Gold coins end up in the Salvation Army's kettles every year, but who's donating them?
WEST FARGO — Donors who stop at Christine Schmidt's red Salvation Army kettle often like to share a friendly word or two, she said as she rang bells with her mother Lorie at the Cash Wise grocery store here Thursday, Dec. 21.
She'll chat, she said, but she also likes to sneak a peek to see what they're putting in the kettle, aware that sometimes people donate unusual things, such as gold coins. "It's kind of exciting. It's pretty cool that someone would give that up."
It's not easy to spot these donors who have been spreading their generosity anonymously for 18 years in Fargo-Moorhead. The most recent donor managed to sneak a gold Krugerrand worth about $1,300 in the kettle here at this grocery store more than a week ago, on Dec. 12. It was the Salvation Army's sixth gold coin this season.
Maj. Elaine Medlock, who runs the area Salvation Army, said she doesn't know who these mystery donors are — she's certain there's more than one — and she knows the bell ringers don't either. Gold coins don't look all that different from a Sacagawea dollar coin or a Canadian Loonie, she said. "One ounce of gold, you know, it's not as big as half a dollar even, usually. It wouldn't catch your attention by itself."
Some donors, like the one that dropped the Krugerrand at Cash Wise, even wrap their gold coins in a $5 bill to disguise their giving.
Still, the Salvation Army does have a small clue who some donors might be because they sometimes call to let the charity know to search a certain kettle, Medlock said. Her husband, Maj. Byron Medlock, once spoke with a donor who he thought might be the one who started the tradition, she said, but of course, he didn't reveal himself.
A small clue
The Fargo Salvation Army received its first gold coin in 2000 and has received at least one if not a handful each year since.
But the fact that the first coin, the one that may have inspired many others, was a Krugerrand says something about the donor, according to Mark Kingsley, owner of Northern Plains Coins in Fargo.
The majority of the investors who trade Krugerrands at his store are seniors, while younger investors prefer other kinds of gold coins that contain more pure gold, he said.
Krugerrands, gold coins from South Africa weighing one troy ounce, are named after Paul Kruger, a towering figure in the country's history whose likeness appears on one side.
When South Africa's mint began producing Krugerrands in 1967, they were just about the only gold coins available to investors, according to Kingsley. Coins backed up by a country with the resources to go after counterfeiters are seen as a safer investment than bank-produced gold bars that have no such protection from adulteration.
Older investors are simply more comfortable with Krugerrands from long association.
Younger gold investors, Kingsley said, are more likely to go for Canadian Maple Leaf or American Gold Eagle coins, one-ounce coins that have more pure gold but were not available in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. In the last decade or so, demand for Krugerrands has fallen so much that his store no longer carries the coins, he said.
In fact, only one of the three one-ounce gold coins donated to the Salvation Army in Fargo so far this year was a Krugerrand. The others were an American Gold Buffalo and what appears to be a Canadian Maple Leaf. Three one-tenth ounce coins were also donated. That variety is what causes Medlock to think there are multiple donors who copied the original.
An ounce of gold trades for $1,285 to $1,300 these days, depending on the coin, Kingsley said.
The first time a Salvation Army organization received a gold coin was in 1982 when an anonymous donor dropped a Krugerrand in a red kettle north of Chicago, according to news reports. The legend goes that it was a World War II vet who appreciated the charity's frontline service. His children continued the tradition after he died.
Today, Krugerrands and other types of gold coins show up in the Salvation Army's red kettles all across the country, from Reno, Nev., to Tega Cay, S.C., and many places in between. In North Dakota, the Jamestown Salvation Army has reported receiving Krugerrands.
Very rarely are the anonymous donors ever outed. It happened most recently in 2012 in Gettysburg, Pa., when Richard and Ruth Jean Unger agreed to out themselves after 15 years because the local Salvation Army, which learned of their identity early on, was constantly getting badgered to name names and it was difficult for officials to continue claiming ignorance, according to news reports. Richard Unger, true to Kingsley's profile, started investing in gold in the 1980s.
Salvation Army officials themselves have at times wondered if it's one of their own that's helped out. Rich Draeger, a spokesman for the charity in Peoria, Ill., told The Associated Press in 2004 that gold coins often show up just when giving lags and the fundraising campaign needs a boost. Maybe a board member did it, he said.
In Fargo, Elaine Medlock insisted she doesn't know who her mystery donors are, though their motivations aren't especially mysterious. The anonymous donor her husband talked to on the phone a few years ago talked about connections his family had to the Salvation Army, she said. "He said on the phone that he really liked the Salvation Army, and so as long as he was able, he would be putting a gold coin in every year."
She and her husband often hear people talk about how they appreciated the Salvation Army's help during floods and even a tornado that came through town in the 1950s.
No doubt donors have been inspired by stories of other donors.
"Across the country, we've seen it become a copycat donation. We see copycat crimes. This is copycat giving," she said. She speculated that these donors just enjoy giving at Christmas and enjoy reading about the splash they make in their local newspaper.
Compared to the Fargo Salvation Army's total fundraising goal of $900,000 this Christmas season, the gold coins are just a drop in the bucket; the six coins total about $4,300. But Medlock said this "symbol of extreme generosity" has spurred on donations of other kinds.
On Dec. 8, for example, someone put 10 $100 bills all folded together in the kettle at the Dilworth Walmart.
As of Saturday, Dec. 16, the charity was at $497,700, though Medlock expects she'll achieve the goal or come close by the end of the campaign on Dec. 31.
Over the years, the gold coins have represented ever more extreme generosity as the value of gold rises.
In December 2000, when the Fargo Salvation Army saw its first gold coin, the value of a troy ounce of gold was, adjusted for inflation, about $380. It kept rising through the Great Recession of the late 2000s and peaked in the early 2010s. In December 2011, it was worth close to $1,800. Today, it's down to $1,300.
"Fargo amazes me because it's an extremely generous community," Medlock said.
This is the ninth community she and her husband have lived in and worked for the Salvation Army. And, to her memory, it's the only one in which they've encountered any one-ounce gold coins let alone two or three or more.