A Giving Tree, Virtually

How taking the Salvation Army Angel Tree digital made the holidays brighter for more boys and girls in Wichita, Kansas City and Chicago.

A Giving Tree, Virtually

December 14, 2015

We all have our cherished holiday traditions. For many, the season starts by breaking bread with family on Thanksgiving and reserving the next day for decorating the house, hanging up lights and trimming the tree.
Koch Industries Inc. has a similar tradition, only its tree looks a little different. It’s still decorated with the same love and attention to detail, but you won’t find any heirloom ornaments, and it probably won’t be draped from top to bottom in strands of tinsel. 
In place of ornaments, what you will find are colorful cardstock cutouts tied to string and hung with precise, thoughtful care that lend their own charm and read something like this:
Boy, age 3, gift ideas: books, building blocks, clothes (4T).
Girl, age 11, gift ideas: Easy Bake Oven, art set, new shoes (size 5). 
Over the last 26 years, this tree – the Salvation Army Angel Tree – has become synonymous with giving at Koch and representative of everything that’s right with the holidays. And it serves as a physical reminder for those who can to help the less fortunate.

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But in this digital age, the Angel Tree needed a little help from the holiday spirit. So, in 2013, Koch stepped in and forever changed Angel Tree giving with one innovative move – the company made it digital, and the Virtual Angel Tree was born.
Pat Wilson, design and development manager with Koch Industries, played an integral role in making the Virtual Angel Tree a reality, a move he says has “offered greater exposure to the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree campaign, and allowed people to participate in the program who otherwise could not.” And participate they have.
In fact, the Virtual Angel Tree was so successful its first year, it expanded beyond Koch to businesses in the Wichita area the following year. Then to Kansas City the year after that. And now it’s poised to go national as it rolls out in wide use across the Chicago metro area.
In total, 174 organizations will use the Virtual Angel Tree this season. And its growth has been spurred by the one functional benefit that makes all good ideas great – simplicity.
“The biggest thing for us is that it’s successful and shows a different way of doing things,” says Brian Carroll, director of divisional resources with the Salvation Army of Kansas and Western Missouri. “The more people who can see this and get on board and watch it grow, the more children get to experience a better Christmas, and that’s the ultimate goal.”
Aside from providing convenience and promoting participation, the Virtual Angel Tree has been especially helpful for companies with multiple locations. For example, a business with different branches that couldn’t justify or maintain multiple Angel Trees in the past now has a virtual alternative and a way for both customers and employees to get involved.
The advent of the Virtual Angel Tree doesn’t mean actual Angel Trees are going away anytime soon, though. Many businesses have found that having both physical and virtual tree options available to employees and customers has been a blessing.
“We don’t ever want to lose the tree itself because it represents a need that exists in our communities,” Carroll adds. “But again, anymore, people are on their computers, on their smartphones, on their iPads. And finding a new way to reach them is what we were searching for.”
In Chicago, where the Virtual Tree program is set to make an impact its first year in wide use, there exists an opportunity to grow nationally. In 2014, the program was used by just a small handful of Chicago partners. But overwhelming support and generosity from the public was enough to warrant expansion across even more Salvation Army community centers in the city.
“Last year when we opened the program, it was fairly late in the season,” says Linda Reiter, volunteer resource manager with the Salvation Army in Chicago. “We put it on at three different community centers plus a divisional headquarters, and what we saw was an outpouring of gifts from the public. Everything came from private individuals and families, which was really, really cool to see.”
Moving forward, Reiter says she would like to see adoption of the Virtual Tree continue to grow to more cities as well as the development of a partnership with a major online retailer. As more and more shoppers opt to do their holiday shopping online, teaming up with a retailer could help further streamline the process and make it even easier for people to donate.
“If we could get that link going, then the site would truly be a one-stop shop for the user,” she says. “They could log on directly to the retailer and donate a gift with just a couple of clicks.”
For Wilson, the hope and happiness the Virtual Angel Tree makes possible for so many families and children still outweighs the added convenience. Because, at the end of the day, serving others is what it’s really all about.
“It’s rewarding to know that we were able to provide a service that the Salvation Army can use to help even more people across the country,” he adds.
But there’s still work to be done and children to be served yet this year. For many boys and girls in Wichita, Kansas City and Chicago, December 25 can’t come soon enough. And thanks to the generosity of others and a little digital ingenuity, these same kids will have something to look forward to come Christmas morning.