraft, commander of the local division. Giving had been in the neighborhood of $750,000 for the past few years, he said, and it had increased every year. This year’s goal would cover about 12 percent of the division’s operational budget of $6.5 million.
Ashcraft said he didn’t know why giving was down this year.
Maj. Robert Klenk, who commands the Salvation Army’s community center in College Hill and 24 kettle locations in northwest Cincinnati, suggested that unseasonably warm weather might be part of the problem.
“I’m not sure people feel like it’s Christmas yet,” he said last week.
The Salvation Army’s mission is to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” According to its annual report, for the year ended Sept. 30, 2014, the local division had revenue of $11.5 million, including $5 million in contributions, $1.8 million from sale of goods and $1 million from grants. It spent $12.9 million – $11.2 million on programs and services – making an operating deficit of $1.4 million. Services included emergency shelter, housing for senior citizens, emergency disaster services and Christmas help for needy families.
Nationally, kettle collections peaked in 2012 at about $148 million, said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the national secretary for community relations and development, who oversees the kettle program nationally. Collections fell in 2013, mainly due to a longer 2012 giving season because of an early Thanksgiving, he said. The kettles are normally set up the day after Thanksgiving and taken down on Christmas Eve.
This year, through Dec. 18, collections were down about 2.7 percent nationwide from last year and about 11.5 percent for the northeast region, which includes the Cincinnati division, Busroe said.
Two consumer-driven trends are working against kettle program, Busroe said. First, fewer people use cash to make purchases, which means they don’t carry cash or change. Second, during the past three years, foot traffic to retail outlets has declined, which is a problem because many kettles are set up outside stores such as Cincinnati-based Macy’s.
“People are making fewer trips to the mall and Wal-Mart,” Busroe said. The fewer trips they make, the fewer times they donate.
“I’m not sure there are as many people shopping at stores as there were years before,” Klenk said. “We live in a busy society now. Many people will go out of their way to support us, but we also have to be visible.”
There’s not much it can do about the second trend, Busroe said, but Salvation Army leadership has worked to combat the first by experimenting with electronic ways to contribute, such as online or by text message. He hopes that, as soon as next Christmas season, some kettles will have codes that will enable a $5 contribution with a simple tap from the contributor’s cell phone.
Online giving has begun to pick up, Busroe said, with double-digit increases in the last two months of the year for the past several years. (Those unable to donate at a kettle may do so online at www.onlineredkettle.org.) However, online giving still lags kettle giving. This year, he expects online contributions to total $30 million to $35 million, about 20 percent of kettle giving.
However contributions are made in the future, the Salvation Army is likely to keep trotting out the kettles every year. Aside from their value as revenue producers, they’re also a great marketing tool.
“I really do believe that the Salvation Army kettle is such a symbol of helping people that we will always have the kettle,” Klenk said. “I think it will always be out there as a symbol of what the Salvation Army is doing for God and the community.”
Top 9 donation sites
The top locations for donations to the Salvation Army’s Christmas Kettle Campaign in 2014, with highest donation sites first. The Salvation Army declined to release the amount collected at each location:
- Forest Hills Kroger, 7580 Beechmont Ave., Anderson Township
- Mason Kroger, 5100 Terra Firma Drive, Mason
- Mount Washington Kroger, 2120 Beechmont Ave., Mount Wasington
- Western Hills Kroger, 6165 Glenway Ave., Westwood
- Amelia Kroger, 262 W. Main St., Amelia
- Dent Kroger, 5830 Harrison Road, Green Township
- Hyde Park Kroger, 3760 Paxton Ave., Oakley
- Eastgate Wal-Mart, 4370 Eastgate Square Drive, Union Tonwship
- Loveland Kroger, 6388 Branch Hill-Guinea Pike, Miami Township
Source: Salvation Army Southwest Ohio-Northeast Kentucky Division