When Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth began preaching to the destitute on the streets of London in 1852, people didn’t yet use light bulbs or telephones.
Now, the faith-based social service charity, a potent symbol of Christmas tradition, is fully digital, recently streaming online a Christmas pop concert held in Glendale, collecting text donations via mobile phones, and developing an iPhone app with a ringing bell.
The cornerstone of the electronic effort is the Online Red Kettle — linked to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr — which aims to transmit Jesus’ message of helping the downtrodden to those who might not have a chance to put cash in the charity’s red pots outside stores.
“The online kettle allows me to share my beliefs with my friends and family,” said Emily Parris, a Salvation Army employee who is also serving as host of a virtual “kettle” this year for people she knows. She said she had no trouble reaching the suggested $200 goal.
“I believe in religion-based social services. The Salvation Army gives to all without discriminating. By attending to people’s physical needs, it is providing spiritual and emotional support,” she said.
The organization is the second-largest charity in the country after the United Way and is by far the largest faith-based charity. In addition to its well-known thrift stores, it runs homeless shelters, soup kitchens, addiction treatment programs, youth camps and services for the elderly, veterans, and victims of natural disasters.
The Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church and its founders sought to do Jesus’ work by bringing hope to the poor and hungry. Its early volunteers embraced many who had been rejected by mainstream churches, including drunks, thieves, prostitutes and gamblers.
The movement was also known as the “Hallelujah Army” or “Soldiers of Christ.” Founder William Booth, a former Methodist minister, was dubbed “the General,” and he expanded upon the theme, putting his followers in military-style uniforms. From 1881 to 1885, the group gained 250,000 adherents.
It has been in the United States since 1879, and in 1891, Capt. Joseph McFee of San Francisco came up with the Christmas kettle concept.
Today, Parris, 23, is in charge of social networking for the organization’s Southern California division. As she spoke during a recent interview, two new donations dropped onto her computer screen, one for $25 and one for $50 from friends who Parris believes might not have contributed the traditional way.
By Christmas Eve, money raised through the group’s online effort was expected to surpass the $3- million goal for the year, up from $2 million last year. Nearly $500,000 of that has come in since the Christmas campaign kickoff at the Dallas Cowboys- New Orleans Saints football game on Thanksgiving Day.
At halftime, the Salvation Army launched its mobile phone text capability and within 20 minutes, 1,700 football fans had donated $10 each. By the end of the game, wireless technology had added $35,000 to the charity’s coffers, according to national communications and development officer Maj. George Hood.
“We want to be on the front edge of consumer preferences, where they give and receive information,” Hood said. “We see a shift in how people communicate with a nonprofit organization.”
Almost every nonprofit now offers the ability to donate online, and many corporations, including newspapers, run special Christmas drives. In the faith-based sector, another major player is Volunteers of America, founded in 1896 by Booth’s son Ballington to focus on prisoners and their families. Bell ringers who dress as Santa Claus are part of that group’s “Sidewalk Santa” campaign.
Another is Angel Tree, a campaign of the Prison Fellowship group, founded in 1976. Its “Deliver Love” program supplies “a gift and the Gospel” to 1.7 million children who have a parent in prison, according to its website.
Operation Christmas Child, funded by Samaritan’s Purse, focuses on poor children abroad, sending shoeboxes filled with food and other gifts.
Hood says that the Salvation Army arrived relatively late to digital fundraising and still receives a smaller proportion of its funds online than many smaller charities. But he predicts that online giving will gradually replace its direct mail campaigns. In the last few years, the organization has dived into electronic media.
On Dec. 15, 11,000 computer users streamed live the “Rock the Red Kettle” pop concert aimed at teenagers.
“We have to be where youth are,” said Maj. Robert Rudd, who is in charge of development for the group’s western division, which includes California. “Sixty percent of the world’s population is 25 or younger.”
Hood and Rudd said the online efforts supplement, rather than replace, the Salvation Army’s human bell ringers. Some retail property owners ban solicitation, including bell ringers, outside their stores. But 25,000 were still out during this year’s fund drive, raising a large portion of the group’s expected $130 million intake for the year.
Online donations were up in 2010, Rudd said, although Christmas donations were down about 4%. But despite the tough economy, nine out of 10 people who pass a bell ringer put something in the pot, he said.
“Typically, when Americans go through hard time they are very generous,” he said. A particularly lucrative location is 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, according to Rudd, who recalls having to empty the red kettle three times a day.
Many shoppers these days no longer carry small bills, so hundreds of red kettle sites are equipped with machines that accept credit or debit cards. Those donations average $15 rather than $2 per person. In at least 10 states, kettles have yielded gold coins, including one in Watsonville, Calif., that was worth $1,500.
Outside a JC Penney store in Ventura last week, bell ringer Gilbert Young said that during a long career in retail, he had never met as many openhearted people as he had in a few days soliciting for the nonprofit. “So many put $20 bills in,” he said. “People say the Salvation Army is still one of the charities they believe in.”
Young said he’s glad that no matter how large the Online Red Kettle project grows, the group has no plans to phase out the live bell ringers because personal contact on the local level is key to maintaining its image.
“It’s nostalgic for me. I think it’s a tradition that should keep on going,” he said. “It’s the spirit of Christmas.”