Salvation Army hopes technology boosts fundraising

The Salvation Army of Indiana is ringing in the holiday season Thursday with the start of its traditional red-kettle fundraising effort, and the organization is experimenting with some not-so-traditional methods to reach its $2.93 million goal.

New in the Indianapolis area this year: a so-called Text2Give promotion that allows donors to make a $5 or $10 donation by sending text messages from their mobile phones, and a social media campaign using Facebook and Twitter that aims to raise enough money in 10 days to pay for 10,000 meals for the needy.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to take a multi-channel approach to raising money,” said not-for-profit consultant Derrick Feldmann, CEO of the Indianapolis-firm Achieve. “When it comes to an annual campaign like this, organizations need to utilize all the different channels to make sure they’re reaching all kinds of donors who prefer various methods to give. It’s not about the transaction; it’s about the relationship.”

The text-to-give option got charities’ attention after the Haitian earthquake earlier this year, when the American Red Cross raised more than $30 million for relief efforts. Of course, that effort got a boost from near-constant news coverage and promotional assistance from the National Football League and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Salvation Army of Indiana has more modest ambitions, hoping to boost online donations by $20,000 to $25,000 this year. Text-based donations are capped at $10, Stanger said, and the average online gift is $120.  

“We have to be realistic in our expectations,” said Development Director Jeff Stanger. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Indeed, online contributions—both text donations and gifts to—are expected to generate only about 3 percent of the Tree of Lights campaign’s total this year, he said. The bulk of money comes from old-school methods, including direct mail, foundation grants, a December radiothon and the ubiquitous bell ringers soliciting gifts at 140 red kettles.

But technology also is giving the bell ringers a boost. The Salvation Army is testing a Mobile Bell Ringer campaign in Virginia and Texas, asking volunteers to turn their mobile phones into virtual red kettles. Participants can download a ring tone for their phones and enter their friends’ mobile numbers, triggering a text request for $10 donations.

Indiana’s “10,000 Meals 10 Days” campaign, which runs through Nov. 28, takes a similar tack. Salvation Army plans to ask its nearly 3,000 social media followers to support the effort—and tell their friends, who hopefully also will make donations.

Last year, the state Salvation Army tested credit-card machines at a couple red kettles, offering would-be donors a cashless option. Stanger said the effort fell flat and, given the expense, won’t be introduced more broadly during the 2010 campaign, which runs through Jan. 31.

“We think texts might serve us better,” he said.

Text and online contributions are managed by the national Salvation Army, but gifts are directed to the operations unit located closest to the donor’s home zip code, Stanger said.

The Tree of Lights campaign generates about a third of the revenue needed to support central Indiana programs—including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, shelters for women and children, and neighborhood community centers.

Experimentation is a valuable exercise for not-for-profits, said consultant Feldmann.

“Organizations have to find new strategies, create other ways for donors to give,” he said. “The Salvation Army is making it easier, more accessible for people out there to give. They could find new donors, or get some additional resources from existing donors. That’s pretty good.”

The stakes are high. The Salvation Army finished its last fiscal year almost $300,000 short of its budget—in large part because Tree of Lights missed its goal by $186,000—and used cash reserves to avoid program cuts given an increase in demand for services.

“That was our rainy-day fund, and it rained like crazy last year,” Stanger said. “We just don’t have that option this year.”

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