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Sally Ann rings a new bell with ‘plastic’ donations

They are iconic images: a Salvation Army volunteer ringing a bell or a brass band playing familiar tunes by a large pot, inviting passers-by to fill the kettle with donations to help the poor.

But the venerable institution has taken on a modern twist by embracing technology. The Salvation Army – or Sally Ann, as it is commonly known in Canada – made it easier for a new generation of donors to give by accepting credit and debit card donations during a recently-completed fundraising campaign over the Christmas season.

It also launched "iKettles", which have allowed individuals and groups to become "online bell ringers" by hosting customised donation pages on the Salvation Army Web site. The 168 iKettles raised more than 131 000 Canadian dollars (US$110 500) throughout the country; and one Toronto breakfast television programme raised more than 47 000 dollars by inviting its viewers to give.

The introduction of the credit/debit machines at the kettles was a recognition that many people – especially young adults – do not carry cash. The hand-held card-swipe travelled with a brass band to various urban locations including shopping malls and commuter train stations.

"This was a way to engage a younger demographic and to make it as convenient as possible for people to donate," said Captain John Murray, a Salvation Army spokesperson. "It was also a way to raise awareness about poverty, to get people to think about the 350 000 people living in poverty in Canada, which includes 80 000 children."

Neil W. Leduke, director of communications for the Salvation Army, said the Toronto pilot project used just two credit card machines but the scheme will be expanded. The region met its fundraising goal of 2.5 million Canadian dollars.

Allowing donors to use plastic to give did not typically result in more donations, said the musicians who operated the card-swipe machine, but donors often gave more: a typical shopper in a mall might give $2, $5 or $10 but a credit or debit card donation was often $20 to $50. The iKettles offered the added advantage of offering a tax receipt e-mailed instantly to donors.

And in a year when demand for help was 15 to 20 per cent higher than in 2007, Murray acknowledged the organization needed an edge to compete with other charities in a country experiencing a financial downturn.

"We have flatlined in fundraising," he said. "We’re not seeing increases anywhere, so we’re really at a net loss. We’re down because of increased demand in services."

The electronic initiatives also resulted in a good deal of media attention, giving staff and volunteers an opportunity to tell "our stories of hope", said Murray.

(c) Ecumenical News International