Utahns' salaries aren't gaining much ground against inflation, nevertheless people are reaching into their pockets to support a burgeoning number of charities.

An informal survey of some of the state's traditionally healthy charitable organizations shows that the majority are using creative fund-raisers to hold their own against growing competition, "look-alike" charities and a soft economy.It's uncertain just what the soft economy's impact on giving is.

The Economic Report to the Governor 1989 showed that the average Utahn's wages have risen from $1,111 in 1980 to $1,545 in 1988. But the figures are misleading. When adjusted for inflation, the average Utahn's wage has actually decreased to $1,076 in terms of 1980 spending power.

Kelly Matthews, First Security Bank, said that while some segments of the population are seeing growth and others aren't, "It is my perception that a good amount of the giving that is done is not impacted by wage fluctuation. But wages have not kept up with inflation, so on an individual basis, perhaps people are finding they have even less capacity to give."

Donations to the United Way of the Greater Salt Lake Area were up 10.5 percent this year, while the Easter Seals Telethon raised $15,000 more than last year. Charitable donations to Primary Children's Hospital are up about 10 percent. The local chapter of the American Cancer Society reported that general giving has stayed level, but funding is up a little because of a single, significant gift.

Not everyone fared so well. Donations to the local Muscular Dystrophy Association are running 2 percent below last year's level, despite a variety of funding efforts including school-sponsored events. The Salt Lake area Big Brothers/Big Sisters' major annual fund-raising event - a bowlathon - received fewer pledges this year than last, but actual collections seemed to be higher.

Some organizations found that specific events are doing less well than in the past. "At Christmas, which is traditionally our best mailing, I sent out twice the number and received less response than last year," said Barbara Kuehl, American Cancer Society. "It wasn't a cold list, either, but a list of people who had supported us before."

She said the most successful event is usually the "door-to-door" campaign, which will occur in April. "But we're a little worried because we have heard that some of the look-alike organizations (groups that have similar names and raise money on the good will and reputation earned by the original organization) are sending stuff into Utah to try to get a share of our funds."

It's not easy to get a clear picture of charitable giving in Salt Lake, partly because of the emergence of a number of new charitable causes - like AIDS and the homeless. No one seems able to answer the question: Are more people giving or are the same people giving more? Agencies do agree that they have had to work harder to raise funds than ever before.

United Way's increase, for example, came because of "stepped up" efforts, according to Buck McCleneghan, vice president of resource development. He said they reached a lot of new people, increased collections at most of the major firms that support the agency, and utilized more people to get the job done.

"My concern is that there are so many places to give money and it ultimately comes out of the same pot," said Lynn Jacobsen, Easter Seals. "Worthy causes are competing with each other."

Jacobsen, noting the Easter Seals' direct mail campaign wasn't as strong this past year, anticipates several agencies shutting down, merging or being forced to become more creative in raising funds in the near future. "I suspect that market (direct mail) is saturated."

On the other hand, Jacobsen said more corporations are giving - although "it doesn't look like corporations are giving more. Individuals, on the other hand, seem to be."

Ben Williams said that the Muscular Dystrophy Associations slight funding decrease "might be pessimism. People feel they give so much and they don't always see the results. But the results are there."

The increased number of organizations seeking funds doesn't worry him much. "I think there's about the same level of giving. People find their loyalties, like the March of Dimes or Primary Children's, and they support them."

"I can't recollect a time when more organizations have been seeking money," Joe Laguess, Primary Children's Hospital, said. "The competition is definitely there and it's up to each institution to make its own case for donations. But I'm glad to see that people are becoming more selective and asking more questions before they give."

Charitable challenges

A number of non-profit, charitable organizations are facing extraordinary challenges in getting contributions. Here are some of the reasons:

- Every year, dozens of new organizations, such as those benefiting AIDS research and the homeless, join the competition for funds.

- National groups are making more frequent appeals, particularly by mail, to people who have typically supported local organizations.

- "Look-alikes" - groups with names that are very similar to established, respected organizations - may dupe donors, who think they are supporting other organizations.