Business Beat - Digital giving adds to nonprofit holiday donations

Dec 16, 2015

This piece was produced in conjunction with Missouri Business Alert, a digital newsroom that provides business news from across the state of Missouri.

The Salvation Army’s time-honored red kettle bell fundraiser has captured hearts - and ears - of patrons walking into and out of local grocery and retail stores for years.

As a family walks into HyVee, a woman slips change into two children’s hands; the children rush toward the sound of the bell and drop the money into the cherry red bucket.

Ron Busroe, the Secretary for the Salvation Army’s Community Relations and Development, said the charitable organization has been ringing bells for 125 years. However, he said they’ve been aware of the new trends in way people shop and spend money.

“People are not carrying cash,” Busroe said. “I don’t have change in my pockets anymore, and when I buy things, I most often use plastic. I don’t use cash.”

Between more credit cards and fewer bills and coins as well as decreased foot traffic at retail stores, Busroe said The Salvation Army decided to mix things up.

Last year, the organization launched an online campaign called #redkettlereason, asking people why they give and encouraging others to do the same. Last year, the campaign received 66,000 Twitter submissions, and this year it's already received more than 100,000.

Busroe said the organization has seen a steady growth in online giving for the past five years, and it now makes up about six percent of their total donations. The online donations work the same as the red kettle bucket, with 100 percent of donations given to the donor’s local Salvation Army chapter, an important part of its fundraising mission, according to Busroe.

“If a donor in Columbia, Missouri, clicks on a donate button, within 24-48 hours the amount that they donate is in the bank account in Columbia, Missouri,” Busroe said.

In Columbia, an exclusively online giving opportunity called CoMoGives is currently underway.

Launched just three years ago, the effort has attracted 71 nonprofits to participate in the end-of-the-year fundraiser.

Josh Chittum, who coordinates media and public relations for "We Always Swing" Jazz Series, said that the success of CoMoGives has pushed the Jazz Series to opt for a greener approach, focusing on online donations.

“For years, we would do a mailer, snail mail, in your mailbox at the end of the year asking people to give, but seeing the success it had and the potential it had this last year, we actually discontinued our physical mailer and are doing the same thing this year,” Chittum said.

Chittum said the Jazz Series was able to raise half of their total fundraising goals in 2014 through CoMoGives.

Eric Staley, an adjunct professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs and the chair of the Community Foundation, the organization that runs CoMoGives, said that it was great to hear its success with local nonprofits.

Staley’s business, MissionMapping, a consultant service to nonprofits, keeps him from supporting just one nonprofit. However, he said initiatives like CoMoGives bring an accessible and convenient method to donate to all participating nonprofits.

“Seventy-five percent of the population will make some sort of charitable gift this time of year in the fall and that increases throughout the month of December,” Staley said.

According to Staley, about half of nonprofits nationwide have adopted an online giving portal through a variety of methods such as an email blast, mobile giving or through a website.

One of the remaining challenges with digital giving is the perception of security. Staley said retail security breaches have underscored fear about the vulnerability of financial information during online giving or purchasing transactions.

Terri Breedlove, a retired State Farm worker living in Columbia, said she appreciated the confirmation email she received from St. Jude Children’s Hospital and the American Cancer Society after donating online as well as seeing “St. Jude” appear on her credit card statement.

Staley said that how a nonprofit responds to those fears can help ease donors' concerns.

Breedlove also said that online giving was more convenient than sending in a check.

“By giving online, I don’t have to have a postage stamp, and I don’t have to write a letter with the donation,” Breedlove said.

However, even with the recent growth in online donations, Staley said online giving only accounts for a little more than two percent of nationwide charitable giving, or about $8 billion of the $360 billion given in total last year.

Staley says one reason for this is because online donations are much smaller, usually in sums totaling less than $250.

Big donations amounting to several thousand or even millions are given through more traditional approaches, and Staley does not expect digital giving to ever replace the person-to-person interaction needed to solicit large-sum donations.

“I’m an old fundraiser, so I believe you give everybody as many opportunities to make a gift to your organization as possible,” Staley said.

Those comments were echoed by Busroe, who said that regardless of the future growth of online giving, the Salvation Army will keep on ringing its red kettle bells as an annual reminder of the Salvation Army’s work across communities.

“I don’t think that digital giving is going to replace the kettle bell. I don't. It’s just another means of giving,” Busroe said.