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Big nonprofits predict 9% drop in donations

By Beth Healy
Globe Staff / October 26, 2009

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The nation’s largest nonprofits, including prominent universities, hospitals, and foundations, are expecting a 9 percent decrease in donations in 2009, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

It’s the steepest drop the publication has reported in the 17 years it has surveyed the 400 largest charities in the country.

While many of these groups, from the United Way and the Salvation Army to Harvard University, saw fund-raising increases in 2008, their donors had not yet felt the full force of the economic downturn and the stock market’s dive, according to the survey. Many are expecting far leaner times through 2010.

“These are the most successful charities. If they are going to see a decline of 9 percent, the smaller, scrappier charities that don’t have all that going for them are going to be having a much harder time,’’ said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Nationally, these large nonprofits saw a 1 percent increase in the total amount they raised in 2008, according to the report, down from several years of gains of 5 to 6 percent annually. Some universities and other organizations did raise large amounts in specially planned capital campaigns, Palmer said.

Eighteen Massachusetts organizations rank on the list of 400, the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund is number 3 on the list. The $1.6 billion fund, made up of money donated by Fidelity customers to go to a long list of causes, saw its donations rise 4.2 percent last year. Harvard, ranked 20th on the list, reported a 6 percent rise in gifts, to $650.6 million. The largest gains were made at Amherst College and Tufts University, at 160 percent and 144 percent, respectively.

Schools often raise more money than other groups, Palmer said, because, “The colleges have a broader base. They have the very wealthy people and they have the middle-class people.’’

Partners HealthCare System, the large Boston hospital group, saw its donations drop 21 percent in 2008.

While the strongest charities will survive the downturn, Palmer said, many will struggle. And the troubled finances of many state governments won’t help.

“It’s going to be at least two more years until there’s real recovery,’’ in the sector, she said.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's business section about nonprofit fund-raising misstated the total assets in the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund. The fund has $4.1 billion in assets, and raised $1.6 billion from donors in 2008, up 4.2 percent from 2007.