Salt Lake Tribune

September 8, 2006

United Way cites stepped-up commitment of LDS Church

Kirsten Stewart, The Salt Lake Tribune
The United Way of Salt Lake kicked off its corporate pledge drive on Thursday with a day of community service, marshaling 2,600 volunteers for 110 charity projects along the Wasatch Front. Backing the effort were big corporate hitters, such as Tesoro Refining, Ballard Medical and KeyBank, which gave employees a paid day off to spruce up neighborhoods, prime and primp a winter homeless shelter and host picnics for children's groups and the disabled. But one corps of enthusiasts loomed especially large - 400 volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The LDS Church's presence is not all that unusual, given its size and 30-year record of support for the United Way.

But the church has recently stepped up its commitment, dumping more cash and sweat equity into the charity, said United Way CEO Deborah Bayle Nielsen. "Last year it was big, but this year it's really big."

The relationship wasn't always so cozy.

Just six years ago, Nielsen was bemoaning how a spate of mergers and acquisitions had eroded corporate giving to United Way.

In a May 2000 story in The Salt Lake Tribune, Nielsen also cited the LDS Church and the payment of tithing by its members as competition in the race for charitable dollars.

Now the United Way is on firm financial footing, having amassed $14 million in donations this year - nearly double the amount raised at the start of Nielsen's seven-year tenure.

Whether the LDS Church's endorsement has proved pivotal, Nielsen wouldn't say. The United Way has a privacy policy against disclosing gift amounts.

Nor would Nielsen say if the church's support signals a new focus on local, secular causes.

Her only explanation: "We have somebody on our board [of directors] from the presiding bishop's office. We have better access now than before."

The United Way serves as an umbrella charity, funneling millions of dollars annually to hundreds of local anti-poverty groups. The nonprofit also lobbies Utah's predominantly Mormon Legislature in support of breaks on college tuition for undocumented immigrants and better quality child care for working families.

Large corporate donors help out by underwriting United Way's administrative costs. That way, 100 percent of people's personal donations can be spent on programs benefitting the needy.

The LDS Church Foundation is one of those "Cornerstone Partners." The church's corporate office also routinely drums up volunteers and encourages employees to contribute tens of thousands of dollars each year to the United Way's payroll deduction campaign.

LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton recently distributed DVDs to all church employees urging support for Thursday's "Day of Caring" and had special T-shirts printed up to commemorate the event.

"We pay fast offerings to help the poor and needy, but the presiding bishop has said there are needs in the community beyond that," said volunteer Larry Richards, a faculty member at LDS Business College. His team weeded the grounds, repaired playground equipment and painted and cleaned rooms at the YWCA, a domestic violence shelter in Salt Lake City.

Volunteer Joe Heagany, a human resources staffer at LDS Family Services, acknowledged such efforts may help the church defeat the image of an institution that cares only for its own.

"We want to be good neighbors. But religion is a serious topic and not always the best way to bridge barriers," said the 57-year-old licensed clinical social worker. "Activities like this are about finding common ground."

Heagany also noted religions are doing more to make up the government's gutting of programs for the poor.

"I'm ticked that we're considering cutting taxes when we have so many unmet social needs," said Heagany. "Pretty soon, groups like the United Way and churches will be all that's left."


(c) 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.