WASHINGTON — Charitable giving declined in the first quarter of this year, according to a bellwether study by a consulting firm for nonprofit agencies.
It's the first decline since 2005, when charities collected record donations after the Indian Ocean tsunami and U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes. It came as no surprise; charitable contributions generally track economic conditions.
Donor numbers fell by 4 percent and revenue by 1.8 percent compared with the first quarter of last year, according to the study by Target Analytics, a company based in Cambridge, Mass.
"Like many stocks on a Wall Street trading day, there's just more that went down than went up this quarter," said John Mastrobattista, the company's vice president of marketing.
A broader study by the Giving USA Foundation, released in June, reported an increase in charitable giving of 1 percent last year.
Target Analytics' Index of National Fundraising Performance, which is based on a sample of 72 charities, found that while revenue per donor increased by 2.1 percent so far this year, that wasn't enough to offset declines in donor numbers and overall revenue.
"It's perhaps not unexpected that Americans in general are being more careful about their discretionary spending," Mastrobattista said.
Whether the findings reflect a temporary or beginning trend is unclear, he said.
International relief and advocacy groups saw the largest declines in donors and revenue, his company's analysis found. Donations to animal welfare and environmental groups were up 5.1 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.
Curt Welling, the president and chief executive officer of AmeriCares, an international humanitarian-relief group based in Stamford, Conn., said his organization wasn't too worried. It expects donations to increase this year.
"We have a highly diversified universe of givers," he said. "No one organization or one giver is going to sink the ship."
Target Analytics looked at 72 nonprofits with more than 36 million donors. They made 66 million donations totaling $1.8 billion in the first quarter of 2008. To standardize its comparisons, it excluded any donations higher than $5,000.
The study divided the nonprofit organizations into seven categories: animal welfare, environmental, health, human services, international relief, societal benefit and miscellaneous.
A study on the second quarter of this year will be released in September.