An anonymous Santa Claus and some helpers stepped in at the 11th hour to help the Salvation Army fill its kettles this holiday season, resulting in a surge of donations that brightened the spirits of volunteers and staff.

Until last week, this holiday season was shaping up to be a gloomy one for the Salvation Army in Minnesota and North Dakota. Donations were down 20 percent to 30 percent compared with last year.

“We were very worried,” said spokeswoman Annette Bauer, who attributed the drop to a late Thanksgiving that gave bell-ringers a late start, followed by bitterly cold weather that thinned the ranks of volunteers for several crucial days.

“None of us want to cut programs,” which include emergency and transitional housing assistance, hot-meal programs and food shelves, but those conversations were starting, she said.

Then last week, a small group of anonymous donors pooled $2 million worth of matching funds to double all donations that were given Friday and Saturday in Minnesota and North Dakota, the largest two-day matching gift in Salvation Army history.

“It’s never happened before,” Bauer said. “It was literally at the last minute. One person stepped forward, and that inspired other givers.”

The nonprofit scrambled to get the word out — and succeeded far beyond expectations. Friday kettle donations in the Twin Cities alone were $194,000, up $21,000 from the same day last year. Donations in some smaller towns showed an even more dramatic increase. In Devils Lake, N.D., for example, a town of 7,000 that has been hit hard by flooding in recent years, Friday’s kettle donations were about $6,600, up from $500 a year ago.

Online donations also surged, Bauer said. On Thursday, before the match, online donors pledged $9,800 division-wide. On Friday, the first day of the match, the total was $114,000. “This has been a real game-changer for us,” Bauer said.

While the Salvation Army asks for matching donations every year, most matches are smaller in scale, such as doubling donations for one kettle. This event is the first in which every kettle in a two-state area qualified for a match. “That’s really gotten people fired up and excited,” Bauer said. “It’s an infusion of money into their town.”

The double donation match ended at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. Final numbers won’t be tallied until early next week. But local Salvation Army officials are now optimistic the organization can meet its Twin Cities goal of $10.8 million.

Kettles and bell-ringers will remain in force until Christmas Eve. Donations also are accepted online at

“Before Friday, we knew there was no way we could reach our goal,” Major Jeff Strickler, Twin Cities commander, said in a news release. “This turnaround is nothing short of a miracle.”