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Bell curve

Donations are becoming harder to get and kettle-keepers harder to find for the venerable Salvation Army

DALLAS - Tillie Enriquez shakes her jingle bells as a young Asian girl approaches with a few coins. Even before the girl can find the cross-shaped hole in the red kettle, Ms. Enriquez thanks her: "May the Lord bless you." Before the girl walks away from the Salvation Army kettle, Ms. Enriquez adds, "You may have a candy cane if you like." The child does.

Ms. Enriquez, a retired school teacher from California, is the marathon woman of North Texas Salvation Army kettle ringers. On Nov. 20 she suited up in her blue uniform for the first time this year and hit a local mall with her bells, kettle, and candy canes. If 2004 is anything like 2003, she'll volunteer for about a dozen three- to seven-hour shifts in the weeks before Christmas.

The Salvation Army wishes it could find more volunteers like Ms. Enriquez. Around the country, the venerable, old charity has fallen back to paying bell ringers for their Christmas red kettle drives. But that's just one of many factors that could hurt the Salvation Army's bottom line this year. Nonprofits have copied parts of the Salvation Army's strategy, setting up shop very close to Salvation Army kettles. And in the case of Target, the competition for prime spots outside of entrances provoked the retailer to enforce its no-solicitation policy, leaving formerly grandfathered organizations like the Salvation Army scrambling for a backup plan.

Target, the nation's second-largest retailer, told the Salvation Army last January the chain planned to enforce its no-solicitation policy, even banning the bell ringers. The store suggested the Salvation Army could apply for grants from local Target stores, noting the retailer donates nearly $2 million every week to charity. Across the country last year, red kettle drives raised nearly $9 million at Target stores. No hard feelings, says Dallas-area Salvation Army spokesman Pat Patey: "We understand there comes a time when you've heard enough of, 'Well how can you let the Salvation Army be there and not let us there.' We regret it, but it's understandable."

Salvation Army officials in Dallas say they have a plan to make up the difference, but the numbers are daunting. High traffic outside of major retail stores meant that over 20 percent of the $1.1 million raised last year in the Dallas area came from 24 Target locations. Each Target kettle site brought in nearly $9,500 during the drive (nationally, Target sites netted about $8,200 per location). Other Dallas-area kettle sites averaged only $2,500 during the drive. Mr. Patey says the group will try to make up the difference at stores like Big Lots! and Walgreen's-both new opportunities for the organization. Army officials also hope that a better-than-expected Christmas season for retailers will signal more generous consumers. "We figure if they're spending more, they're giving more," Mr. Patey said.

But the charity isn't just competing for prime locations, but also for donations and even volunteers. Nationally a lack of volunteers cuts into the Salvation Army's margins when it has to pay the bell ringers minimum wage. In Dallas, the problem has become epidemic, with north Texas consumers seeming eager to give change, but not time. Paid workers making minimum wage, not volunteers, operate more than half of all Dallas-area kettles. With the Salvation Army committed to operating from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at so many locations, the volunteer shortage slashes at the bottom line. Last year in Dallas alone, Salvation Army officials estimate they paid $275,000 to kettle attendants.

Other charities are squeezing the Salvation Army, too. In the same North Dallas mall where Tillie Enriquez and three paid bell ringers operate, a children's hospital and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have interactive booths inside the mall. The SPCA's petting zoo attracts children and parents more easily than the persistent bell. "People can still hear us," Ms. Enriquez says. "People still come and give." This year, she may just ring a little louder.

John Dawson

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the University of Texas at Austin, and previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @talkdawson.