When things look gloomy for Ted Turner's charity of choice, it's a sure bet that the rest of the charity sector is hurting, too. The media mogul announced last week that he is cutting back on charitable giving, and that his billion-dollar gift to the United Nations would take five years longer to fulfill because of the downturn in the economy.

The economic woes which have cost Turner billions also plague the rest of the charity world, making this holiday season even more important than usual as a time for donors to step up to the collection plate.

"It has been a tough year, said Patrician Nash, Director of Communications for the Independent Sector, a charity watchdog based in Washington, D.C.

A recent study of charitable organizations backs up this sentiment. Last month Guidestar, a research organization that tracks charitable contributions, released a survey of nearly 3,000 nonprofit organizations that found for almost half, 48%, contributions had gone down during the first 10 months of the year, as compared to the same time period last year.

Charities from Salvation Army street-corner kettle collections to New York's City Harvest food program have reported feeling the same crunch. Even the Christmas charity staple Toys for Tots has experienced a downturn in donations this year. Until last week, when it received a major corporate donation, the U.S. Marine Corps program to provide toys for needy children had seen its most difficult fundraising period in recent years. Major William Grein said the foundation, based in Quantico, Virginia, with local centers across the country, was still about $15 million worth of toys behind where it was this time last year.

"It's a mediocre year compared to what we've been used to," said Grein, noting large corporate donations during the economic boom years of the late nineties and 2000. "Many local donation centers aren't doing as well either."

Charitable giving experts see several factors leading to these hard times for American charities, but all agree the downturn in the economy, with no recovery in sight, is the primary reason.

"The economy affects all the funding sources," said Suzanne Coffman, director of communications for Guidestar.

The faltering economy, along with fears for the future tied to the possibility of war, have led many individuals to reconsider how much they give to charity this year.

"A lot of us go into protective mode when things are bad," said Daryll Heald, president of Generous Giving, a Christian ministry that provides advice on charitable giving.

"Individuals are worried about financial security, so they have less to give," agreed Coffman.

But it's not only individual donations that are affected by the economy. The poor performance of the stock market has been most drastic for foundations and corporations, which are responsible for the largest chunk of charitable giving. Many foundations have seen their assets shrink in the past year. "Grant-makers couldn't give as much as they thought they could," said Coffman. "Forty percent said the total amount awarded to organizations this year was less."

Many charities have also seen cuts in government subsidies. Nash said that state and local governments are trying to balance their budgets, and therefore cutting back on some social services. Gifts from corporations are also lagging behind, as companies tighten budgets during the economic downturn.

Additionally, some are still recovering from the affects of September 11. While charities last year did not fare as poorly as some predicted in the aftermath of a huge individual and corporate outpouring to September 11-related charities, some "organizations are just now pulling out of the financial straits they were put in after September 11," said Coffman.

All these factors make this holiday season especially important. "Traditionally, the last two months of the year are when organizations get the bulk of their contributions," said Suzanne Coffman, director of communications for Guidestar. "That's the season that makes or breaks them."

Coffman said charities are hoping "the traditional giving season will help" them recover from the giving shortfall of the previous months of the year.

This uncertainty about the giving season is coming at a time when not just charities, but the people they serve, are seeing an increased need. In November, the unemployment rate climbed to 6%, the highest in eight years.

The need for emergency food and shelter assistance is also rising dramatically, according to a report on the state of hunger and homelessness in major American cities released today.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the need for food assistance rose 19 percent during the past year in the 25 cities surveyed, and requests for emergency shelter similarly rose 19 percent in the 18 cities that reported an increase. This was the highest increase in the past ten years.