It’s a holiday symbol that is nearly as synonymous as Christmas trees and fruitcake: the Salvation Army Red Kettle.
William and Ellen Losch with children Abigail, from left, Jeb and Drew ring the bells for the Salvation Army Red Kettle campaign in front of the Kroger store on Mendenhall Road.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
Every Friday before Thanksgiving, red-aproned teams and individuals from businesses, church organizations and the general community literally ring in the season in front of stores such as Kroger and Wal-Mart to solicit donations from passers-by, just as they’ve done in Memphis for the past 105 years.
“Last year we raised $550,000 just in kettles,” said Capt. Jonathan Rich, area commander for The Salvation Army Memphis Area Command.
The Kettle Campaign, which runs through Dec. 24, remains the organization’s most popular method of giving, but as time has gone on, the organization has started to seek newer ways to plug in to younger generations and find different outlets to spread the word.
In the same vein of the postal service itself, the Salvation Army’s direct mail campaign – which used to be its largest donation medium – is also “slowly dying,” said Rich, adding that the average by-mail donor is 74. The organization does receive a small amount of funding from the government and United Way, but Rich said those amounts decrease every year.
“A lot of the members or the people that work with the Salvation Army have been older, so we really need to bring in a younger population to keep everything going,” said 42-year-old Ellen Losch. “The direct mail campaigns for giving are on the decrease, and our generation isn’t interested in giving that way.”
Losch is a board member and coordinator of the Young Army campaign, which was created two years ago and focuses on incorporating families and young professionals into service.
With the younger-than-40 crowd, Rich has also observed that young professionals like to participate in the Angel Tree campaign, where an individual purchases items off a child’s Christmas wish list.
“It’s those kind of causes that I think young people are very interested in supporting, where it’s a one-on-one – you know you are going to help a specific child who has these specific needs,” he said.
“We have a great story, and we have a long way to go, as far as telling it in ways that are accessible to people who are interested.”
Area commander, The Salvation Army Memphis Area Command
Though giving within the Red Kettle Campaign was higher than ever in Memphis last year, the new challenges of stepping into the 21st century and bringing along young givers for the ride has opened the door to testing out new, more efficient ways to support.
This year, the Greater Memphis branch is debuting its mobile giving campaign, where individuals can use the Salvation Army app or text the word “Memphis” to 41444 and donate via debit or credit card. Users can also text “BIKE” to the same number and donate toward bicycles for the Angel Tree campaign.
“Since we’ve never done it, it’s kind of a shot in the dark, but I would be happy if we could raise $50,000 doing that,” said Rich, who has a lot of hope for the reach that this newer option will provide, going beyond the grocery store and big-box crowds. “We’re trying to make (giving) very easy and, at the same time, we need to get our story out there.”
Last year, the Salvation Army had the advantage of an early Thanksgiving holiday to total its Red Kettle dollars but hopes to regain the loss in revenue through mobile giving.
Losch, who rings during the season with her family, agrees that the easier the Salvation Army makes it to give, the better.
“If (donors) can sit down in front of the television and use their cellphones to make a donation to the Salvation Army, they’re much more likely to do that than to sit down and write a check, put it in an envelope, and the put it in the mailbox,” she said.
In addition, Salvation Army supporters can also set up an online kettle as a team effort for friends and family to donate to, with all funds going to the organization.
If the mobile giving campaign kicks off as hoped, Rich said the organization is planning to make it a regular donation option and can change the chosen text word to fit the next campaign.
“I know we have to be intentional about staying relevant, because there’s certain things about us that are out of the 1800s that might be off-putting to a younger audience,” he joked.
But with the Salvation Army’s faith base, combined with innovative programs focused on giving better lives to the city’s inhabitants, he’s not worried about the message being lost.
“We have a great story,” he said, “and we have a long way to go as far as telling it in ways that are accessible to people who are interested.”