Wells Fargo customers logging into ATM machines this month found a new option on their screens. Next to the box that says "Deposit Cash" is one saying "Donate to Charity."

Donate they did. In just 10 days, the ubiquitous ATM machines collected more than $1 million for Japan relief efforts by the American Red Cross. The experiment marks the first time ATM machines have been used nationwide -- by any bank -- to raise money for a charity, say national banking officials.

Given the dramatic public response, it's unlikely to be the last.

"I think we've demonstrated that ATMs are a tool we can draw upon for fundraising," said Jonathan Velline, a Wells Fargo vice president in charge of ATM operations. "Our customers have spoken with their wallets."

Until now, ATMs rarely have been tapped for charity fundraising. Neither the American Bankers Association nor the Minnesota Bankers Association was aware of any previous campaigns. However, one official said a Cleveland bank used its ATMs to raise money for its local United Way in the 1990s.

Wells Fargo officials said they experimented last year with using local ATMs to raise money for disaster relief for Colorado wildfires, as well as for a San Francisco gas-line explosion. In 2009, ATMs were tapped for flood relief donations for North Dakota and Minnesota.

But Wells Fargo had never before put up a home screen on all of its 9,000 ATM machines nationwide announcing "You Can Help People Affected by Disasters" -- much less received an avalanche of $1 million.

The American Red Cross is thrilled.

"It's a great fundraising tactic," said Michael Brown, vice president of corporate partnerships at the American Red Cross. "Hopefully it's something we can replicate in the future."

Brown compared the ATM strategy to the text message donations that exploded after the Haiti earthquake last year. It's one more example of tapping new technology to make giving easy, he said.

Customers like it

Earlier this week, Amy Gallagher was among a dozen people lined up at the ATM machines at Wells Fargo's downtown Minneapolis center. She deposited a check, and then quickly donated $1 to Japan relief. Every time she uses the ATM, she donates a dollar. The retail worker said she got the idea from her mother, who is doing the same thing.

"It's not a lot of money, but if everyone here donated a dollar, look at how much money they could raise," said Gallagher, gesturing toward the line. "In the past five minutes, they could have got about $20."

Gallagher thinks ATM donations particularly appeal to people like her, in their 20s and 30s.

"My generation doesn't write out checks for anything anymore," Gallagher said. "Here you just type in the amount you want to donate."

ATM users can deduct the donation from their taxes.

Customers on this day said they liked the fundraising idea. Although many did not hit the "donate" key, they said it at least reminded them of the need. One woman, however, suggested that the donation button should be located farther from the rest of the financial transaction options because she nearly wound up donating the $200 she had intended to deposit.

Antwan Bui, a department store tailor who was withdrawing some cash, said he suspected some people would appreciate the chance to donate, but others would not.

"For people who don't have connections to Japan, they may ask, 'Why are they asking for money?'" Bui said. "But for people with connections, or who have a good heart, this is a very good idea. ... It's convenient. It can be done anytime, any place. And it's very private. Only you and the machine know."

How it started

The idea to use ATMs to raise money for charities surfaced during a brainstorming session on possible new services for ATM users, said Velline. Wells Fargo, unlike many financial institutions, developed its own ATM software and can build customized features, he said.

"We have more flexibility to tie it to a broader set of goals," he said.

Because the ATM strategy is so new, Wells Fargo has been monitoring Twitter, Facebook and other social media to gauge customer reaction, Velline said. So far, it's been positive, he said.

The donation option, which ends April 5, has raised $1.3 million so far. Wells Fargo also has donated $500,000 to disaster relief.

By comparison, text message donations to the American Red Cross for Japan relief have reached $4.3 million.

Could the ATM experiment wind up closing in on the much-touted text-message fundraising?

"It still has another week to go," Brown said. "We'll see what happens."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511