SINGAPORE - Malls in Singapore have fallen silent this festive season, when volunteers from The Salvation Army usually ring bells to solicit public donations.
The familiar red kettles used for The Salvation Army's annual fund-raiser, known as Christmas Kettling, can still be found at selected shopping centres, but they are unmanned due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Members of the public can drop cash into the kettle pots or scan the QR code on them to make a donation. They can also give online at christmaskettling.sg.
But the charity says that having no bells for this Christmas fund-raiser will have a devastating impact on its ability to serve its needy beneficiaries next year.
The Salvation Army's chief secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel Hary Haran, says that due to the Covid-19 economic climate and restrictions on volunteers, it expects Christmas Kettling donations to drop by about 80 per cent.
Traditionally a time of festive giving and volunteerism, Christmas has dimmed for some charities facing a shortfall in fund-raising and volunteers due to the pandemic.
But non-profit organisations are finding new ways to overcome the constraints of social distancing, which means year-end events - like corporate dinner-and-dances, when companies often make donations to charities of their choice - can no longer take place.
Charity staff, volunteers and donors are determined to reinvent their modus operandi where necessary to ensure beneficiaries still get a Christmas filled with cheer.
Ms Michelle Eu, head of community partnership at charity AWWA, says donors and volunteers continue to be supportive despite the pandemic.
"At this time of the year, people are thinking about how to bring Christmas cheer to our clients. We've had a lot of inquiries from corporates, individuals and schools. We've also had to innovate and get more creative about what we can do."
For instance, one company AWWA works with has sponsored 25 children with special needs to join festive activities such as meeting "Santa" online, the charity's first such virtual meet-and-greet.
While seasonal volunteerism has fallen, Mr Alain Chen, 20, finds it as worthwhile as ever.
Mr Chen, who is waiting to enter university next year, has been volunteering since Secondary 1 with the annual Boys' Brigade Share-a-Gift project, originally as a member of the Boys' Brigade in school. He recently delivered some vouchers to beneficiaries of the project.
He says: "We cannot talk to beneficiaries as much as we usually do, but being able to meet them face to face is still very meaningful."
This year, Boys' Brigade Share-a-Gift seeks to support about 41,400 beneficiaries through distributing grocery vouchers and fulfilling Christmas wishes for beneficiaries, who typically ask for items for daily use like rice cookers.
Boys' Brigade standees with PayNow options for e-payment can be found at 145 FairPrice stores. Donations can also be made online at www.bbshare.sg.
Since schoolboys are not allowed to take part in the donation drive this year due to Covid-19, there has been a more than 10-fold drop in volunteers from about 5,700 for pre-Covid-19 Christmases to 530 currently, says Mr Henry Tan, who chairs the project.
He adds that they have reached only 46 per cent of the total donations sought, which he attributes to the lack of volunteer presence on the ground.
With Covid-19 forcing many interactions to go online, charities have had to adapt to virtual volunteering.
Ms Joyce Teng, community engagement and partnerships director at Singapore Children's Society, says that given lower physical engagement, the society has taken this opportunity to provide monthly training sessions for volunteers via Zoom on topics such as personal data protection and teaching pre-schoolers to protect themselves from sexual abuse.
The charity sector also shares some of the struggles of the badly-hit retail industry.
Ms Jacelyn Lim, executive director of the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore), says: "As a charity, it's important for us to keep ourselves relevant and we were forced to step up our e-commerce."
The centre runs a social enterprise, The Art Faculty, which helps artists on the autism spectrum earn royalties through the sale of artworks and merchandise.
To up its Christmas game, The Art Faculty has launched a Secret Santa programme to arrange, coordinate and deliver purchases made through its online store.
This year's ban on large Christmas parties is sorely felt in Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home, says the home's executive director Low Kee Hong.
The residential home for children, who typically come from broken families, is usually abuzz with year-end activities that serve as "morale boosters and provide a sense of belonging", he says. These include a camp and campfire as well as a Christmas concert, where the children look forward to performing for their parents.
This year, activities have to be confined to smaller groups in individual dormitories, which are divided by gender and age. The home currently has 65 residents, who range from eight to 21 years of age.
The children are decorating their own dormitories, which have a Christmas tree each. In small groups, they will be putting on singing, dancing and other video performances that the whole home can watch via Zoom while enjoying socially distanced festive meals.
With no intermingling among dormitories and constraints on group sizes for outings, the staff have had to "stretch their imagination" to ensure the children have a good Christmas and year-end holiday, Mr Low says.
For instance, the staff recently organised eight small group outings to Marina Barrage, an endeavour that could have been one big excursion before Covid-19.
The challenges of having Christmas under Covid-19 are reflective of the wider challenges that charities faced this year. But the silver lining, these non-profits say, is the reliable generosity of donors and volunteers.
Mr Benjamin William, secretary-general and chief executive of the Singapore Red Cross, says: "The number of beneficiaries that have approached us has increased and we've had to increase our support for them."
The needs thrown into the spotlight by job and income losses during the pandemic are considerable.
"Over the last few months, we've supported close to 1,000 extra families. We regularly support about 150 economically challenged families monthly," says Mr William.
This Christmas, as with Hari Raya and Deepavali earlier in the year, the Singapore Red Cross will be distributing more care packages to vulnerable people, which could include items such as dried food, soap or adult diapers, depending on what the household needs. This is to "soften the blow" for breadwinners who may be spending more for festive occasions, he says.
Despite such challenges, he is optimistic that the Singapore Red Cross, which has benefited from Covid-19 relief schemes like government support for jobs, can continue to support the needy.
He says: "What most of us are worried about is the situation next year."
Companies who are benefiting from Covid-19 assistance schemes this year may find it harder to donate next year, as may the man in the street, if the pandemic drags on.
But this year at least, some charities have even seen an increase in fund-raising.
The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (STSPMF), which provides pocket money for children in low-income families, has seen corporate and individual donations increase by about 70 per cent, says the fund's general manager Tan Bee Heong.
STSPMF has also ridden on the rising demand for staycations to raise funds, tying up with Orchard Hotel Singapore for its Otter Family Adventure staycation package, which includes an otter plush toy. For every package bought this Christmas, $20 will go to STSPMF.
Ms Tan says: "We've received very generous donations and support from the public. People are more willing to help during this pandemic."