The Do's and Don'ts of Tax Deductions for Volunteers

Young volunteers with a children
••• Jose Luis Pelaez/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Just because volunteers don’t get paid is no reason they shouldn’t get tax deductions for their out-of-pocket expenses.

Here’s how to get at least a little bit back for your volunteer efforts:

What You May Be Able To Deduct

  1. Costs of gas and oil or a mileage deduction of 14 cents per mile to and from where you volunteer. However, the mileage must be for getting yourself to the volunteer site. Driving your child to a charitable volunteer event doesn't count. On the other hand, there is no threshold to meet as with medical expenses. Parking fees and tolls can be deducted as well. Routine upkeep and maintenance costs are not deductible nor any share of your car’s insurance.
  2. Round trip public transportation costs such as subway, bus, or taxi fare from work or home to the place where volunteering takes place. This can become a bit complicated should you take the bus home from work, but stop off to volunteer. You'll have to isolate the part of your fees or fare that involve your volunteer work.
  3. Long distance transportation, lodging, and meal expenses. Are you going to a board meeting in another city or state? Or representing your charity at a conference? You may be able to deduct airfare or other transportation costs plus hotel expenses and meals if directly connected to your volunteer work.
  4. Out-of-pocket expenses. You might not think of deducting small expenses such as the copying you did to get ready for a board meeting, those personal hygiene items the homeless shelter asked you to bring with you, or the glue, paper, and scissors you furnished for your Sunday school class. But keep the receipts. You may be able to deduct those expenses.
  5. Uniforms. Does the charity you volunteer for ask you to buy a particular outfit to wear when you’re volunteering? That red polo with the logo you got for the golf tournament probably won’t count since you can wear it for other things, but how about that hospital tunic you needed or the outfit with the special ranger hat that the zoo asked you to buy and wear? Those might be deductible expenses.

What You Have to Do To Get These Deductions

  • Volunteer for an IRS-recognized charity. Such organizations have applied for and received a tax-exempt designation from the IRS. If in doubt, look for the 501(C) (3) designation on the charity’s website or printed materials. Ask to see the charity’s tax-letter. Or look up the charity at the IRS website.
  • Itemize your deductions on your tax form. If you take the standard deduction, you won’t be able to deduct volunteer expenses. If you’re already itemizing things such as charitable donations and medical expenses, you can probably deduct volunteer expenses as well.
  • Don’t try to deduct expenses for which the charity reimbursed you. That’s double dipping. Don’t do it.
  • Only itemize those expenses directly connected to the work you did as a volunteer and incurred because of it. For instance, if you were going on a vacation, but stopped in to do a few hours of volunteer work during that holiday, you can’t deduct your travel expenses. If on the other hand, you travel somewhere specifically to do volunteer work, you may be able to deduct those travel expenses.
  • Don’t try to claim personal expenditures as volunteer expenses. For instance, you take your child along to your volunteer work and end up buying him lunch. The lunch is not deductible since it is a personal choice, not one mandated by the volunteer work you’re doing.
  • Keep good written records of expenses related to your volunteer work. Start a mileage log and keep it up to date (there are good tech options for doing this, such as smartphone apps Everlance, TripLog, and TrackMyDrive). Keep all your receipts.
  • Don’t try to take a deduction for your time. That’s the volunteer part! Even if you provide pro bono professional services to a nonprofit, the value of your time is not deductible, but many expenses may be. And those expenses could be much weightier than when you personally volunteer. 

For more detailed information about deducting volunteer expenses, check out IRS Publication 526.

The information in this article is for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal or financial advice. You should always consult an accountant or another tax adviser about tax issues.