Donors gave 16 percent more in contributions to the nation's most popular charities last year than in 1997, a survey of the top 400 charities shows.

It was the largest increase since the Chronicle of Philanthropy began compiling contribution statistics in 1991.

For a seventh consecutive year, the Salvation Army was the favored organization as it raised $1.2 billion in cash and donated goods.

The YMCA of the USA and the Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund saw donations increase by more than 25 percent and took second and third on the list with $629.3 million and $571.9 million respectively.

"While there is an increase in giving, there is also an increase in need" as families move from welfare to work, often in low-paying jobs, Salvation Army spokeswoman Theresa Whitfield said. "We are grateful for the public's generosity. . . . As long as the economy is doing well, people will have more to give."

As Whitfield did, most organizations attributed the generosity boom to the booming economy, which made 1998 one of the best fund-raising years in a quarter-century for many groups. Grant-making foundations thriving with a strong stock market also helped fuel the largess.

Online donations, an increasingly popular approach to fund-raising, also helped boost many organizations' take. The fifth-ranking American Red Cross, for instance, has a spot on its World Wide Web site to "Donate Now."

The Chronicle gathers financial data on cash and in-kind donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. Only private donations are tallied, not money from governments or fees charged by organizations.

On the list were 139 colleges and universities, 37 international groups and 27 religious organizations. Educational institutions collectively fetched the most support, bringing in $11.6 billion, a 21.9 percent increase from the year before.