Though Yale saw the greatest decline in donations last year out of the nation’s top 20 fundraising universities, administrators said the numbers are no cause for alarm.

Yale is in the fourth year of a five-year capital campaign, the stage when many donations often plateau, they said. In addition, the rankings — from a survey released by an educational nonprofit — only count cash received and not money pledged, which Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said skews the numbers.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”8017″ ]

According to the Council for Aid to Education survey, gifts to colleges and universities nationwide dropped 11.9 percent on average last year — the steepest fall ever recorded — as alumni and other donors hurt by the recession stopped writing checks as frequently as they normally do, the survey director said Tuesday. Among the top 20 institutions, Yale ranked ninth in total donations with $358.2 million raised last year, while Stanford, Harvard and Cornell universities took the top three spots. Yet Yale administrators said the trend will not ultimately hurt the University.

“I’m not particularly concerned about this long term,” University President Richard Levin said Monday. “We have lots of good conversations with donors in the pipeline.”

Donations last year and this year have suffered as donors burned out and lost some of the initial enthusiasm they may have had for the campaign, Reichenbach said. In a normal economy, gifts usually rise in the fifth year — in Yale’s case, next year — as donors rush to be included in the campaign, she added.

But she acknowledged that last year was unusually difficult for development and that next year’s economy may not be normal.

Reichenbach said Yale has garnered $2.9 billion so far in the five-year Yale Tomorrow capital campaign. The cash the University received from donors this month has so far outpaced what Yale received in February 2009, she added.

“If February’s an indication of the next year, we’ll be very happy,” she said.

Though Levin said Yale would likely see a rebound in gifts only if a few major donations administrators hope to receive come through, the Council for Aid to Education’s Ann Kaplan, who directed the survey of 1,027 institutions, said donors are likely to be more generous this year as the stock market recovers. Many donations are made in stock, so more donors should be able to dip into their portfolios this year, she said.

Stanford and Harvard — raising $640.1 million and $601.6 million respectively — topped the rankings for the fourth year in a row despite collecting less than in previous years. In 2008, Stanford raised $785 million and Harvard garnered $650.6 million, posting declines of 18.5 and 7.5 percent, respectively.

But Cornell emerged the real winner, posting the highest percent gains among the top 20. With $446.8 million in donations last year, the university brought in 9.1 percent more than it did in 2008 — thanks in part to a $170 million gift from alumnus and former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill, Cornell spokesman Simeon Moss said. Weill’s gift helped to build Cornell’s Weill Medical College branch in New York City.

The Council for Aid to Education survey only counts the cash a university has collected through fundraising in any given year, meaning Yale’s ranking does not reflect any pledges the University received in the 2009 fiscal year, Reichenbach said.

“That skews it significantly,” she said. “It’s always nice to get the cash, but what people are willing to give — that’s a better indicator.”

At Yale, donors have five years to fulfill a pledge. But at Cornell, Weill paid the entirety of his 2007 pledge last year, giving the school a major boost, she added.

Both Stanford and Cornell credit dedicated alumni for their successes.

“It is a testament to … the generosity of the university’s donors,” Stanford development spokeswoman Rebecca Smith Vogel said, adding that Stanford does not expect donations to return to a normal level just yet. Stanford received a $100 million gift from a group of donors to establish a new sustainable energy research institute last year, she said.

Moss, too, said loyal alumni helped Cornell to buck the trend of plunging donations.

Donations to Stanford, Harvard and Cornell may have outstripped Yale’s partly because they have larger alumni bases than Yale, with its smaller student body, Kaplan said.

Still, Yale isn’t alone.

“It’s the biggest decline we’ve ever seen, but also the simplest to explain,” Kaplan said. “Every source of income was hit. It’s the economy.”

Donations will not recover to pre-recession levels for a few years, she said, not only because the economy is recovering slowly, but also because universities saw a record-high level of donations in 2008, after several years of growth.

Yale raised $486.6 million in 2008, earning it the fourth spot in the council’s survey that year.