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Contributions to the nation's biggest charities rose slightly last year after falling in 2002, the first decline in a decade, according to an annual survey by a publication that tracks nonprofit groups.

The study being released today by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that donations to the 400 largest nonprofit organization increased by 2.3 percent last year, to more than $47 billion. In the previous year, donations fell 1.2 percent, in part because of troubled economic times.

An improving economy helped lift donations last year, editor Stacy Palmer said. But contributions have yet to match levels from the 1990s, when the survey found double-digit percentage increases for the top charities.

Palmer also credited a shift in fund-raising strategies. She said many groups are focused on securing very large donations, rather than $10 to $15 contributions.

"Nonprofits are making a lot of efforts to become more effective in the way that they raise money," she said.

Reclaiming the No. 1 spot on the Chronicle's list was the Salvation Army, with $1.3 billion in donations. It was followed by the American Cancer Society, which raised $794 million, and Gifts in Kind International with $787 million in contributions.

The American Red Cross, No. 1 on the list for 2002 because of a surge in contributions following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was No. 8 this year.

The rankings cover private donations and nongovernment contributions.

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