2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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.

The local United Way raised only $8.2-million last year; the average for a United Way in a city of this size is $26-million. Members of the LDS church make up only 24 percent of the local United Way donors who give $1,000 or more, even though they account for half the local population. And the United Way of America ranks Utah 48th in the nation in per-capita giving to nonreligious charities.

"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.

Yet even with the church's support, important local needs are still going unmet, Ms. Nielsen says. More than 130 United Way volunteers have identified programs at charities supported by United Way that are worth financing, but the cost of those programs exceeds by about 70 percent what the United Way has available to spend, she says.

"The people that are on our review teams are very frustrated that there are going to be so many worthwhile programs that don't get the funding that they need," Ms. Nielsen says.

Creativity in the Face of Cuts
The state's own economic woes add to the hole in Salt Lake City's safety net, Ms. Nielsen says. Bankruptcy rates in Utah are the highest in the nation, the state is running a budget deficit of more than $300-million, and the percentage of Utahans living in poverty, while still below the national average (8 percent versus 11.6 percent), is increasing at a higher rate here than in any other state.

The Children's Center, a local charity that provides counseling and preschool programs for emotionally disturbed children, receives $150,000 per year from the United Way. But declines in government and foundation support have forced the charity to cut $100,000 from personnel costs in the past year to make ends meet. As licensed psychologists leave, the charity is replacing them with less-expensive social workers. Meanwhile, the number of referrals has jumped by a third in the past year, from 1,200 to 1,600, forcing the center to replace some one-on-one counseling with group meetings. "We've had to be more clever about how we provide services," says Doug Goldsmith, the center's executive director, "but we're being very cautious not to compromise quality."

Yet some nonprofit groups say that they're doing just fine. The University of Utah, whose campus is here, ranked 17th among public universities in The Chronicle's most recent ranking of the 400 nonprofit groups that raise the most from private sources, taking in $146-million in fiscal 2001. "I don't think we're in competition [with the LDS church] at all," says M. Scott Mietchen, the university's director of major gifts. "If anything, it helps us. People are already in the habit of giving."

Other nonprofit groups have sought out creative strategies for overcoming fund-raising difficulties specific to Salt Lake City. The Utah Opera merged last year with the Utah Symphony to cut costs -- the symphony in particular was facing severe budget problems.

Ms. Ewers, who now heads the merged entity, says she often takes her fund-raising pitch on the road, wooing companies with significant operations here even though their headquarters are elsewhere. For example, she won $10,000 from the corporate parent of Kraft Foods by noting that Utah is the per-capita leader in Jell-O consumption.

'A Relief in the Community'
Latter-day Saints officials acknowledge that the church presents a challenge for charities. Harold Brown, managing director of the church's welfare services, who knows Ms. Nielsen of United Way from his work on nonprofit boards, says: "If I was in her shoes, I would comment the same way." But Mr. Brown says he believes the church provides "a relief in the community, not a burden."

The church's safety net is its welfare program, which provides food, clothing, and other essentials to the needy, and asks them to work in the storehouse or other areas in return for the assistance they receive. The church then helps these workers look for regular employment. The welfare program alone reduces some of the need for government and nonprofit spending, Mormon officials say. (The church has a separate humanitarian-services arm that since its inception in 1985 has shipped 51,000 tons of surplus clothing and 41,000 tons of food to 150 countries, and provided cash support totaling $89-million.)

Ms. Nielsen of United Way and others readily concede that the church's vast social-service role in Salt Lake City reduces the need for some secular social services. That said, she believes the United Way's budget is so small that it can't even come close to meeting those reduced needs. And the church's own generous support of the United Way illustrates that it, too, wants humanitarian organizations to be more vital. "The church has a huge impact on the needs of our community, but they can't possibly meet everybody's needs," she says. "That's one of the reasons they're so supportive of us."

Ms. Nielsen is most rankled by stereotypes and assumptions about Mormons that hurt local giving. Only 570 local companies run United Way campaigns, compared with an average of 2,300 companies for cities of this size.

"Business owners who reject us will say, 'All my employees are Mormon, so they're not going to give anyway,'" she says. "If people were allowed to hear what the needs are in our community, they would be more willing to give."

The Downside of 'Stuff'
Some Mormons acknowledge that if they weren't tithing, they probably would give more to nonprofit organizations. Sara Beckstead, development director at Community Services Council, which runs the Utah Food Bank, makes less than $50,000 per year, but still manages to donate a few hundred dollars per year to nonprofit groups on top of her tithe to the LDS church. Were she not a Mormon, "I'd probably replace some of what I'm giving to the church with gifts to other organizations," she says.

And if Salt Lake City weren't so heavily Mormon, she says, "I'm sure we'd get more charitable contributions" at the food bank.

Even so, Ms. Beckstead and most other charity officials here note that the church-influenced culture prompts other forms of charity. Last year, volunteers at the food bank provided the equivalent work of 75 full-time employees -- more than twice the hours put in by the paid staff. And when LDS leaders asked members to give generously to the food bank before Thanksgiving, the charity took in more than 300,000 pounds of food in a single day.

For Ms. Nielsen of United Way, the local emphasis on volunteering and giving things, rather than cash, has a downside. "People want to give stuff, and often that's great, but sometimes it's not," she says. "You can't hire a trained counselor with stuff."

But she says local nonprofit leaders rarely complain, even when facing financial shortfalls: "People here are very frugal and will stretch a dollar as far as it will go."


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