CHICAGO - Charitable giving fell by 3.6 percent last year as Americans continued to struggle with the recession, according to an annual survey released today.

Americans donated $303.75 billion during 2009, the second worst year since 1956, when the Giving USA Foundation started conducting its surveys. The worst year was 1974, when giving fell an inflation-adjusted 5.5 percent. However, 2009 also was the third-straight year that giving reached more than $300 billion.

"We actually were anticipating a larger drop," foundation chairwoman Edith Falk said, ticking off the challenges that 2009 presented for donors, including high unemployment and home-foreclosure rates.

"Given all those factors we really were expecting people were not going to be in the position to give," Falk said.

The survey found that giving to human services, health, international affairs and environment and animal-related groups all saw increases in 2009, while donations to education, arts, culture and humanities organizations fell overall.

"On the margin people were increasing their giving to help those who were less fortunate," said Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis. The report is based on research by the center.