Tax Deductibility and Voluntourism – Should it Stay or Should it Go?

The debate has always been around, should volunteer vacations be tax deductible? Does the mere word ‘vacation’ being used in marketing take away from the level of service that volunteers do in country? Or is the deduction in fact a marketing tool?

Journey Etc wrote an article on this topic addressed at travelers, what do you think about it? Let’s start the debate again.

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Voluntourism – A Vacation with Tax Benefits

You probably know that business travelers can often deduct all or a portion of their travel, even if they are having some fun. But did you know that  you can also get a tax benefit from your vacation? You can  if you are willing to do a bit of work as a volunteer with a non-profit organization.

“Voluntourism” is becoming a popular option for travelers that want to make the most of their vacation.  By volunteering with a non-profit organization a person can travel to almost any global destination, experience the  culture of an area in a whole new way, and have a sense of purpose and of doing good with their vacation time.   And then to top it  off, some or all of their vacation expenses can be deducted on their income tax returns.

To get the tax deduction on your US  Return you must volunteer with a US non-profit corporation.  Habitat for Humanity is one organization that has volunteer opportunities both local and abroad. You could also contact an organization that specializes in voluntourism such as  Cross Cultural Solutions in New York or Global Volunteers which is based out of Minnesota.

There are a number of factors that determine if you can deduct some or all of your travel expenses.  In general the amount deductible will depend upon how much time you spend doing strictly volunteer activities, versus how much time you spend doing strictly vacation activities.

Whatever your skills or talents, there is a volunteer opportunity for you. You can help children and adults with their English. You can provide medical services, or you could help build a home.  You can work, with children, seniors, teens and adults.

When working with a volunteer agency expect to pay your own airfare, plus a program fee that will generally include lodging and meals.   Prepare to be flexible and open to new experiences. Do not expect classy hotels and fine dining.  To save money volunteers are often housed with local families or budget hotels and eat the local food.

If you want a vacation with a purpose, one where you get to really know the local people and culture, and one that comes with a tax benefit, consider voluntourism.  You’ll be glad you did!

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4 thoughts on “Tax Deductibility and Voluntourism – Should it Stay or Should it Go?

  1. I came to work today needing a full day at my desk and alas, this hot button found its way to my computer screen. Now I have to delay the start of my day to comment on this. It’s like a diet Pepsi. If there is one in the room I have to drink it. A Blog Post on tax deductions (a better word is tax deception) for taking a vacation (volunteer or not) is a huge hot button with me and if it’s in the room, I’m going to comment on it.

    This is long. I apologize to those of you who also have better things to do.

    1. I don’t know Journey Etc. I’m not picking on anyone here. My comments are general.

    2. Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that the only way I can have a sense of purpose and do good and volunteer abroad is with a non-profit? Because that is what you wrote in paragraph 2. “By volunteering with a non-profit…” I can do these things. I cannot even begin to point out how wrong you are. I can’t even be polite. It is simply the most inane statement I’ve ever read in a Blog Post regarding voluntourism. Here is why I write that:

    3. You mentioned Cross Cultural Solutions in your Blog Post. I did not. But since you did I’ll tell you that they would rather see themselves as the “Peace Corps Alternative” than a voluntourism provider. They extraordinarily stunning website mentions this fact. They also say, on their site, that you can deduct the cost. A quote from their website: “100% of the payments towards the CCS program fee are deductible for federal income tax purposes.” That simply is not true.

    4. PLEASE if you don’t do anything else, download IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions at http://www.irs.gov. That is your guide because if and when you are audited, and this deduction comes up, the IRS will follow, to the letter, this publication and will assume you read it. Keep in mind the expenses must be directly related to the volunteers’ work, and incurred only because of that work. The expenses can’t be personal, for family, or for living items or activities such as meals. Volunteers must keep reliable written records of the expenses. Most importantly, The volunteer cannot gain significant personal pleasure, recreation, or vacation from the travel.

    5. Next do your homework. Download Form 990 for each non-profit volunteer program provider you have an interest in. Any non-profit who takes your money must, by law, display a link to their Form 990 which tells you how much money they make, how much money they spend, who is on the Board and their relationship to one another along with other interesting tid bits required by the IRS. If you pay any money to any non-profit and you have not read their Form 990 you have thrown your money out on the street. You mentioned Cross Cultural Solutions, so we’ll continue to use that example since you brought it up. And rather than a total rant, I’d like to make this comment useful for people. If you go to this link you will see that CCS is offering a link to see their Form 990. http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/resources/sponsors.aspx and then if your computer behaves like my computer you will see that GuideStar, the protector of these things, delivers you an error. So on this GuideStar error page, you’ll need to type in Cross Cultural Solutions. They will be the first company to be listed out of 33 results. Now click READ REVIEWS on that page. I encourage you to do this for each organization (non-profit) you think you might volunteer with. (This particular review, a very nasty one at that, apparently was written by a tax deduction researcher for a donor.)

    6. LASTLY, and I speak for my company here, we think it’s distasteful to deduct your trip. In fact, my personal (not company) position is that it is un-American. For anyone to spend their hard-earned money and their precious time volunteering to make life better for someone else and then at the end of the calendar year hold their hand out to our government and expect the government to reimburse them for volunteering is un-American. It is the height of hypocrisy and the very definition of narcissism. To think that much of yourself that you offer to volunteer and then expect money back from the government because of your offer to volunteer is simply an act that reverses the very definition of volunteering.

    If I donate $500 to your charity and then deduct that $500 on my taxes, I didn’t donate to you. I loaned you $500 until the government repays me. How is that volunteering or donating? It isn’t. You’re not a volunteer. You’re working because you’re getting paid. Not there on the spot. But you’re deducting what you paid “to volunteer” and you’re getting a financial consideration from Uncle Sam. You got paid. You didn’t volunteer. Even on my most generous day you put yourself out on loan.

    In the end, GeoVisions made a conscious choice to be a for-profit company and not a 501 c 3 charity. We had a choice. We provide great opportunities for people. And for host communities. And I am so proud of each and every volunteer that comes through our doors. THEY CANNOT DEDUCT A DIME. They are truly volunteering their money, their time and their talents. They are the true heroes that make the world a better place.

  2. I am going to comment on the concept: tax deductions for volunteering.

    If all “volunteering abroad” was done by people with high level skills, which were not locally available, who were training people and improving systems so that they would all run better once she or he left…. well then, I am not sure I would feel so strongly opposed to this. As that is clearly NOT the case with most of the “volunteers” or travelers we all work with, then I think offering them a tax deduction is akin to telling them that that their VACATION is what is going to make a difference in the world. We are telling them “go away a week a year and you can save the world – you are doing so much good your time is akin to donating money to these projects” – but we all know that is not the case. It depends on the project, sometimes the money would be a lot more useful. Sometimes the impact the traveler has that will change the world is THEIR own changes in attitudes and actions once they leave – how they will travel, live and give in the future, is how we describe it at PEPY. They are traveling, and getting a break from their hectic lives, and we are helping the do it better.

    It is ok to say this, and I think we all know this is true: THE TRAVELERS are often the ones who will and do benefit the most in these experiences…. and that is OK! We don’t have to go around hiding that fact! People are traveling and learning and giving back on their vacations, but it is STILL vacation. And for that, they should not get a tax deduction in my book. I have done three Habitat for Humanity trips, and I loved them, and they were part of my inspiration to start PEPY, but even then I felt strange that I could fundraise to pay for MY trip. I felt like I was cheating the system, and indeed, that is now how I view it. Those experiences changed my life, they were worth paying for, and so are many of the experiences we are all offering.

    Rather than appealing to people’s desire for a tax deduction, lets appeal to their desire to be a part of something greater than their great tan. They will travel with us, and be better people because of it. THAT is worth paying for.

  3. I’ve been active in taxes for lengthier then I care to admit, both on the personal side (all my working life history!!) and from a legal point of view since passing the bar and following up on tax law. I’ve supplied a lot of advice and redressed a lot of wrongs, and I must say that what you’ve put up makes impeccable sense. Please carry on the good work – the more individuals know the better they’ll be armed to cope with the tax man, and that’s what it’s all about.

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