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."