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GROCERY STORES RING UP EASY WAY FOR AREA CHURCHES TO RAISE FUNDS

Forget the bake sales, the church bazaar and fund-raising chorale performances: Utah churches have found an effortless method of fund raising.

A program sponsored by local grocers has increasingly caught the attention of local churches. Dan's, Harmon's and Smith's food stores are enabling churches and other nonprofit organizations to make a little money from one of life's necessary ventures: grocery shopping.It works like this: The stores sell gift certificates in various increments to churches at a 5 percent discount. The churches then sell the certificates, or coupons, to members at full price.

The stores get customers, the churches get a little extra money and the congregation gets groceries.

"It's been a great way for us to help organizations," said Laurie Mitchell, benefits manager for Harmon's. "In turn, it brings more people into our store."

Harmon's started their program about three years ago in St. George. Mitchell said several stores have noted a marked increase in sales with the program, especially in southern Utah.

She thinks the success lies in the cost-effectiveness of the program. In buying the coupons from their churches, shoppers donate money without having to donate in addition to normal family costs.

Most stores have a $2,000 purchase minimum for the certificate program. Churches pay $1,900 up front, and profit $100 when the gift certificates are sold.

Elizabeth Dunford, coordinator for the program at Dan's, said it's been a "great way to introduce shoppers to our stores." Dan's has used the program for nearly four years.

Grocery stores have not advertised the program extensively. Nevertheless, several churches and non-profit organizations in Utah regularly purchase certificates, and the programs are growing.

"It's all been word of mouth," said Bonni Tsushima, gift certificate manager at Smith's. "People call and say, `I understand you have a really easy fund-raiser . . .' A lot of our employees don't even know we do it."

Smith's has been using the program for nearly 20 years, and Tsushima estimates that nearly 1,500 organizations purchase the coupons every year in the western states that Smith's serves.

Fran Robson, office manager at Christ United Methodist Church, said the gift certificates have been a great fund-raiser for her church. Congregation members purchase them monthly, and when the church hosts a dinner or buffet, the certificates come in handy.

"Our women's group holds dinners sometimes for fund-raising, and they try to use the gift certificates to buy supplies and things," said Robson. "It's kind of a double fund-raiser."

Candy Cash coordinates the program for Christ United Methodist. She said the program can be very successful - when it's advertised in church.

"It's a habit - you need to get people thinking ahead and getting in the habit of buying the certificates," she said. "The first year we did it, it generated a lot of money."

Now, she said, she has a hard time advertising it enough to draw attention to the program each Sunday. The church has made the certificates available all week in an attempt to accommodate those who forget to buy on Sundays.

Overall, though, Cash said the program has been a boost to fund-raising efforts. "There's no way to lose off this one."

Sandra Roach coordinates the program at South Valley Unitarian Church and believes the program is very helpful in fund-raising for the church. But, she says it is by no means a large generator of funds.

South Valley Unitarian has several fund-raisers each year that generate a lot more money. An annual auction, theme dinners, special concerts and sales generate more money than the grocery coupon program could ever hope to raise.

But, still, she says it is an easy, convenient way to bring in about $4,000 or $5,000 a year. And she loves using the coupons.

"It is easy because people do have to buy groceries," said Roach. "This way, you don't have to pay more for the certificates than you would for the groceries anyway."