Don’t give up your vacation because the idea of being unproductive for a week or two drives you crazy. Take a “volunteer vacation” by helping a nonprofit.
Not only will you accomplish things during your time off; Uncle Sam could help pay for some of your modified holiday in the form of tax breaks.
Also referred to as “voluntourism,” volunteer vacations allow you to help others within the United States and globally. Some volunteers provide cleanup after disasters. Others participate in ongoing programs, such as community building or teaching.
However you choose to volunteer while on vacation, if you want to get any tax benefits, you need to follow the IRS rules.
First, as with any charitable contribution, your gift of service must be made to a qualified organization. You also must itemize to claim the deduction.
And while many expenses can count toward your deduction, your time is not one of them. You cannot write off the value of your services. If you are a carpenter and spend a week working at a tornado-ravaged school, you cannot claim the income you would have received if you’d done the same work for a commercial client.
However, there are plenty of other volunteer-associated costs that the IRS will accept.
Tally your travel
Actual expenses to get to the volunteer site can be deducted. “This would be your airfare, parking at the airport, the rental car,” says Larry Zimbler, an enrolled agent with 4Square Tax & Accounting in Fenton, Mich.
If you drive rather than fly, you can deduct actual costs, such as gas and maintenance, related to your volunteer services. Or you can claim the standard charitable deduction rate of 14 cents per mile. Whichever vehicular accounting system you use, you still can deduct parking fees and tolls.
Your lodging costs for the time you volunteer away from home also count.
If you’re a veteran business traveler, this all sounds very familiar. “It works very much like a business trip,” says Zimbler.
The main tax deduction rule for business travelers also applies here: Document every expense.
Make sure it’s not for you
Carefully tracking how you spend your vacation time in service to others also can be very helpful. The reason? The IRS demands that the activity be done for the benefit of the authorized organization, not for your personal enjoyment.
That doesn’t mean you can’t take pleasure in helping out. That is, after all, one of the reasons you decided to take a volunteer vacation. But the IRS frowns upon vacationers who throw in a few do-good days and try to write off the whole holiday.
“You have to consider the relationship between the work you do for charity and the time off,” says Zimbler. “It’s not going to be one of those situations where you can split the time. The entire trip is taken as a whole. If there’s a substantial element of pleasure in the trip as a whole, you won’t get anything.”
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.