Those dimes and quarters that you plunk into the Salvation Army’s red kettles during the holidays are more important than you think.

Red kettle donations make up 20 to 25 percent of the Salvation Army’s Tree of Lights campaign — the agency’s most important annual fundraiser.

But kettle donations have been down the past two years, so the agency is making changes this year to try to turn that around.

The Salvation Army of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area kicked off its holiday fund drive Thursday evening with the illumination of the Tree of Lights at 90th Street and West Dodge Road. On Friday, bell-ringers will fan out across the city to accept donations from shoppers.

Money from the holiday drive funds the bulk of the Salvation Army’s programs in the metro area — food and housing, sex-trafficking prevention, toys, mental health care and other programs. The agency serves about 100,000 people in the metro area.

“It helps people all year-round,” said Susan Eustice, spokeswoman for the Omaha area Salvation Army.

So far, a reduction in programs hasn’t been necessary, but that could happen in the future if the trend continues, she said.

Last year, the $683,000 collected from kettle donations was down about $30,000 from the average year’s total.

The decline has followed changes in shopping habits, Eustice said.

Fewer people are shopping at stores as more people shop online. Fewer people carry cash as more people pay with credit cards or apps.

Donor attitudes are changing, too.

People increasingly prefer to give to a specific cause rather than an entire agency, Eustice said.

For example, someone might prefer to donate to the Salvation Army’s program to combat sex trafficking instead of the agency’s overall operations.

To combat the drop, the Salvation Army dove into its data.

“It reinforced what we had logically concluded,” Eustice said.

As a result, the agency plans to:

  • Recruit more volunteers. The agency hopes to add about 500 volunteers a year for the next three years. A small share of the kettle ringers are paid workers.
  • Emphasize high-performing locations, typically grocery stores and large retailers.
  • Staff up on days most likely to generate revenue: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The least productive days are Mondays and Thursdays. Bell ringers are not out on Sundays.
  • Offer kettle ringers incentives with gift cards and other goodies. Anyone who volunteers, even for just one two-hour shift, will be entered in a drawing for a diamond ring from Borsheims. Other prizes include gift cards and gift baskets.

“A happy volunteer staffing a kettle is one of our best ambassadors,” Eustice said.

Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Phone: 402-444-1102.

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