Charitable giving was steady last year, as the stock market regained ground, the economy stabilized and employment prospects brightened.
Americans gave an estimated $240.72 billion in 2003, a slight increase from the previous year, according to Giving U.S.A., an annual survey of charitable contributions published by the A.A.F.R.C. Trust for Philanthropy, a unit of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, and compiled by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Estimated giving in 2003 equaled roughly 2.2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, the fifth year since 1971 that charitable contributions exceeded 2 percent of the total output of goods and services.
The increase was roughly equal to that from 2001 to 2002. Charitable giving hit $234.09 billion in 2002, a $6.83 billion downward revision from the trust's initial estimate, which had pegged giving at $240.92 billion.
"This occurs despite rather unsettling times," said Henry Goldstein, chairman of the Giving U.S.A. Foundation, which released the survey. "The economy is in what I would call partial recovery; there's a war, there's a threat of violence, there's a political campaign that is nasty, and yet philanthropy is really quite robust."
The data comes out on the eve of a major Congressional hearing on issues confronting the nonprofit sector, which may lead to changes in regulation. Charities have come under intense scrutiny by the news media and the public over the last two years, and some nonprofit leaders suspect that has discouraged giving.
"That we're in a holding pattern is frankly miraculous," said Robert L. E. Egger, founder of the D.C. Central Kitchen and author of the book "Begging for Change." "The institutional flaws in our system are coming to a head."
Mr. Egger said support for the kitchen had been stable while demand for its services had grown, not only from clients but also from other nonprofit groups seeking to replicate its programs. "That also costs money, but people giving to us don't necessarily understand that," he said.
The sector continues to struggle in part because the number of charities continues to rise at a faster pace than charitable giving. The Internal Revenue Service grants tax exemption to an average of 83 nonprofit groups a day.
"The competition is so fierce you have to get better at fund-raising or you'll get eaten alive by the local garden club," said Kurt Aschermann, chief marketing and development officer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the umbrella organization for 3,400 clubs nationwide.
Contributions to the clubs totaled $1.1 billion in 2003, Mr. Aschermann said, up from roughly $1 billion the previous year. He said giving from traditional sources like corporations, foundations and governments was largely flat, while giving from individuals propelled the increase.
Last year, the organization tested a program to cultivate individual donors, called One Campaign, in 19 clubs. The program attracted 3,700 new donors, and the Boys and Girls Clubs plan to expand it this year and have it in place in all clubs by 2006.
Mr. Aschermann expects giving to remain stable or increase this year. Two recent dinners held to benefit the organization in New York and Dallas brought in $1.3 million and $1.7 million in profits, respectively. "That's a pretty good sign that people are still giving," he said.
Like the Boys and Girls Clubs, many nonprofits have tried to develop new ways to tap potential donors. The Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Mich., for instance, mounted its first major exhibition in 2003, Linda McCartney's "Portraits of an Era." The exhibition drove changes in the museum's fund-raising efforts, attracting new members in late 2002 and providing valuable lessons in reaching out to national corporations for support, said Jeanne Donado, vice president for administration.
"We wanted to increase our visibility regionally and see if we could use an event to raise revenues," Ms. Donado said. "It was successful, even though our timing was bad."
In late 2002, when the museum, which has a budget of roughly $1 million, began soliciting contributions from corporations, the economy had not yet picked up, and it did not meet its goals. It did, however, attract more sponsorship money than it ever had before, $40,000. "People in New York will probably laugh at that, but our previous high was $10,000," Ms. Donado said.
The museum, a historical site that features art exhibitions, also has raised almost $3 million of the $5 million it hopes to raise as part of a capital improvement campaign.
The United Way of America, the umbrella organization for 1,300 local United Ways, expects fund-raising through traditional workplace giving campaigns to decline by roughly 1.5 percent this year.
But total cash giving to United Way organizations should rise by at least 1 percent, said Brian A. Gallagher, president and chief executive of the United Way of America. "A lot more of the local organizations are engaging in housing and educational initiatives and offering them as separate giving options," Mr. Gallagher said. "That's helping to offset declines in workplace giving, and it's the direction we want to go in."