Can Mobile Payments Rally the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Program?

December 5, 2018         By: Steven Anderson

We’ve been hearing for some time now about how charities of all stripes are actually suffering at the hands of mobile payments. It’s not because mobile is encouraging people to shop more for themselves, leaving charities in the lurch, but rather, because it’s removed one vital component for charitable giving: spare change. A totally digital payment system means no spare coins or couple random singles in your wallet, and that puts charities at a disadvantage. However, new reports suggest that the Salvation Army is taking that which hurt it and instead making it help.

The red-kettle operation run by the Salvation Army has been operating annually since 1891, reports note, with the familiar sights and sounds of volunteers ringing bells in the cold in front of kettles which hold donations. It typically raises about $150 million annually, but this amount is seemingly in decline. Not because donors are less generous—Giving Tuesday operations on Facebook brought in $125 million alone—but because donors don’t have the cash that goes into the kettles.

The Salvation Army had previously tried modernizing its operations by leaving out credit card readers near the kettles, but found that there wasn’t much use. Worse, the readers’ presence often left potential donors confused, which is the last reaction anyone really wants in a charitable giving setup. Now, the newest move steps into place, as the organization turns to quick response (QR) codes alongside its red kettles.

With only 24 percent of all US citizens operating on a cash-only basis—about a third will turn to cash for purchases under $10—it’s easy to see why the Salvation Army might be fearing the retreat of cash donors. We’ve already seen something like this happen across the charitable giving spectrum. With loose change becoming increasingly an anachronism, charities must in turn find new ways to gather cash. We’ve already seen Chinese beggars turn to QR codes, and French churches add payment terminals. These moves may seem odd, but they’re a necessity anymore.

So kudos to the Salvation Army for taking the leap forward, and though it isn’t working so briskly right now, it’s at least keeping the option open in a changing market.