Select Salvation Army Bellringers to Accept Credit Cards This Year

PHOTO: Salvation Army bell ringers in select cities will be using a postage-stamp size device called "Square," to accept credit card donations.Courtesy of Square
Salvation Army bell ringers in select cities will be using a postage-stamp size device called "Square," to accept credit card donations.

The image is familiar: a bright red bucket and a Salvation Army volunteer ringing a powerful bell with a wooden handle, and coins clinking into the bucket.

From classic movies like "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life" to modern favorites like "Friends," the red kettle is a symbol of giving during the holiday season.

The Salvation Army bellringer is now moving into the digital age with a new feature: Square.

Square is both the name of a product and the San Francisco-based company that produces it, co-founded by Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter. The postage-stamp-sized device connects to iPhones, iPad and Androids through the headphone jack and turns the gadget into a cashier with the ability to swipe credit cards and make secure payments through a free downloadable app.

The increasingly popular gadet is already being used around the country in food trucks, salons, pumpkin patches and even lawyers' offices.

And starting around Thanksgiving, 10 Salvation Army kettle volunteers in an Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and New York will be equipped with a Square in addition to their bell and kettle.

"Over the years, we've streamlined it and it's taken a different shape and look," Major George Hood, the National Community Relations and Development Secretary for the Salvation Army, told

"We have to be aware of where consumers make transactions. Many people don't want to keep cash in their pockets and are working from credit or debit cards to make donations," Hood said. "We think it's a way to stay in touch with the consumer who doesn't carry money in their pockets."

The Red Kettle Campaign began on a San Francisco wharf in 1891 when a Salvation Army officer was trying to find a unique way collect food for the needy during the holiday season. He put out a big pot and asked people to donate food, which they did, but he also noticed that people were throwing money in.

"It worked. And from that, it spread all across the country, from West to East," said Hood who even recalls his own days as a 12-year-old schoolboy volunteering for the Salvation Army and collecting money outside of his local Sears.

Over the past 120 years, the practice has become a tradition and a pop culture standard. Now, the bellringer force is made up of more than 25,000 people each year.

In 2010, people tossed more than $142 million into the kettles, helping buy food, toys and other holiday necessitates for the needy. All of the money donated to local kettles stays in the community.

But Hood said that over the past decade, he began to notice "a transition from a traditional fundraising model to an electronic world and a digital model taking over."

The organization tried credit card terminals at the kettle stands, but found that people did not want to stand around, often in the cold, waiting for the process. But, last summer, Hood was introduced to Square and was instantly interested.

"We just said, 'This is so simple, we've got to try it at the kettle,'" he said. "We've gone from collecting from an old pot to state-of-the-art credit card reading technology."

Hood said he already has Salvation Army members all over the country calling and asking to be part of the move into the digital age, and he said there's a good chance expansion of the technique is in the organization's future.

This is not the organization's first foray into the technology world. The downloadable Salvation Army Bellringer iPhone app turns the iPhone screen into the traditional bell that can be rung by shaking the iPhone.

"You can turn your iPhone into a bell, just for fun," Hood said. "A lot of people will actually approach the kettle with their iPhone shaking as they approach."

So is the traditional real-life bell going to fall by the wayside in favor of the digital version? Hood said it won't.

"We will always try to have that gold bell," he said. "I can be anywhere and hear that ringing and know it's one of ours. By and large, that bell and red kettle are pretty iconic fixtures of the holiday season in America."