If your summer plans include a volunteer vacation, save all your receipts — even for your plane ticket. While the charity and its beneficiaries will certainly appreciate your efforts, Uncle Sam may also thank you with a tax deduction.
Just be sure to read the fine print. To take the write-off for any travel-related expenses you incur to do charitable work, you need to follow all the relevant IRS rules. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
1. Volunteer at qualified charities. Before you donate any money or time to a charity, verify its status by using the IRS’s Select Check tool. Many well–established charitable organizations will have already applied to the IRS to become qualified, although churches and governments are generally qualified and do not need to apply.
2. Document necessary expenses — but only those. Any out-of-pocket expenses you want to deduct, such as travel, must be “necessary while you are away from home,” says the IRS. They also need to be unreimbursed, directly connected with the services you provided, and an expense you had only because of your volunteer work. That means personal, living, or family expenses won’t qualify.
3. Do ‘real and substantial’ work — for your whole trip. The duties you take on for a charity must be “real and substantial throughout the trip,” says the IRS. You won’t get the deduction if you only have “nominal” obligations or lack work for large parts of the trip.
4. Don’t tack on an extra vacation. Similarly, be aware that your travel expenses won’t qualify as deductible if a significant part of your trip involves recreation or vacation. As long as your trip is focused on the charitable volunteer work, however, you can deduct most travel expenses — including air, rail and bus transportation; car expenses; lodging costs; cost of meals; taxis and other transportation costs between the airport or station and your hotel.
5. Don’t try to deduct the value of your time. You’re not allowed to write off any monetary value that the time or services you provided would normally command. And you can’t deduct any income that you lost while working as an unpaid volunteer.
For more guidance on which charitable trips and expenses will earn you a write off, see IRS publication 526, Charitable Contributions.