The Salvation Army's iconic red kettles are back this holiday season, but the charity this year also is debuting new ways to give: Venmo and PayPal.

As the nonprofit kicked off its annual Red Kettle campaign Friday, leaders are encouraging more online donations through use of the new mobile pay options. Grocery stores and retailers where the Salvation Army posts its red kettles with bell ringers to collect cash every year are still seeing fewer customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've always known that we're moving more and more to a cashless society as people's habits have changed. I think the pandemic really locked that in, that we have to find new ways," said Lt. Col. Dan Jennings, commander of the Salvation Army's Northern Division, which includes Minnesota and North Dakota. "We're trying to find every opportunity for people to be able to give in whatever way they've become accustomed to giving."

Two years ago, the Salvation Army added bump pay options at the red kettles so people could "bump" or scan their smartphones to make a digital donation via Apple Pay or Google Pay. It was done to accommodate the rising number of people who don't carry cash or spare coins.

Then last year as the pandemic hit, the organization added QR codes to the red kettles that donors can scan with smartphones to link to the donation website. Both options will continue to be available this year.

Despite the pandemic last year scuttling the usual holiday events and closing some retailers where red kettles were stationed, the Northern Division saw a surge in generosity in 2020, with online giving increasing by 25% over 2019. Previous years' online donations typically rose by only 3%, Jennings said.

"Last year was absolutely the best year in giving," Jennings said. He added that while online giving continues to grow, the biggest slice of donors still write checks.

But Jennings worries about donor fatigue in 2021. Nearly 735,000 people have sought out the Salvation Army's shelter beds, hot meals, rent and utility assistance and other services in Minnesota and North Dakota in the past 12 months — 63% more than last year.

The Twin Cities Salvation Army hopes to collect $2 million with its 300 red kettles across the metro area through Christmas Eve. It's part of a broader year-end fundraising campaign to bring in $12 million, up from $10 million last year. The year-end campaign provides about two-thirds of the charity's annual revenue.

"It sets the course for what's going to happen for the rest of the year," Jennings said.

Like other local nonprofits, the Salvation Army is struggling to find volunteers for the second year in a row due to the pandemic.

"We know that people respond to need," Jennings said. "And the need is still there."

Friday's red kettle kickoff event, held at the Cub Foods store in north Minneapolis, was delayed after a reputed drug dealer shot and killed a bystander and ran to the Cub parking lot, where he tried to hijack a Salvation Army employee's car. He was held by bystanders until police arrived to arrest him.

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Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141