News and analysis
October 20, 2013

An Uneven Recovery for America’s Biggest Charities

Andrew Marinkovich/Malone & Company

Boys Town, No. 89, saw a 40-percent jump in gifts last year over 2011, assisted by direct-mail appeals aimed at older donors.

As America’s economy seesaws, the biggest nonprofits are barely able to make up the fundraising losses they sustained in the Great Recession.

Donations to groups in the Philanthropy 400, the charities that raise the most in America, grew just 4 percent last year, slightly more than half the gain in 2011. And the forecast from 88 groups that provided estimates for 2013 is even more grim: It shows a projected decrease of 1 percent.

A tally by The Chronicle shows how unevenly the gains are spread even among the 400 groups that together raise $1 of out every $4 in America.

Only about half of the charities on the Philanthropy 400 are raising more than they did in 2007, when the recession started.

Among the biggest recovery stories since the recession are organizations that create charitable funds for donors and those that depend on America’s wealthiest philanthropists.

This year, gifts of $1-million or more are booming; in early October, such commitments stood at twice the level they were by the same point in 2012.

Many more traditional charities, however, which rely on a broad pool of donations from Americans at all income levels, continue struggling to win support.

And the still-uncertain economy and fears of a return to recession next year threaten to make it even trickier for nonprofits to raise money in the crucial year-end season.

Even so, fundraising by the largest organizations is outperforming the rest of the nonprofit world: In June, “Giving USA” reported that donations rose only 1.5 percent in 2012 after inflation.

A sign of the struggle: The No. 1 organization, United Way Worldwide, is treading water.

The organization raised $3.9-billion in 2012, less than a 1-percent gain over 2011. Since 2007, its private donations dropped by more than 16 percent.

“Where we are is the case of so many nonprofits: We have not returned to pre-recession levels,” says Sherrie Brach, executive vice president for investor relations at United Way Worldwide. “I think the whole sector is trying to regain lost ground, and we are one of those organizations.”

Hot on United Way’s heels is Fidelity Charitable, at No. 2 for the second year in a row. The organization, which promotes donor-advised funds, collected $3.3-billion in 2012, a gain of more than 89 percent over the previous year.

Other organizations that offer donor-advised funds are also doing well. Of the 20 groups whose donations grew by the largest percentages from 2007 to 2012, five were community foundations, businesses, or others that offer the funds, which allow donors to get immediate tax benefits no matter when they give the money to charity..

The list’s biggest one-year gains were logged by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Last year it didn’t make the list at all; this year it is No. 122, after raising $181-million in 2012, an increase of more than 400 percent from 2011.

The donations were fueled by a campaign started in 2009 to expand the museum, which met its goal of $555-million three years ahead of schedule and is now aiming to bring in $610-million.

After United Way and Fidelity Charitable, No 3. on the list was the Salvation Army, followed by Task Force for Global Health, Feeding America, Catholic Charities USA, Stanford University, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Goodwill Industries International, and Food for the Poor.

The Philanthropy 400 was compiled by Emma Carew Grovum, Sarah Frostenson, Marisa López-Rivera, and Sam Speicher. Raymund Flandez, Holly Hall, and Maria Di Mento contributed reporting for this article.