Keeping the bells ringing: Salvation Army scrambles to find volunteers

The familiar sound of ringing bells greeting holiday shoppers is being heard again this season, despite the COVID-19 pandemic thinning the ranks of volunteers with the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. 

The annual campaign, which began in 1891 in San Francisco, accepts monetary donations for families and others in need. Last year the Red Kettle Campaign raised more than $800,000 in New Hampshire alone. The money not only helps during the holidays but throughout the year by providing food, clothing, shelter, heating assistance, counseling, services for the aging and other assistance.

Officials with The Salvation Army are anticipating totals nowhere near last year’s mark. At the Salvation Army office in Concord, Major Richard Sharkey said they have four or five kettles this year instead of the usual nine. Sharkey said typically they have seven locations, (two at some locations) and with nine kettles received about $100,000 last year. But this year Sharkey said he trimmed the anticipated revenue to about $75,000, though it could be less, because he expected some difficulty finding volunteers. While the Concord location hires seasonal staff, they also rely on volunteer groups and charitable organizations during the Red Kettle Campaign.

 “The reason we have fewer kettles is some groups decided not to do it this year because of COVID,” Sharkey said, adding that many of their volunteers are older and more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus. “We could end up with about $50,000.”

Sharkey also said some smaller towns around his area could not find volunteer groups to participate in the Red Kettle Campaign and therefore won’t have kettles out.

The donations received by the Salvation Army during the holidays are desperately needed by so many more people in 2020 who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with job losses, financial setbacks and health-related issues.  But COVID is also the reason the number of volunteers willing and able to stand by a red kettle and ring a bell for a few hours in cold weather is down at locations in New Hampshire. From Keene to Berlin and the Seacoast, Salvation Army locations say they have had to scramble at times to fill two-hour slots.

New Hampshire Salvation Army Major Richard Starkey, left, kicks off this year’s red kettle drive with Gov. Chris Sununu outside the State House in Concord on Dec. 4. (Photo courtesy of Patricia James, Salvation Army Northern New England Division)

“We are in a mixed situation,” said David LaBossiere of the Salvation Army in Keene. “A lot of people recognize the great need this year but it has been hard to find enough volunteers. Some days we don’t have enough (for the six locations).”

As a result, LaBossiere said they don’t have locations open every day and try to rotate people around to be at the grocery stores early and the department stores later in the day.

DonnaMarie Reed is with the Salvation Army in Portsmouth, serving the Greater Seacoast area. Reed said staffing has been difficult as they usually have more volunteers.

“I am thinking there are less volunteers because people don’t feel comfortable with COVID,” Reed said.

Also putting a dent in donations is less foot traffic as more shoppers are buying online this year, she added.

But Reed, Sharkey and others also said that while they have fewer kettles out and that will likely translate into smaller donations totals, a generous spirit of giving has prevailed.

“The community has not been afraid to approach the kettles and they have been very generous,” Reed said.

In Claremont, where bell ringers collect for the local Kiwanis Club, Scott and Sue Bouranis said they were seeing a steady stream of donors during a recent Saturday morning outside Walmart.

The Salvation Army’s kettle stands also have Apple Pay and Google Pay options so people can give electronically if they feel that is safer. The Concord location has a “virtual Red Kettle” on its web site as a way to donate.

To ensure the safety of bell ringers and the public, protocols have been instituted for the Red Kettle Campaign, including face masks for bell ringers, social distancing, regular cleaning of the kettles and other CDC guidelines. 

Patricia James, public relations director of the Salvation Army of Northern New England said there is an urgent need this holiday but acknowledged that COVID has presented challenges.

“It is a challenging time and very difficult to raise funds,” James said from her office in Portland, Maine.

But James said she is confident that in tough times, people will rally in support of the Red Kettle campaigns.

“We might be behind (in donations) but people will support us because a lot are out of work and there are stores and businesses closing,” James said.

Donations are accepted at any of the more than 25,000 traditional red kettles found on street corners and in front of stores, online at, or on your phone by texting KETTLE to 91999.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit