Salt Lake City--The Bishop's Storehouse looks just like a grocery store, lacking only cash registers. Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the store is a model of Mormon industriousness: Shelves are stacked high with food made by the church itself, and nary a crumb can be found on the floor.
More than 100 such storehouses exist around the country, with the largest one here, about a mile southwest of downtown. All of the food -- as well as clothing and even furniture in adjoining stores here at Welfare Square -- is available free to needy church members who are referred by a Mormon bishop, and for the roughly 100 people per day, mostly non-Mormons, who enter through the "transients office."
While it's well known that a large percentage of Mormons tithe 10 percent of their income, the financial support for this store and other Mormon charities comes from donations above and beyond tithing. Through a practice known as "fast offering," members forgo two consecutive meals on the first Sunday of each month and give to the church the money they saved by not eating.
Such generosity -- it's not uncommon for Mormons to give as much as 15 percent of their income to the church -- helped make Salt Lake City, where Mormons make up roughly half the population, the No. 1 metropolitan area for charitable giving, according to a Chronicle [of Philanthropy] study of federal tax records and Labor Department surveys. Four Utah counties -- the one that includes Salt Lake City and three nearby counties -- were among the 10 most generous in the country among 380 counties in which at least 10,000 people itemized their tax returns.
But that strong support for the church also helps explain why secular nonprofit groups in this metropolitan area are often wanting for cash. Wages in Salt Lake City are modest, and Mormon families tend to be large, leaving middle-income people -- especially those who tithe -- feeling stretched before they receive their first solicitation from a charity. Couple that with other Salt Lake City realities -- the city has few corporate headquarters or major foundations -- and fund raising here can be difficult.
Anne Ewers says that when she moved to Utah 12 years ago to become director of the Utah Opera, "My thought was, 'Oh, great -- people will understand philanthropy.' What I didn't realize is that when you are feeding so many more mouths, and doing a tithing off the top, there isn't the same ability to contribute."
Local Needs Going Unmet
Other leaders of secular charities report similar experiences. At the United Way of Salt Lake's offices, just a block and a half south of Temple Square, the center of Mormonism, Deborah Bayle Nielsen, the group's chief executive officer, greets a visitor with a tired smile and runs through a list of fund-raising frustrations that prevent her organization from providing the kind of support to local charities that she believes they need.
"We'd be happy to do even half as well as other communities do," says Ms. Nielsen, who is not Mormon. "We know that a lot of people here are strapped, but there are a lot of other people who use that as an excuse. Of the 50 percent that are Mormon, a lot aren't full-tithe payers. And the non-Mormons aren't tithing at all."
Ms. Nielsen is no newcomer to the phenomenon -- it's been a problem throughout her three and a half years at the United Way, and she had an equally difficult time raising funds during her previous job at the local Red Cross.While she says she wishes she could find ways to encourage more local individuals and businesses to give to nonsecular causes, Ms. Nielsen describes the Latter-day Saints church as a "fantastic" supporter of the United Way and many other charities in the area.
Last year, the church's foundation and church employees who participated in office campaigns (including those who work at for-profit businesses owned by the church) gave a total of about $540,000 to the United Way, roughly 7 percent of its fund-raising total.
And Mormon Church-owned businesses, including a life-insurance company, the Deseret News, Utah's second-biggest newspaper, and eight other companies, "tithe" 10 percent of their pretax profits to the church's foundation. The foundation money (the church declines to release any information about its size or annual spending) goes primarily to humanitarian groups, as well as to some arts and educational organizations. Last year, for example, the foundation made a $250,000 grant to the largest homeless shelter in Utah to cover increased need during the winter months.