SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – The economic downturn took an incredible toll on the country’s biggest charities. A new report showed the steepest decline in donations in two decades.

KCBS’ Doug Sovern Reports:

“It was surprising to us just how steep this drop was,” said Stacey Palmer, editor of the Philanthropy 400, an annual ranking by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Eleven percent is a lot for the very biggest charities to feel in one year.”

Palmer described it as the biggest decline in charitable giving since the 1990 recession.

“Recessions always are a tough time for charities because people can’t give. So it’s definitely tied to the economy. But we haven’t seen this kind of drop, because clearly in the twenty years since we’ve been doing this survey, there have been several recessions and nothing as dramatic as this decline.”

The United Way was again listed as the nation’s biggest charity, followed by the Salvation Army. Palmer explained, however, that donations were recently going to smaller groups.

“All kinds of groups are really having trouble so it’s not one particular sector. Even social services groups, which had been doing fairly well during part of the recession, because people realized you need to help get food and shelter in this tough economy, they’re saying that people are feeling a sense of compassion fatigue at this point and not able to give as much. So really, all kinds of organizations are feeling that pinch.”

“Anybody who’s fortunate enough to have a job, we really need to help those people who don’t. And find ways to dig deeper into our pockets.”

She pointed out that charitable giving wasn’t necessarily all about money.

“Volunteering can make a giant difference. Especially people who have great skills. Somebody who, maybe a laid off technology worker, can contribute to a charity in a way that the charity can never afford those types of skills.”

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