The year is quickly coming to a close, and the first priority for many people right now is getting through the holidays with as little stress as possible. Focusing solely on the holidays at the expense of your household’s financial needs can only add to stress later, so it might help to get a few items in order now rather than attempting to manage your year-end tasks in the one week between Christmas and the new year. A few days ago, I suggested changing your 401(k) contribution level now because of the time it takes for changes to take effect, and today, I’m looking at charity.
A tax benefit shouldn’t be the sole reason you contribute to charitable organizations, but there is a federal tax deduction for charitable contributions, and it’s better for a family’s own financial situation to take advantage of this benefit if plans call for charity regardless. Unlike other benefits that allow qualification extensions into the new year, to receive a deduction on this year’s tax return, the organization to which you donate must receive the contribution this calendar year.
Unfortunately, the time you spend volunteering for a non-profit organization is not tax-deductible. While volunteering could benefit an organization more than a moderate financial contribution, the tax code favors gifts of value, not time.
Choose your recipient
Charity isn’t an end-of-year activity. If you value a certain cause, doing what you can throughout the year can be a more effective way of maximizing the benefit you can provide to a non-profit or religious organization. Nevertheless, in busy lives, people often don’t think about finalizing their charitable gifts until the spirit of the holiday giving season is in full-force. If you think about giving throughout the year, you may already have one or more intended benefactors.
If you have a charity in mind or if you need to find one, take the time to ensure the organization is not only legitimate but each dollar you provide will do the most good.
Charity Navigator is an indispensable tool. Using Charity Navigator, you can research any non-profit organization. You can see an evaluation of how efficiently the organization uses donors’ contributions and read the latest financial reports to determine how highly the executives are compensated. Charity Navigator will also help you ensure the organization you choose is a qualified 401(c)3, a non-profit organization recognized by the government.
I like to evaluate what percentage of contributed money is used for marketing, particularly. Marketing is of course very important to an organization, and effective marketing can pay for itself in increased donations, but if too much money is spent on marketing and not projects that directly apply to the organization’s mission, you have to consider that your donation may be more effective elsewhere.
In choosing an organization, consider your own values. You may be aware of an organization whose goals you admire and respect, and can start there. But if not, consider what issues are central to your core beliefs. Would you like to see poverty eradicated around the world? Do you believe people can improve their lives by living in a new home? Are you concerned that budget cuts in education are affecting children’s ability to receive a well-rounded education? Should more resources be committed to helping military veterans? You should be able to find an organization catering to the same issue that you consider most important.
When you complete the donation, be sure to keep a copy of the receipt for tax purposes. The receipt should show how much of your contribution is tax-deductible. If you receive a thank-you gift in return for your contribution, the amount you provide will most likely not be 100% deductible.
Open a donor-advised charitable fund
If you can’t or won’t decide which organization is most relevant to your values and charitable desires, open a donor-advised charitable gift fund. I opened this type of account a few years ago at Fidelity. The charitable gift fund allows an individual to contribute today and receive the tax benefit, while granting donations from the fund to worthy organizations over time. By using the gift fund, I could contribute funds throughout the year, invest in index funds, and assuming the funds appreciate in value, donate even more to the non-profit organization.
Even if the value goes down, most organizations can receive gifts in stocks or funds, so they can choose to sell and use the cash when it’s best for the organization.
You cannot withdraw the money you’ve contributed to your charitable gift fund, however. You can’t use a charitable gift fund as a saving or investment vehicle for yourself. Once you transfer money to your charitable gift fund, it becomes the property of the fund itself or its parent company. That’s the reason you can take the tax deduction immediately rather than waiting until you grant your donation to a non-profit organization.
Each year, I donate to DonorsChoose, an organization that helps teachers receive the resources they need for effective classroom instruction, an organization within my undergraduate university, and a few other organizations that match my values or are in response to important issues.
If you donate to charity, do you do so during the year or only at the end of the year? How important is the tax deduction?
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published December 7, 2011.