Originally created 12/19/97

Plastic Charity



PITTSBURGH - Hark! A 106-year-old Christmas tradition got a quiet facelift that could multiply the number of times you hear "Paper or plastic?"

The Salvation Army introduced to Pennsylvania a red kettle equipped to accept credit-card donations.

"It's a direct transaction. It's recorded. It's receipted. It's verifiable," said Gene Phillips, development director for the Salvation Army's western Pennsylvania corps, which gave the credit-card kettle its debut Wednesday.

The telephone-sized register sits atop an old-style red kettle. A credit card swiped through it provides information that the machine relays to the card issuer via cellular telephone.

Parked outside a skyscraper that houses offices, shops and fast-food restaurants, the new kettle didn't seem to get much attention. None of the shoppers passing by ventured to test the gizmo, maybe because reporters and cameras ringed it. One elderly woman did, however, slip a bill into a traditional kettle - just like old times.

But the charity's western Pennsylvania corps hopes the new kettle will appeal to people under 50 and those who worry that a cash donation could be stolen.

The Salvation Army is soliciting cardholders because cash donations so far are down about a third from last year, corps spokeswoman Ginny Knor said. The charity has raised about 60 percent of its 1997 regional goal of $1.6 million.

Businesses generally see their sales increase by about one-fifth after they begin accepting credit cards, said PNC Bank Executive Vice President Craig Campbell, who serves on the board of directors of the Salvation Army's Pittsburgh corps.

The charity's corps in Akron, Ohio, tried a similar system last year and boosted donations by almost a third, Knor said.

PNC Bank donated the cost of using the cellular credit-card technology. The firm benefits by having the Salvation Army test the machine before it is offered to such businesses as taxis and craft shows, where land-line telephones can't be used.

The Christmas kettle tradition stretches back more than a century. Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee had seen a charity pot on the docks in Liverpool, England, and in 1891 set up a kettle in San Francisco to collect money for a free Christmas dinner for poor people.

By 1897, the Salvation Army was using the kettles nationwide.