The charitable-giving arm of Fidelity Investments raised more money than any other nonprofit in the country last year, outpacing United Way Worldwide, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual rankings published Thursday.
Boston-based Fidelity Charitable ascended to the No. 1 slot for the first time, as customers put $4.6 billion into gift accounts in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2015, according to the report. That marked a nearly 20 percent jump from the prior year and vaulted Fidelity over the $3.7 billion collected by United Way, which declined — by 4 percent. Feeding America, a Chicago-based network of food banks, and Stanford University both moved up the list — Feeding America to No. 3, and Stanford to the eighth position. Catholic Charities USA and the Salvation Army ranked fifth and sixth — each slightly sliding.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy list shows that charitable giving has become big business for some large investment firms. Four of the top 11 groups are donor-advised funds like Fidelity’s, organizations registered as charities but which hold and manage money for thousands of individual donors. These groups offer services such as phone apps and other technology that make it easy for customers to give money away.
After Fidelity, the next-biggest firm in that category is the Schwab Charitable Fund, which ranked at No. 4 and last year took in $2.1 billion in assets from investors.
Thomas McLaughlin, a nonprofit consultant in Andover, said seeing gift funds overtake major nonprofits like the American Red Cross and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America “is a little scary.”
By using a middleman, rather than giving money directly to an operating charity, McLaughlin said, “We’re getting a little bit distant from the person who needs the help.”
Critics say donor-advised funds allow investors to simply park charitable dollars — in exchange for a tax break — without having to make an immediate decision about where to direct the money.
But Pamela Norley, who took over last month as president of Fidelity Charitable, said donors gave away more than $3 billion to nonprofits last year, or 20 percent of the $15 billion fund’s total assets.
“We have very generous donors,’’ said Norley, who works in Durham, N.C. “This is really about making sure that these charities are getting the dollars that our donors have set up for them.”
The average account size is $15,000, she said. Millennial clients donate about $1,000 a year on average, she said, while baby boomers give about $2,000.
If Fidelity Charitable sees that a customer hasn’t made a grant from an account in three years, it suggests that a contribution be made, Norley said. If an account is inactive for six years, Fidelity will make donations on the donor’s behalf.
Fidelity Charitable is now the second-largest donor to charities in the country, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Michael Durkin, chief executive at the Massachusetts-area chapter of the United Way, said he believes that the rise of donor-advised funds is adding to overall charitable dollars, not taking away money from other nonprofits.
“I think that’s great for everybody,’’ he said. “It means there are more funds going into charitable giving.”Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.