Wells Fargo ATMs raise money to help Japan

Next to the usual "Deposit Cash" option on Wells Fargo ATMs, customers logging in recently found a new "Donate to Charity" button on the screen.

Within 10 days, ATMs around the country collected more than $1 million for the American Red Cross to use on relief efforts in earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Japan.

Officials from the American Bankers Assn. say it may be the first time the machines have been used on this scale to raise money for charity. A Cleveland bank in the 1990s used its ATMs to raise money for its local United Way.

Wells Fargo & Co. has experimented before with ATMs for a few small charity projects, officials said. The machines helped raise money for disaster relief after wildfires in Colorado and a gas-line explosion in the Bay Area last year as well as for flood relief donations for North Dakota and Minnesota in 2009.

But the bank had never put up a home screen on all 9,000 of its ATMs across the country announcing, "You Can Help People Affected by Disasters."

"It's a great fundraising tactic," said Michael Brown, vice president of corporate partnerships at the American Red Cross, comparing the ATM strategy to the text-message donations that boomed after the Haiti earthquake last year. "Hopefully it's something we can replicate in the future."

Amy Gallagher was among a dozen people lined up recently at the ATMs at Wells Fargo's downtown Minneapolis center. The retail worker deposited a check and donated $1 to Japan relief, a routine both she and her mother now perform every time they use an ATM.

Gallagher thinks ATM donations particularly appeal to people like her, in their 20s and 30s.

"My generation doesn't write out checks for anything anymore," Gallagher said. "Here, you just type in the amount you want to donate."

One woman, however, suggested that the donation button be located further away from the rest of the financial transactions after she nearly wound up donating the $200 she had intended to deposit.

The idea to use ATMs to raise money for charities surfaced during a brainstorming session on possible new services for users, said Jonathan Velline, a Wells Fargo vice president in charge of ATM operations. Wells Fargo, unlike many other financial institutions, developed its own ATM software and can build customized features, he said.

Because the ATM strategy is so new, Wells Fargo has been monitoring Twitter, Facebook and other social media to gauge customer reaction. So far, Velline said, it's been positive.

The fundraiser, which ends Tuesday, raised $1.3 million by the end of March. Meanwhile, text-message donations to the American Red Cross for Japan relief have reached $4.3 million.

Hopfensperger writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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