Donations to the nation’s biggest charities dropped 11% last year, according to nonprofit publication Chronicle of Philanthropy. The decline is the worst the Chronicle has reported since 1990, when it started its Philanthropy 400 ranking.

“It shows that charities are really having a tough time, and this is [sic] some of the most successful charities in the United States," Chronicle Editor Stacy Palmer told the Associated Press. "Usually bigger charities are more resilient, so that's the part that is still surprising."

Nonprofit organizations don’t expect to have done much better by the end of the year either, according to the Chronicle. More than one in four of the groups provided projections for 2010, and the median change they predicted was an increase of just 1.4%, the publication said.

Palmer attributed the decrease to the recession, but also said that many people are choosing to donate to smaller local nonprofits.

Earlier this year, a separate study conducted by the Giving USA Foundation found that overall charitable giving declined only 3.6% last year. This report, however, included giving to smaller, local charities that Palmer alluded to. The Chronicle's survey includes only the top national charities raising money from the public.

The survey accounts for $68.6 billion in charitable donations, which includes not only cash donations, but also food, clothing, medicine and other donated goods. The Philanthropy 400 is based on the most recent year’s data.

The median amount raised by the charities on the list also declined last year to $98.8 million, down from $105 million in 2008.

Six of the 10 charities that raised the most money in 2009 reported a year-over-year decline. First-place finisher United Way Worldwide’s donations decreased by 4.5% while those to the Salvation Army, which ranked second, dipped by 8.4%.
The charity hurt the most last year was the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, whose donations plunged by 40.3%. The Chronicle attributed the dramatic dip to the fact that the Ohio-based organization relies heavily on stock gifts, which were not very popular last year.
Other top-ranking charities experiencing a decline include Food for the Poor (ranked sixth), whose contributions fell by more than 27%; the American Cancer Society (ranked eighth), which saw an 11% decrease; and the Y (ranked 10th), whose contributions decreased  17.2%.

Notably, many of these thriving charities deal in donated goods, not dollars. AmeriCares Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit, for example, receives donations of mostly food, medicine and clothing, as does the Oklahoma-based Feed the Children. Both of these charities managed to increase their donations by more than a $1 billion.  

The four charities in the top 10 who reported an increase in contributions last year were: Catholic Charities USA, which ranked third overall and experienced a 66% rise in donations; the AmeriCares Foundation, which ranked fourth and experienced an 18.1% rise; Feed the Children, ranked fifth with a 1.2% rise; and World Vision, which ranked ninth and reported a 4.5% increase in charitable donations.

You can check for a list of the full rankings.

Are you considering making a donation? Check out this MainStreet article that breaks down the 20 Worst Charities. You can also read about these 7 Wonderfully Wacky Charities, whose honorable intentions are off the beaten path.

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