Make your next vacation tax-deductible
Tips for planning a 'voluntourism' trip that won't break the bank.
Can you claim your next vacation as a tax deduction? Would your co-workers chip in to help send you on a trip to Vietnam? If you’re considering using your vacation time to volunteer abroad, the answer to those questions could be yes -- but you’ll have to do some pre-travel footwork.
Start by thinking selfishly: What’s in it for you? Some volunteers may be looking for a way to develop their professional skills and add a unique experience to a resume, while others may want an experience that’s completely different from their day jobs. “If you’re fully aware of your motivations, you’re going to be a stronger volunteer because you’re going to be able to find the right fit,” says Erin Barnhart, director of volunteerism initiatives at Idealist.org, which has an online resource for travelers considering volunteering abroad.
Be careful to choose the right group. With so many organizations in the “voluntourism” business (Cross-Cultural Solutions, United Planet and Catholic Network of Volunteer Service), that’s not always easy. One rule of thumb is to pick a group with roots in the community and that is directed by local residents. That way you will be more sure your work “is filling a genuine need,” says Bud Philbrook, CEO of Global Volunteers, a volunteer-sending organization that supports about 100 projects worldwide.
Most importantly, consider the costs (yes, you will have to pay to volunteer). Do-good vacations have become increasingly popular in recent years, with travelers paying to do everything from help build a new home to working to clean a community's water. Global Volunteers, for example, sent just 16 people abroad in 1985; by 2008, they were sending more than 2,500. Prices, accordingly, are rising. This summer, you'll pay about $1,250 to travel to El Salvador with Habitat for Humanity's Global Village programs, up from $1,050 in 2007. Prices also vary widely: A trip with "luxury volunteer travel" company Hands Up Holidays could run as high as $10,000. (Neither program includes airfare.)
How can you keep costs manageable? Here are three ways:
Get an organization to pay. There are some grants available for international volunteers. Travelocity offers grants of up to $5,000 for trips organized through one of its Travel for Good partners. Volunteers for Prosperity offers smaller grants for skilled volunteers. Writers or photographers volunteering abroad for more than 10 weeks may be eligible for a small stipend from the Glimpse Correspondents Program. These grants may not cover all your expenses, but could help cover some costs. Volunteer-hosting organizations usually will cover only food and lodging costs for skilled help, Barnhart says.
Get your friends to pay. How often can you ask your friends and family to make a donation to cover your travel costs? Many international volunteerism organizations offer fundraising tips and advice. Habitat for Humanity, for example, allows volunteers to set up a fundraising Web page through a simple online form.
Lots of people would love to take such a trip themselves, but may not have the time or the ability, so the fundraising ask may be easier than you think, Philbrook says. “People are always willing to give money to worthwhile causes,” he says, and “there’s no better recipient than your friend or colleague who you trust.” Many organizations suggest that volunteers set up a blog or think of another way to share stories and photos from their trip with the friends who have helped make it possible.
- Quiz: Your tax IQ
Get the IRS to pay. If you’re really going abroad to work, your entire trip could be tax-deductible, including airfare as well as program and visa fees. The catch: Tacking on a few extra days to sightsee might mean you can’t claim the whole cost of the trip. Typically, you’d have to be volunteering a full 40-hour week, leaving you only evenings and weekends for traditional tourism, Philbrook says. Consult a tax adviser to find out if your trip qualifies -- and keep in mind that your friends’ donations to the nonprofit you’re working with could be tax- deductible for them, too.
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