Let's get one thing straight up front: the United Way of the Great Salt Lake Area is a business much like any other.

As a non-profit corporation, it has a chairman of the board, an executive committee, a president and CEO, vice presidents, staff workers, offices, telephones, fax machines, coffee breaks, in/out baskets, hassles with parking, office rivalries . . . all the stuff that goes on in any modern business.The difference is that United Way of GSLA's shareholders are you, me and everyone else who lives in Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties - the oddly shaped territory it covers.

And its customers are not yuppies waving American Express Gold Cards. They are teen mothers needing help coping, an Alzheimer's victim requiring day care, a homeless person who, if he doesn't get a meal soon, will have to steal one, a battered or sexually abused child who needs protection . . .

No, it's not Fortune 500 material and United Way doesn't have to worry much about Japanese competition or the price of oil, but they keep busy . . . very busy.

Charles L. Johnson is president of the local United Way. Forget about those news stories you've read out of Chicago or New York where the local UWs pay their top guy $250,000 a year because otherwise, they assure us, he'd go off and be president of General Motors or IBM.

Johnson would tell us his salary if we asked, but even a public servant deserves a little privacy so you won't read it here. Let's just say he doesn't wear Gucci loafers, Pierre Cardin suits or drive a BMW. Considering that his operation spent only $685,000 (12.8 percent) of the total $5.35 million it raised last year on all operating costs, including fund-raising and salaries for its 15 staffers, no one who works for this United Way is getting rich.

Still, public resentment and suspicion go with the territory when you're in the fund-raising business, and no one knows it better than Johnson and the two men who make up his management team: Edward F. John, vice president of resource utilization and endowments and Buck McCleneghan, vice president of resource development and communications.

That's why United Way is an open book to anyone who wants to read it. The board of directors represents a very broad cross section of the community - no old-boy network here - employ outside auditors who scrutinize the books each year, and have on board a large cadre of volunteers who fill out the ranks.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of fund raising, and Johnson credits them with staving off the burnout he has surely earned in the 15 years he's been with the United Way, 10 of them as president. Sure, it can be a pain in the neck to have to deal with new people every year, many of whom want to reinvent the wheel during their term, but they also bring new ideas and fresh enthusiasm, both of which fund-raisers need in copious quantities.

United Way was organized 103 years ago in Denver when a small group of clergy decided to pool their charity efforts. Today it has the feel of a global conglomerate touted by football stars in slickly produced commercials and a marketing plan that targets employees at their jobs through pledges and payroll deduction plans.

The latter is clearly UW's most effective tool, of course, and the one that allows it to have a steady stream of income throughout the year rather than an occasional influx of cash (68 percent of UW's income comes through payroll deduction pledges.)

The annual pledge drive is on right now, and many employees are in the annual throes of deciding whether and how much of next year's paychecks to pledge to United Way. In addition to their budgets and inclinations toward generosity, many employees believe they have to factor in how their participation, or lack of it, will look to their bosses.

Some companies put considerable pressure on their employees to contribute, although much of it is likely more imagined than real, says Johnson. But either way he wants to go on record as saying United Way does not condone pressure tactics such as tying pledging to promotions, pay raises or perks.

"That's a dinosaur approach that is neither necessary nor desirable," said McCleneghan, who is striving for a hefty 16 percent increase in this year's pledges over last - a "stretch" goal but one he believes is achievable.

"The money will come when people know our story," said McCleneghan. "That means we have to get that story to them. What we don't want is anyone to resent giving. Resentful people might give this year but they won't next year and United Way is an ongoing thing. We aren't a one-shot affair."

All UW asks, said Johnson, is a chance to come into a company - "because that's where the people are" - and present its case. After that, it's up to the generosity and capability of each employee. If coercion from management exists, then there's obviously little he can do about it except to say "don't."

Ed John says most people simply schedule their annual contributions into their budgets like the light bill or the mortgage. "We have moved from the tin cup approach to a partnership approach in which we, with the aid of the Utahns who finance us, join in solving community problems."

Because of the prominence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the state and the practice of faithful members to tithe 10 percent of their income before considering any other charitable gifts, Utah is often considered a hard sell for fund-raisers, particularly in light of already limited income levels.

"It's a problem but also an opportunity," said Johnson. "Our No. 1 employee group in terms of dollars are the employees of the LDS Church. We have a very positive relationship with the church and the fact that the church members have a strong feeling of community causes them to participate more, not less, in United Way. They have a tradition of giving, and we benefit from that."

Said John: "It's easier to talk a donor into increasing his or her gift than it is to talk a non-donor into giving at all."

Although United Way gets most of its publicity during its fall pledge campaign, the spring meetings to determine funding levels for the 55 accredited United Way agencies (and a few others, such as the AIDS Foundation and Rape Crisis Center, that are not but still receive an allocation) are every bit as much work.

It may be hard to believe, said John, but the allocation process is as difficult as the fund-raising end of the business. It requires a lot of give and take by the volunteer committees to determine where the money will go. And, no, there is not a single agency that is totally funded by United Way. All of them must find alternate sources of funding.

Targeting of needs by UW gets very specific: "$4,500 for Big Brothers/Big Sisters to provide funding for additional part-time staff to serve 17 children who are currently on the waiting list" or "$5,000 to the Children's Center to help provide intensive individual and group therapy to sexually abused children (ages 2-7) and their parents.)

This year, a new focus is being placed on allowing contributors, if they choose, to allocate precisely which UW agency will receive their contribution.