Charities say donations are slowly on the upswing but remain below pre-recessionary levels, causing budget squeezes at some nonprofits, according to a new survey.

On the plus side, 36% of charities saw an uptick in donations during the year's first nine months, up from just 23% during the year-earlier period. On the flip side, 37% of charities reported lower donation levels, which nonetheless is a sizable improvement from the 51% that reported declines last year. Another 26% said giving levels were unchanged and 1% weren't sure, according to "The Nonprofit Fundraising Survey: November 2010."

The collaborative study was compiled by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Blackbaud, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the Foundation Center, GuideStar USA Inc., and the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics.

"We are beginning to see some positive signs, but despite that giving still has a long way to go to return to the levels it was at three or four years ago," said Patrick M. Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which spearheaded the collaboration.

Among the eight subsectors of charities tracked by the survey, organizations focused on international causes were most likely to see increased donations. Specifically, 52% of charitable entities within that group reported more donations during the first nine months versus the year-earlier period. In part, that reflects donations for Haitian earthquake and Pakistani flood relief efforts.

Three subsectors--health, public-society benefit and religion--saw a greater share of organizations that reported declines rather than increases.

The survey of more than 2,350 charities and 163 foundations found demand for services jumped at 78% of human service nonprofits and at 68% of charities overall during the first nine months.

Given the current circumstances, the survey concludes that charities will be hard-pressed in 2011 to secure funding for their growing needs, especially with many individual and foundation donors remaining cautious, along with expectations of cutbacks from various funding sources such as government contracts for services.

That said, the survey found charitable organizations were "guardedly optimistic" about 2011. Specifically, 47% plan to boost their budgets, 33% expect to maintain their current budgets, and 20% envision a smaller budget next year.

"Younger, less well-established nonprofits have been especially hard hit by the recession," said Lawrence T. McGill, vice president for research at the Foundation Center. "Many foundations, seeking to maximize more limited resources, have steered their grantmaking toward organizations they believe have the best chance to weather the economic storm."