Save the World and Deduct the Cost

By Gretchen Kelly

volunteer vacations united statesPlanning your next vacation? Plan to take a bite out of global warming, erase some of your carbon footprint, save the whales or create a better habitat for humanity! Volunteer vacations (trips where volunteer work is a big part of your experience) are becoming more and more popular. Brad and Angelina work in New Orleans and Cambodia (where a national park is being built with funds from Jolie) and combine their humanitarian work with down time for themselves and their kids. You can, too, and in some cases you can deduct the expenses from next year’s income tax by using volunteer tax deductions.

“If you’re going to travel as volunteer for a registered non profit agency, you can deduct the trip from your Federal Income Tax,” says Bonnie Lee, an Enrolled IRS Agent, and author of the upcoming book, Taxpertise.

“Say you want to go with a reputable group and build housing in Africa,” Lee explains. “There’s a place to fill that in on your income tax on “Schedule A” under “Charitable Contributions.”

What can yocharity donations tax deductionsu deduct? Airfare to and from the destination, accommodation (nothing unreasonable like staying at the Four Seasons while helping build grass huts), food, transportation. “Before you sign up with a program that calls itself a “volunteer vacation” you should have proof from that organization that it is indeed tax exempt,” says Lee. “And keep receipts for everything. Keep all the correspondence to and from that organization about the nature of the trip. You can spend some time sightseeing on your volunteer vacation, but keep expenses reasonable and realistically scaled to your volunteer duties. The IRS doesn’t like extravagant expenses. Build in a sightseeing day in the village you’re helping out. Go on a safari with locals. You can take a per diem or actual expenses for the time you are working with the organization but it must be reasonable.  The primary intent of the trip should be for the charitable activity, not combining your vacation with volunteer work.”

How to find a reputable organization and not just one that lists volunteer vacations but is actually a for-profit travel agency? Brian T. Mullis, of Sustainable Travel International says be cautious.

“Many tourism providers don’t have development experience or experience working with NGOs, (non governmental organizations) so it may be difficult for them to select appropriate partners and projects,” he explains. “In addition, voluntourism programs should not foster dependency. Tourism providers that offer successful voluntourism programs typically have a strong focus on rewarding project recipients for personal initiative and self-reliance. I suggest you do your due diligence to find the right voluntourism for you. Determine how they select appropriate partners and projects and what some of the net results of their work have yielded.”

All of which adds up to realizing that doing good takes a lot of work—even if it’s part of a life-changing holiday.

Like all travel experiences, volunteer vacations require detailed planning and a fair amount of insight into your own goals and experience. Here are some more tips:

Don’t overestimate or underestimate your skills to the organization you are planning to work with. They will take you at your word if you say you can speak a language or build a bridge—and others are relying on you.

Make sure you are aware of your living arrangements and are comfortable with them before signing up. If you have a deadly fear of insects and or dislike getting dirty, staying in an earthen-floored hut without running water might not be your best choice of experience. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to make a difference. There are plenty of things you can do to change the world without putting yourself so far out of your comfort zone that you won’t be useful.

Make sure you’ve vetted the organization you’re going to work for thoroughly. Ask to speak to someone who has been through the program who is not affiliated with the organization but who is a regular traveler like yourself.

If you plan on taking the volunteer vacation off your taxes, talk to your accountant before signing up. He or she might have some good suggestions for record keeping or helping you stay on track with expenses. They may also help you determine the validity of the deduction.

Go to a travel medicine specialist before your trip, get a complete work out and any shots you need. Do this well in advance of the journey. Take care of yourself so you can help others effectively.

For more information on how real life and taxes work together go Bonnie’s website, and get advice from Harley the dawg.

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