Giving Season: Signs of Relief for Struggling Nonprofits

The giving season is just around the corner, and things are finally looking up for nonprofits that have struggled to raise funds during the recession.

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The giving season is just around the corner, and things are finally looking up for nonprofits that have struggled to raise funds during the recession. Despite broad fears of a double-dip, enough people feel good enough to dig a little deeper, surveys suggest.

People are still plenty worried about the economy. But in a joint TIME/Money poll in September, many said they were more confident about holding onto their jobs and homes and being better off financially in 12 months. They were cutting loose just enough for charities to anticipate greater contributions.

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Among the nation’s 400 largest charities, 68% say they expect giving to increase this year. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

“The nation’s most successful fund-raising groups appear to be pulling out of the recession: They expect contributions to grow by a median of 4.7% this year.”

That’s a nice rebound. Total giving had fallen a combined 13% in 2008 and 2009 before a modest uptick in 2010, according to Giving USA. Not everyone will enjoy the spoils. The Chronicle reports:

“Only some types of big nonprofits are prospering, and the struggles faced by the rest paint a far more worrisome picture of the state of fund raising. …‘You try to keep a happy face, but it is really tough after years of going through this,’ says Alisa Borland, director of fund raising at the Conservation Fund, where contributions dropped by more than 25% last year, mostly because of the declining value of land donated to the charity. But cash contributions also fell. … Many fund raisers now take the view that just holding steady, or managing to raise slightly less than in the past, should be considered a success.”

Still, there are other signs that charitable giving this year might rebound even stronger than expected. Fidelity Charitable, the nation’s largest donor-advised fund program, found in a recent survey that 72% of donors plan to maintain or increase their giving this year. That’s up from 63% last year.

Fidelity expects a record year both in terms of money flowing into its program earmarked for charities and of money flowing out to nonprofits. For the first nine months, Fidelity Charitable donors recommended $832 million in grants to nonprofits, a 12% increase over the first nine months of 2010. Incoming contributions were up 23%.

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Some of this comes at the expense of other forms of giving. But in general donor-advised funds, which function like an individual foundation where ordinary people park money and save on taxes and then distribute the money whenever they see fit, have broadened the charitable giving pool. According to National Philanthropic Trust, which monitors 467 donor-advised programs:

“The overall message seems to be that donor-advised funds rebounded sharply in 2011. We project an increase of more than 10% in charitable assets. Also, we project a 20% increase in contributions to donor-advised fund programs.”

Even in the toughest of times, America’s unique spirit of giving never collapsed. That spirit may be tested again in the near future. But for this year, anyway, there appears to be a welcome degree of relief for contribution-starved nonprofits.