The Salvation Army

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Tim Boyle / Getty

A donation is made into a Salvation Army bell ringer's red Holiday donation kettle.

Beginning the first week of December, Salvation Army bell ringers will set up red kettles on street corners and in malls across the country, hoping to collect more than $100 million in coins and small bills. It's an old-school way of raising money and the Army knows it, so this year, the charity is supplementing its famous Red Kettle Campaign with a Twitter feed, a Facebook widget, and a cell phone text message donation program in addition to its recently introduced online kettle program. The Army, short on volunteer bell ringers, even pays some people to coax passersby into donating their spare change for the organization's causes, which include disaster relief, soup kitchens, drug and alcohol counseling and homeless shelters.

Despite the fact that many Americans' only contact with the Salvation Army is its holiday season kettles or its more than 1,300 thrift stores, these programs represent less than 15% of the charity's annual revenue in the U.S. (Most of the rest of its 2007 income came from in-kind donations, government funds, and direct online or mail contributions.) The Army is the second-largest charity in America — the United Way is number one — a fact that's astounding when you consider that it isn't even based in the U.S., but is headquartered in London.

The Salvation Army has a devoutly religious mission, rooted in its founding in 1865 by an evangelical protestant minister (and former pawn broker) named William Booth, whose early motivation was to convert poor Londoners — and eventually prostitutes, gamblers and alcoholics — to Christianity. Recognizing that his followers needed more than just religion to improve their lives — and that the way to attract the destitute was the provide services — Booth provided meals, clothing and other assistance to his early converts. He was famous for saying, "Nobody ever got saved while they had a toothache." The quasi-military name "Salvation Army" was given to the charitable church in 1878 — Booth had been known as its "general" even before that — and the first U.S. chapter opened around 1880.

A San Francisco Salvation Army captain started the first kettle fundraising drive in 1891 and by 1897, the program was running nationwide; that year, it helped provide Christmas meals to more than 100,000 people. In 1901, the first of many mass sit-down Christmas dinners at Madison Square Garden was funded by kettle donations. Despite occasional bans over the years on kettle set-ups outside stores and malls, which sometimes prohibit the bell ringers on the grounds that they block foot traffic and invite others to solicit at entryways, the Salvation Army says it raised $118 million through the program in 2007. (The charity is also in the process of distributing a $1.5 billion donation from Joan Kroc, the wife of the founder of McDonald's, to open community centers around the country.) In the U.S., there are nearly 8,000 Salvation Army locations, and more than 3 million volunteers assisting nearly 30 million people a year. Worldwide, the charity operates in more than 100 countries.

The Salvation Army is run by "officers" who, as a condition of their leadership positions, vow to refrain from alcohol and tobacco and only marry other officers so they can devote nearly their entire personal and professional lives to the organization. Future leaders train as "cadets" at Salvation Army colleges. The charity's right to require that its employees and leaders adhere to Christian principles, even though it is partially government-funded, has been affirmed in the courts. The legal victory was a boon for President Bush's "faith-based" programs, which President-Elect Obama has said he will continue.) The charity espouses most evangelical Christian beliefs, with some exceptions; it is pro-birth control, but anti-surrogate motherhood; it accepts homosexuality, but says gay people must remain celibate; it is pro-life, but takes no official position on the death penalty.

With the sagging economy affecting overall charitable donations nationwide, the Salvation Army is braced for a disappointing kettle campaign this year. But the other mission of the program — publicizing the Salvation Army brand — is just as important, especially during these tough times.

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