Even though it's still September, the Salvation Army in Minnesota wants donors to start thinking about the holidays.

The charity known for its annual red kettles is kicking off its holiday fundraising campaign weeks earlier than normal by soliciting online donations now.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic canceling holiday events and leading to retail closures, the nonprofit will have fewer red kettles out this winter and expects less foot traffic — a combination of challenges that will likely drop donations by nearly half the usual amount.

"We're really pushing people to try the online feature this year," said Maj. Scott Shelbourn of the Salvation Army's Northern Division, which includes Minnesota and North Dakota. "We're going to need everybody's help to meet those needs."

Nonprofits across Minnesota have seen a surge in the number of people in need of food assistance and other help during COVID-19. The Salvation Army is serving up to triple the number of people in need this year through its homeless shelters, food or rent assistance and other social service programs.

The Twin Cities organization relies on year-end giving to bring in about two-thirds of its annual revenue and aims to raise $10 million between now and the end of 2020 — $3 million of that from its red kettles.

Even the kettles will direct people online. Starting Nov. 13 through Christmas Eve, hundreds of kettles will be set out across Minnesota with QR codes that donors can scan with smartphones to get a link to the donation website. The Salvation Army has used QR codes in the past with minimal success, but now, Shelbourn said QR codes are making a comeback in the pandemic as a contactless digital method, especially with the coin shortage during COVID-19.

Last year, the charity 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, which will again be an option this year. Donors can also text "KETTLES" to 91999 to donate.

In years past, texting or online giving have accounted for a small fraction of the Salvation Army's donations, but this year, Shelbourn said the nonprofit is forced to pivot to push online giving in the pandemic. With more people using grocery delivery services, online shopping or working from home, there will be less foot traffic at stores.

Growing needs

Last year, the Salvation Army fell short of its fundraising goal by about $500,000, with officials blaming thinner shopping crowds because of cold, snowy weather and more online shopping.

If the organization again falls short of fundraising, it may have to cut programs or staff, or just hold off on making necessary repairs to vehicles and buildings, Shelbourn said. He added the organization is expecting fewer volunteers to ring bells at kettles or help sort food, especially with fewer workplace-volunteer events as businesses work remotely.

Because of COVID-19, the nonprofit is handing out food boxes instead of hosting food pantries. It is also spending more money on cleaning shelters and gallons of hand sanitizer.

"People have been asking for Salvation Army services in unprecedented numbers," Shelbourn said. "People need help just getting by."