A slump in the number of volunteer bell ringers means that the Salvation Army has collected $200,000 less in its red kettles this holiday season, compared to this time last year.

Now the nonprofit, calling the situation dire, is trying to recruit new bell ringers in hopes of meeting or exceeding the $3 million threshold.

"We have about 14,000 volunteer bell ringers so far this year, compared to just over 16,000 at this time last year," said Salvation Army spokeswoman Julie Borgen. "We don't put kettles out without a ringer."

The Salvation Army places kettles at 300 locations throughout the Twin Cities. When staffed with a bell ringer, a typical kettle collects about $30 an hour. That amount increases the closer it gets to Christmas.

Borgen is urging people to volunteer for a two-hour shift. The Salvation Army encourages creativity, she said: Bell ringers may play holiday tunes, sing a carol, wear an ugly sweater or bring friends or their children to help out.

"This is a critical time for the Salvation Army," said Lt. Col. Lonneal Richardson, leader of the organization's Northern Division. "If we don't make our goals, we risk needing to cut programs that serve the people in our community."

Borgen said the money raised stays in the region.

Each year, the Twin Cities Salvation Army helps 187,000 people in the metro area, serving 1,300 hot meals daily and providing shelter to nearly 900 every night.

Red kettles, a symbol of the holiday season, date back to 1891 when Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee set out a pot to raise money to prepare a Christmas Day meal for a thousand of San Francisco's and Oakland's poor.

The Twin Cities Salvation Army was founded in 1886 and Borgen said she believes the red kettles have been used in Minnesota for more than a century.

To volunteer, call the Salvation Army's bell ringing hot line at 651-746-3519 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, or register online at SalvationArmyNorth.org/ring.