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There is little doubt that local and national conservation organizations do much to preserve our nation's resources and quality of life.

Whether the mission of these groups is to preserve habitat (Ducks Unlimited), educate (National Wildlife Federation) or work for wilderness (Sierra Club), the country is a better place for their efforts.

That said, it is interesting to look at the percentage of donated money collected that goes toward an organization's basic mission. And the high salaries of officers of some of these organizations might cause a cynic to wonder just how altruistic some of these folks really are.

I got curious about such matters a few weeks ago when, during The Tribune's annual Christmas Giving series, the paper offered readers a chance to look at an excellent Utah Division of Consumer Protection website — — to see what percentage of their donations go to an organization's actual mission.

So I spent some time looking at the site to see which groups had the highest percentage of using donations to accomplish their mission. The most highly efficient charities should spend 75 percent of what they collect on their mission, though anything above 60 percent is probably a passing grade.

Most Utah groups met the 75 percent threshold. These included the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which spends 85 percent of the money it collects on its mission; Great Salt Lake Audubon, which was at 90 percent; Friends of the Great Salt Lake, 85 percent; the Utah Rivers Council, 85 percent; and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, 84 percent. Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife came in at 67 percent, while Utah Open Lands was at 72 percent.

I also discovered that charities and nonprofits must file a form with the Internal Revenue Service that is open for public inspection. So I did some digging to examine the salaries of national and local conservation organization officers.

Working for the big national groups is not a bad way to make a living.

For example, according to the most recent IRS 990 Form filings, the highest-paid officer of the Sierra Club made $235,414, and 13 of the organization's officers hauled in more than $100,000 a year. The head of the National Wildlife Federation makes $269,863, while 11 of its employees take home more than $100,00. The National Audubon Society had the highest salaries, with its leader making $308,854 and 16 officers making more than $100,000.

Of the national groups that purchase or improve habitat, the head of Ducks Unlimited makes $282,377, while 11 employees are paid over $100,000. The latest figures show the head of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation pulls in $198,649, with seven employees making over $100,000. The head of the Mule Deer Foundation's base salary is $119,792.

Locally, the top salary at Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is $156,000, while the head of SUWA makes $78,000.

I'm not exactly sure what all of this means. On one hand, some of the salaries seem quite high for charitable organizations. Yet many of these groups raise millions of dollars, which may justify high salaries for proven professional managers.

Francine Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, which regulates charities, said that when she gives to a group, she likes to make certain that more of each dollar goes to support the organization's main program.

She said potential donors should be careful of appeals that tug at their heartstrings, pleas involving a current event or disaster and phone solicitors asking for credit-card information.

Because my job keeps me from donating to groups I might cover as a journalist — though some conflicts can be difficult if not impossible to avoid — this exercise sure made me want to take a closer look at all charities.