When the Salvation Army began its annual red-kettle collections this holiday season, officials never imagined that a healthy economy would hurt their cause.
But like fast-food restaurants and retail shops, the 133-year-old charity is struggling to find workers willing to ring a bell and wish shoppers a Merry Christmas for barely more than minimum wage.
Two days shy of Christmas Eve, the final day for kettle collections, the Salvation Army's Chicago-area donations are down $205,000, or 11 percent, from last year's efforts, which raised about $1.8 million. The $1.6 million collected so far will put the charity far from its 1998 goal of collecting $3 million in its kettles.
"We had some problems finding kettle workers this year because the economy is good," said Robert Cotner, the Salvation Army's director of development for the Chicago area. "It's difficult to hire people and, as a result, the kettle collections are down substantially. We just don't have enough people to cover all the places we used to."
Though many assume that all bell-ringers are volunteers or Salvation Army soldiers, about half the 5,000 kettle collectors who fan out annually in Chicago and the suburbs are paid $5.25 an hour, just above the $5.15 an hour minimum wage set by the federal government. The same is true in many other U.S. cities.
While the Salvation Army traditionally has had little trouble recruiting seasonal employees to head up the kettle drive, this year's shortage of hired bell-ringers has forced officials to limit the number of collection sites. And that has cut into the group's donations.
"I could have easily used another 100 workers for the kettle collection," Salvation Army spokesman Robert Bonesteel said. "The problem is that not everyone who might be interested is suited to work with the public."
The shortage of kettle workers is plaguing Salvation Army holiday drives nationwide. Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City, Mo., and other cities have reported that their fundraising efforts have been similarly hampered.
"Everyone is having trouble finding workers as a result of the good economy," Cotner said. "We're pleased
that people are working, because that's a major part of what the Salvation Army is all about. But it is kind of ironic. Now that we've got people working, we're having trouble filling our own roles."
If the economy remains healthy next year, Chicago-area officials anticipate that they will be forced to rely on a much larger group of volunteers, such as members of churches and community group.
Working a kettle requires few skills, but the Salvation Army demands that candidates reflect the organization's beliefs and philosophy. Officials find workers by placing notices in newspapers, through temporary employment agencies and by offering positions to clients who are seeking help from the charity.
"The best kettle workers are outgoing and enjoy working with the public," Bonesteel said. "Otherwise, you might as well just stick a mannequin out there."
The shortage of bell-ringers hasn't reduced the Salvation Army's presence at red-kettle strongholds, such as along North Michigan Avenue and State Street. (Many large suburban malls have for years prohibited the group from raising money with bell-ringers.) But the charity says it has been forced to abandon dozens of other less-busy sites in Chicago and the suburbs.
"We put the stands out at the beginning of the season," Cotner said. "But because we don't have enough kettle workers to go around, a lot of them are still empty."
At least 150 more kettle workers were needed this year, he said.
Though the economy has been strong, Salvation Army officials say they haven't seen a dropoff in demand for their social-service programs.
Money raised during the charity's holiday campaign helps support programs that provide food and clothing for families, toys for children and visits to shut-ins throughout the year.
"Our programs are so complex," Cotner said. "Even when the economy is good, we always see people having trouble with drugs and alcohol, or families in need."