The kickoff to holiday giving on Friday is — like holiday shopping — moving online.

With fewer people expected to shop in person at stores due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many businesses still operating remotely, the Salvation Army and Toys for Tots are touting online gift registries, where donors can spread some holiday cheer to families in need without leaving home.

“This year, more than ever … we’re definitely promoting that more,” said Brian Molohon, executive director of development at the Salvation Army’s division in Minnesota and North Dakota. “Psychologically, [the day after Thanksgiving] is what puts people in the holiday mood — even if they’re hopping online.”

For the first time, thanks to a Minneapolis marketing company, the national Toys for Tots campaign organized by the U.S. Marines is using a virtual toy drive. Donors log on at, pick out a gift card to fund a toy purchase and then the retailer selects a toy to distribute to one of 810 Toys for Tots campaigns across the country, depending on where there’s the most need.

“If people aren’t going to be comfortable going into brick and mortar retail, how do we give the people who want to give back an option virtually?” said Margaret Murphy, CEO of Bold Orange, the marketing firm that created the site. “They can do this from their living room now and still contribute to Toys for Tots and make sure that kids have a wonderful Christmas.”

‘What can I do?’

Murphy hopes corporations, many of which are continuing months of working remotely during the pandemic, will use the online platform to encourage employee giving since the usual in-person company fundraisers may be scrapped.

“People are saying, ‘What can I do?’ ” said Murphy, whose downtown Minneapolis firm is also working remotely. “I think companies are looking for ways to give back.”

The Salvation Army has done a similar gift registry through Walmart, and this year, Molohon said more churches and companies are sending e-mails to members and staff encouraging them to give through the gift registry instead of in person.

‘Needs aren’t going away’

Many nonprofits and corporations have also retooled volunteering opportunities to activities people can do online or at home, but food shelves and toy drives still need in-person assistance.

The Salvation Army is facing a volunteer shortage to sort toys at its Toy Shop and for bell ringers to man hundreds of red kettles deployed outside stores throughout the state through Christmas Eve. With COVID-19 cases rising and new statewide restrictions shutting down bars, restaurants and fitness centers until Dec. 18, Molohon said people may be reluctant to help in person.

“If you’re part of a less vulnerable population, the community needs you,” he said. “The needs aren’t going away.”

Volunteers must wear masks, equipment is sanitized and plastic shields were installed at some indoor kettles. The Salvation Army consolidated seven Toy Shop sites into one at its Roseville headquarters with volunteers spaced out to run a drive-through toy pickup.

Second Harvest Heartland, the largest of seven food banks in Minnesota, usually needs about 400 volunteers a week to sort and pack food. But the organization this month canceled all volunteer shifts through January out of concern for the safety of volunteers as the virus surges. Instead, employees will pack food boxes or the food bank will pay for more expensive prepackaged foods.

AmeriCorps programs in Minnesota also urgently need volunteers. The Minnesota Reading and Math Corps is seeking more than 100 virtual tutors — double the usual number — to help students starting in January. (Go to to apply by Dec. 18.) The Minnesota Recovery Corps is also looking for 15 people, mostly in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Willmar, to mentor peers in an 11-month substance abuse program. AmeriCorps volunteers receive modest stipends and money to fund tuition or student loans.

As the year comes to a close, many nonprofits are still looking to drum up cash after galas or annual fundraisers were canceled or moved online. On Tuesday, the annual national online giving effort, Giving Tuesday, will appeal to donors. The effort is similar to Minnesota’s Give to the Max Day, which hauled in a record-smashing $30 million for nonprofits and schools this month.