Corporate donations to charitable causes edged up 2% last year to $6 billion, the third consecutive year of sluggish industry giving, according to a survey released Sunday.
The slump was seen as partly reflecting the recession's drag on corporate profits, which has forced cutbacks in functions regarded as less essential than core company operations.
Meanwhile, donations to education institutions remained the favorite corporate target, with higher education drawing the lion's share, said survey results.
The estimated contributions were compiled from surveys by the Council for Aid to Education and the Conference Board, two business-supported groups, as well as from Yale University research.
The findings were estimated from a poll of 339 large companies and figures supplied by donation recipients at schools and the Internal Revenue Service. The estimated margin of error was plus or minus 5%, or about $250 million for each year's total corporate contributions.
The 2% annual gain recorded for 1990 followed increases of 4% in 1989 and 2% in 1988, capping a five-year period in which gains, after inflation, averaged only 0.5% annually.
However, the sluggish trend was not considered surprising following 10 years of unprecedented growth between 1976 and 1985, when gains averaged 16% a year and, after inflation, 8.4% annually.
"It was unlikely to go on indefinitely," said Priscilla Lewis, vice president for publications at the Council for Aid to Education.
Education remained the favorite corporate cause in 1990, drawing an estimated $2.4 billion, or 40% of all donations.
Higher education accounted for nearly three-quarters of the educational total, but the percentage going to elementary and secondary school causes has increased over the last fifteen years to 11% in 1990 from 4% in 1976.
The survey noted that while some of that increase might be due to better reporting, it also reflected shifting in corporate priorities away from general educational support and toward specific educational institutions.
The 339 polled companies said they donated a total of $2.09 billion in 1990, with the top 50 givers representing more than 20% of the total.
The companies said of the total $1.89 billion they earmarked for specific causes, 41% went to education, 30.2% to health and human services, 12.6% to culture and art and 3.1% to other targets such as the Olympics and overseas causes.
Overall and school-related contributions for 1991 were expected to show little, if any increase over 1990.