A new ranking of the 400 biggest U.S. charities shows donations dropped by 11 percent overall last year as the Great Recession ended — the worst decline in 20 years since the Chronicle of Philanthropy began keeping a tally.
The Philanthropy 400 report to be released Monday shows such familiar names as the United Way and the Salvation Army, both based near Washington, continue to dominate the ranking, despite the 2009 declines. The survey accounts for $68.6 billion in charitable contributions.
An earlier report by the Giving USA Foundation found overall charitable giving declined 3.6 percent last year. That report included giving to private foundations and to smaller charities, while the Chronicle's survey only includes top charities raising money from the public.
"It shows that charities are really having a tough time, and this is some of the most successful charities in the United States," Chronicle Editor Stacy Palmer said. "Usually bigger charities are more resilient, so that's the part that is still surprising."
The top charities may have taken such a hit as giving shifted to smaller, local groups and because people gave less money to arts and cultural groups, Palmer said. Plus, even though the recession has officially ended, unemployment remains high at nearly 10 percent nationally and the economy continues to sputter.
The Salvation Army, based in Alexandria, Virginia, maintained its No. 2 ranking after the United Way, with $1.7 billion in contributions, despite a decline of 8.4 percent.
"The only caveat is our Christmas was extraordinary," said Major George Hood, the Salvation Army's head of community relations. The group's red kettle campaign raised a record $130 million in 2008 and surpassed that in 2009 to raise $139 million.
"The American public really dug deep during the holiday season, and in the balance of the year really cut back in what they gave to charity," he said.
The Salvation Army also is grappling with how to lure younger donors and is ramping up its digital video marketing and social networking strategies, as it has previously relied on an older demographic that lived through World War I and World War II.
Last week, the Salvation Army signed its first agreement to receive donations by text message, which it will roll out this Christmas season, Hood said. Text donations have risen in popularity in the past year for groups like the Red Cross, which encouraged such donations after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January. Officials have also looked at creating avatars or online games to engage younger donors.
"It's so far out for a Victorian-era conservative organization like us ... kinda freaky," Hood said. "But if we can find a way to cost effectively leverage technology, we're game."
Only four charities in the top 10 reported increased contributions over last year, including Alexandria, Virginia-based Catholic Charities USA, which reported a 66 percent jump. For many, that growth has been driven by donated goods rather than cash. For instance, the Stamford, Connecticut-based AmeriCares Foundation grew the fastest in 20 years to be ranked No. 4, up from 86th in 1991. Its contributions were mostly food, medicine and other goods, not money.
Feed the Children, based in Oklahoma City, and Food for the Poor, based in Coconut Creek, Florida, also grew dramatically in the past two decades. Atlanta-based Habitat for Humanity had some of the largest growth in cash donations over that time.