State legislators choose most charity check-offs,
although the exact rules vary by state. California,
for example, has a $250,000 threshold that charities
must make in order to remain on the tax return, and
some causes are listed on the returns for a limited
"Some of the legislation for the
check-off programs have sunset dates while others, as
long as they can sustain minimum contributions, will
be on the return each year," says Patrick Hill,
a spokesman for the Franchise Tax Board, the administrative
body for California income taxes.
States also tend to favor charity check-offs
that aren't controversial. The most popular charity
check-off is for protection of wildlife. And in states
where hunting is popular, wildlife protection programs
supported by the tax return check-offs specify that
they only protect non-game animals.
California, with 14 check-offs on its
2005 tax return, has one of the larger programs. Taxpayers
can donate to a variety of causes, ranging from funds
for medical research (for example, breast cancer, Alzheimer's
disease, prostate cancer) to those that support the
needs of children, senior citizens, veterans and the
ubiquitous rare and endangered species.
Economy, not donation
method, affects giving
While the check-offs produce big money for some nonprofits,
it doesn't protect them against economic pressures.
Donations made via a tax return remain tied to the giver's
financial circumstances, just like those made the more-traditional
Carla Snellgrove, a spokeswoman for the
Alabama Department of Revenue, says her state's charitable
contributions have gone up and down in tandem with the
local economy. "The highs and low are probably
tied to the economy," she says.
But check-off advocates on both the receiving
and the tax-processing sides remain committed to the
"It's no secret that nonprofit and
government agencies are facing severe budget cuts and
reduced donations," said Barb Mattison, executive
director of Colorado's Court Appointed Special Advocates
in a press release.
"We decided to get creative,"
she noted, citing the state's publicity campaign. "By
working together, we have a better chance of getting
the word out that check-off giving is a simple, painless
way to make a real difference for nearly every town
and citizen in our state."
Jenny C. McCune is a
contributing editor based in Montana.
Updated: Feb. 14, 2006