Volunteer vacations let you help others

Take travelers who were in Europe for six weeks and worked for a charity for one of those weeks. "They don't get one-sixth of expenses as a deduction. They get nothing," says Zimbler. "When the charity work isn't the overwhelmingly primary activity, you don't get it at all."

Go with a group

To ensure that the IRS doesn't misread your volunteer vacation, Zimbler cautions against freelancing. Instead of heading to Pensacola on your own and picking up a few tar balls while you stroll the beach, connect with an IRS-approved nonprofit doing that type of work.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, environmental groups saw a marked increase in volunteer interest. Although the federal government and BP controlled much of what could be done along the Gulf Coast, Bruce Reid, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, in Vicksburg, Miss., says the conservation group has found ways for volunteers to help.

"There's great interest in washing animals and birds," says Reid, "but that's being done by veterinarians and people with training. We help support the operation by posting people at docks where they receive the boats coming in with animals and assist in transferring them to the cleanup centers."

David Minich, director of global volunteer engagement for Habitat for Humanity, agrees with the IRS position that the focus be on the project. "We don't call them volunteer vacations," says Minich. "We don't emphasize the vacation aspect. You're working."

Up to 6,000 people per year volunteer for Habitat's Global Village program, with about 15 percent of the projects in the United States. "People go to somewhat exotic places like Alaska and Hawaii, but many others go to places like Biloxi, (Miss.) or New Orleans, which (are) still recovering," says Minich.

Central America, because of its proximity and the value of the dollar there, is a prime destination for U.S. volunteers seeking foreign Habitat for Humanity projects.

Habitat for Humanity sends its program participants letters with details on their chosen project. If the group with which you choose to volunteer doesn't provide documentation, ask for it. It could help ensure you get the full tax break you're allowed for your good deeds.

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