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Florida's nonprofits hold on despite economy's frailties

When it comes to measuring the health of a U.S. economy that may be on the verge of an upsurge, there are a hundred ways to take its temperature. Philanthropy _ Are we giving more or less than we used to? _ is one such test.

Last week, you may have seen a brief news report on survey results showing that private contributions by individuals, foundations and corporations to the largest charities fell in 2002 for the first time in a dozen years because of the troubled economy and uncertainty among donors. The drop was modest: just 1.2 percent, adjusted for inflation.

Even so, any decline is jarring because donations increased 12 percent annually over the previous five years. The numbers come from the 12th annual survey of the nation's 400 largest charities conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

What happened? The list of likely answers is long. The country gave selflessly after the Sept. 11 attacks two years ago, so now we're catching our collective breath. The stalled economy and weakened stock market crimped people's wallets and charitable moods. Scandals in corporate America and in some major non-profit charities soured givers (enough to spur a new code of ethics being debated this week at a major gathering of non-profit groups in San Francisco). More and more charities are simply competing for the same pool of dollars.

All true. A separate Chronicle survey this year shows that charitable giving by many of the nation's wealthiest companies fell in 2002 after a sharp increase in 2001.

For all the hand-wringing, many of the major charities in Florida managed to hold their own last year. Of the 400 biggest in the nation cited by the annual Chronicle survey, two Florida non-profit organizations managed to make the top 25 in donations. Altogether, 11 Florida groups made the top 400 list.

Here's a quick look at Florida's 11, according to their rank in the top 400, and the size of private support received in 2002:

+ No. 21: Campus Crusade for Christ International, Orlando. 2002 donations: $346.7-million, up 4 percent from 2001 and a 47 percent increase from 1998. Founded as an evangelical group in 1951 by Bill Bright, a California businessman who called himself a "happy pagan" before finding religion in 1947. He died in July at age 81. Among its projects: mailing unsolicited copies of a video depicting the story of Jesus to millions of U.S. households. The group has a staff of 26,000 people in 191 countries.

+ No. 23: Food for the Poor, Deerfield Beach. 2002 donations: $320.7-million, up 13 percent from 2001 and an impressive 282 percent from 1998. The nation's fourth largest international charity is an interdenominational Christian relief and development organization that focuses its aid on the poor in the Caribbean and Latin America.

+ No. 29: Shriners Hospitals for Children, Tampa. 2002 donations: $272.6-million, a 2.2 percent decline from 2001 and up a very modest 21 percent since 1998. The fraternal order is known for picking up the tab for burned and crippled children who receive care at their 20-plus hospitals. In the late 1990s, the order added a $15-million expansion to its headquarters complex off the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

+ No. 62: University of Florida, Gainesville. 2002 donations: $179-million, up a solid 26 percent from 2001 and almost double that from 1998. When it comes to receiving private donations, the home of the Gators leads all universities in the state by a wide margin.

+ No. 110: Wycliffe Bible Translators, Orlando. 2002 donations: $118-million, a 7 percent gain from 2001 and up 19 percent from 1998. Founded in 1934, Wycliffe says its mission is to assist the church "in making disciples of all nations through Bible translation." Its goal is to offer a translation of the Bible in every language group "that needs it" by 2025.

+ No. 153: University of Miami, Coral Gables. 2002 donations: $86-million, an 18 percent decline from 2001 and up only 10 percent from 1998. The state's biggest private university got more aggressive last month, announcing a $1-billion fundraising drive.

+ No. 221; Florida State University, Tallahassee. 2002 donations: $61-million, a decline of 10 percent from 2001 but a strong 84 percent gain from 1998.

+ No. 284: United Way of Miami-Dade, Miami. 2002 donations: $45-million, almost exactly the sum donated in 2001, and up 66 percent from 1998. That's not bad, given United Way's overall troubles. In 2002-03, the Chronicle says, all 1,400 United Way organizations suffered the worst fundraising decline in 30 years. In the Tampa Bay area, United Way fell almost $3-million short of its goal last year. More than 70 local agencies faced funding cuts as a result.

+ No. 313: University of South Florida, Tampa. 2002 donations: $41-million, up 10 percent from 2001 but only a modest 37 percent increase from 1998. To compete with the more established UF, FSU and other big fish in the state university pool, USF needs to keep strengthening its private support.

+ No. 329: Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Miami. 2002 donations: $39-million, a gain of 11 percent from 2001 and up 56 percent from 1998.

+ No. 347: Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Fort Lauderdale. 2002 donations: $36-million, a 2 percent decline from 2001 and up 31 percent from 1998. Started in 1974, the evangelical group provides outreach via television, radio, and print publications.

The bottom line? Florida's top 11 non-profit organizations are holding their own in tough times for charities. Just remember the competition. Year-to-year increases in donations will not guarantee that a group remains ranked in the top 400.

On the other hand, having only 11 of the nation's 400 biggest non-profits based in the fourth most populous state is not much to boast about. Atlanta alone boasts 14 organizations on the Chronicle's top 400.

For the record, the No. 1 charity last year was the American National Red Cross. As a result of the $1.1-billion given to its September 11 fund, the Red Cross bumped the Salvation Army from the top ranking to No. 2 for the first time in the survey's history.

If there's a philanthropic silver lining in Florida, it seems its residents are pretty generous givers. That's according to a measure called the "generosity index" that ranks charitable giving state by state, based upon the wealth of its citizens and corporations and how much they actually give to charities each year.

Florida ranked 16th among the 50 states, based on the 2002 index compiled annually by the Catalogue for Philanthropy. That made Floridians more "generous" on average than folks in 34 other states. And it probably reflects the above-average performance of the Florida economy, and a state unemployement rate lower than the nation's.

The most generous citizens? People in Mississippi, Arkansas and South Dakota, who gave a lot to charity when compared to their incomes, says the generosity index. The nation's misers? Folks in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Jersey _ states far from the Sunshine State.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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