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Ask the taxgirl: Volunteering and Charitable Deductions

August 16, 2009 · 10 comments

Girl_Scouts.jpg

Taxpayer asks:

My wife is a Girl Scouts Leader. Is all of her time and contributions to the troop tax deductible? If so, how?

Taxgirl says:

Okay, the bad news first: the value of your time spent volunteering for charitable organizations is never deductible. Ever.

But there is good news! Out of pocket expenses relating to volunteering for charitable organizations are deductible. To qualify, those expenses must be: (1) unreimbursed; (2) directly connected with the services; (3) expenses you had only because of the services you gave; and (4) not personal, living, or family expenses.

The most obvious example of out of pocket expenses relating to providing services for a charitable organization is the cost of transportation. You can either deduct the actual costs of gas, etc., related to your services or you can claim the standard mileage rate (currently 14 cents a mile for charitable deductions) to figure your contribution. No matter which method you use (mileage or actual), you can still deduct parking fees and tolls.

You can also claim travel expenses while you are away from home performing services for a charitable organization, assuming that the expenses are related to the services and not for personal use (such as a vacation). Travel expenses would include air, rail, and bus transportation (as well as expenses for your car); taxi fares or other costs of transportation between the airport or station and your hotel; the cost of lodging and the cost of meals.

If you buy uniforms or other related clothing, etc., as part of your charitable service – and are not reimbursed by the organization – you can deduct those costs. Be aware, however, that the general rule on those are that the uniforms must be worn while volunteering and are otherwise not suitable for everyday use (so the cool tee shirt that you wear occasionally to the mall doesn’t count).

Any other supplies or prizes that you buy to be used in the performance of your services would likewise be deductible.

So, no to the value of your personal services but yes to those related expenses. Keep good records when you travel or buy things for your troop and you should be okay.

Like any good lawyer, I need to add a disclaimer: Unfortunately, it is impossible to give comprehensive tax advice over the internet, no matter how well researched or written. Before relying on any information given on this site, contact a tax professional to discuss your particular situation.

Have a question? Ask the taxgirl!Now on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/taxgirl

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Angela August 17, 2009 at 12:55 am

This sounds like an odd question, but does the organization need to record and/or approve the expenses that we’re writing off?

I volunteer for a 501(c)3 non-profit and to be honest this question is largely theoretical, because my expenses are so minimal it’s hardly worth mentioning. But it’s something I’ve always wondered about.

Here’s a scenario: If a person decided to spring for, say, an expensive booth at a State Fair and invested mega-money in materials to promote a charity from that booth, could that person write those expenses off even if the parent charity had no idea this person was “donating” all that time and material?

2 Jeff Day August 17, 2009 at 10:30 am

What a coincidence. I am in the middle of performing (trying to at least) an internal audit for a local Church. Various members would perform various services, such as supervising the daycare during services, to be paid a set amount. But then would turn around and donate the amount to the Church, and the Church did NOT then include the amount in payroll, but the member had a receipt for a donation. The Church asked me to go over their “books”, I am not charging any fee and told them I would have no donation and no receipt should be given me.

My question actually is, should the “sleeping dog lie” in past years, or should I really strongly encourage the W2′s/941′s be changed? We are talking somewhere in $3k-$5k total amounts between 3 persons.

The Trustees in the Church just recently changed and appears to want to do things correctly. Past trustees “were in charge” for several years.

Jeff Day EA
Evansville, IN

3 Kelly August 17, 2009 at 11:06 am

Angela,
I don’t think the charity needs to approve a nonreimbursable expense for the purposes of taking the tax deduction. That said, as a Board member and advisor to many, many charitable orgs, I ALWAYS advise monitoring volunteer activities. If I got wind of that booth in your example, I would advise my org to investigate a bit. If it wasn’t in keeping with our mission, our brand, our way of doing things, I’d have to say no to the volunteer (possibly quite strongly, depending on the circumstances). While it’s lovely that folks want to help out, “maverick” volunteers can actually hurt, not help a charity.

4 Edward Adamsky August 17, 2009 at 11:20 am

This is one of those rules that always bothered me. Americans support charities and we mean it so much that real dollars given to those charities can come out of the tax coffers of the government (in the form of deductions). But, we don’t value the time people give to the charities at all (no deductions). I know it’s most likely because of the difficulty of policing such a deduction, but just because the right thing is difficult doesn’t mean it’s OK to do the wrong thing. It is wrong to allow a charitable deduction for cash but not for time.

5 Kelly August 17, 2009 at 11:27 am

Edward,
I agree with you in principle. I think the problem with allowing deductions for services is tied to valuation. If I’m an attorney and I serve hot dogs at an event for the Y, what is the value of my time? The IRS would say it’s the value of a hot dog server, I would argue that it’s the value of the time that I’ve given up from work to serve hot dogs.
Even if we could agree (and I’m not sure that the IRS and most taxpayers could in that situation), a host of other complications ensue… is it the value of a hot dog server in Hampstead, NC or in Philadelphia, PA? Our wages are higher here, as a rule, because it’s a more expensive city. Do we take that into consideration?
Do we require charitable orgs to keep track of every hour and every activity performed? Do we require that they verify whether volunteers actually did what they were supposed to do? What if they did the activity but they were terrible at it?
Again, I agree with you… My office just finished up a pro bono matter that required more than 1000 hours of our time over five years. We can’t take a penny in deductions. But I understand that allowing deductions for services opens up a whole can of worms that the IRS has no way to address properly.

6 Kelly August 17, 2009 at 11:35 am

Jeff,
That sounds like a huge, ugly mess. I think it depends on how far back it went and how extensive the payments, etc., were. If it were a number of years ago and the amounts were relatively small, I might, in fact, let “sleeping dogs lie” and give the Trustees a stern lecture on how to do it properly in the future.
But if the activities were recent or considerable, I do think I’d recommend that the Trustees amend those returns.

7 ThomasT August 25, 2009 at 11:51 am

Okay, here’s why volunteer time isn’t deductible: you haven’t been paid for it, so it hasn’t accrued any value in our money-based taxation system. This is in fact perfectly illustrated by Jeff’s question.

Assume Michael does childcare during the church executive commitee meetings, and it is agreed that $15/hour is the rate of pay. Over the course of the year, he does 100 hours of work for the curch. If the church issues him a W-2 for the $1500 and a receipt for a $1500 donation, Michael has no new cash, but he has income that he has to declare on his tax return. Fortunately, he can deduct that income because it was a charitable contribution. So it’s a wash, except for the payroll taxes and paperwork. Much better to just avoid the paperwork and let volunteer time be volunteer time.

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