- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 9, 2010

CHICAGO | Charitable giving fell by 3.6 percent last year as Americans continued to struggle with the recession, though some philanthropic experts feared the decrease could have been much worse given the economic downturn, according to an authoritative annual survey released Wednesday.

Americans donated $303.75 billion during 2009, the second-worst year since 1956, when the Giving USA Foundation started conducting its surveys. The worst year was 1974, when giving fell an inflation-adjusted 5.5 percent. However, 2009 also was the third straight year when giving reached more than $300 billion.

“We actually were anticipating a larger drop,” foundation Chairwoman Edith Falk said, ticking off the challenges that 2009 presented for donors to make charitable donations, including high unemployment and home foreclosure rates.

“Given all those factors, we really were expecting people were not going to be in the position to give,” Miss Falk said.

The survey found that giving to human services, health, international affairs and environment and animal-related groups all saw increases in 2009, while donations to education, arts, culture and humanities organizations fell overall.

“On the margin, people were increasing their giving to help those who were less fortunate,” said Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis. The report is based on research by the center.

The Chicago-based hunger-relief charity Feeding America raised $75 million during fiscal 2009, exceeding its donations from the previous fiscal year by more than $15 million, the group said. Feeding America has more than 200 food banks across the country.

But the survey found that education organizations, such as the Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport, Conn., which provides literacy programs for disadvantaged women, saw decreased giving in 2009. The center’s president, Jane Ferreira, said its deficit this year is about $160,000 of an estimated $1.2 million annual budget. Miss Ferreira said the group saw a 30 percent drop in donations from foundations and has had to depend on individual donors.

“They’re the ones who have carried us through this recession,” Miss Ferreira said. “People who are committed to your mission are the ones who are sustaining us right now.”

The center’s drop in donations from foundations reflects the survey’s finding that foundation giving fell in 2009.

“[Foundations] didn’t want to have to cut back significantly,” Miss Falk said. “They stopped giving to new projects, and they refocused to the projects that are core to the mission of that foundation.”

The survey also suggested individual giving increased at the very end of 2009, when the stock market rose and media highlighted charities’ needs. Feeding America reported a strong fourth quarter, raising $26.33 million during the last three months of 2009 compared to $20.5 million during the same period in 2008.

This year’s survey results will surprise many because giving didn’t fall as much as expected, said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Washington-based Chronicle of Philanthropy. But Miss Palmer said the giving isn’t the kind that allows for charities to recover from the recession.

“It’s still going to be a long time before most nonprofit groups are raising as much as they did before the recession started,” Miss Palmer said.

Things are looking up nevertheless, she said, citing a study from her publication that found the country’s biggest charities grew by a median of 11 percent in the first three months of 2010, not including giving that went to the Haitian earthquake victims.

Individual giving, the largest category of gifts, was an estimated $227.41 billion, or 75 percent of the total, in 2009 — down 0.4 percent from 2008.