How to Give Wisely

Dec 23, 2014

MoneyLife100 The holidays often make us feel more generous. In fact, nonprofit organizations report receiving 41 percent of their donations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s each year, according to Charity Navigator. Americans donated $335 billion to not-for-profit organizations in the past year, and giving has gone up in each of the last four years. If the holiday spirit motivates you to write a check for your favorite cause, you’ll want to make the most of your contribution. According to the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants, your top goals should be to know where your money is going and understand how charitable giving tax benefits work. 

Get the Details

Only 35 percent of donors said they had conducted any research on an organization before making a donation, according to a study by Hope Consulting. While it may be hard to resist a phone call with an appeal for a great cause or a pitch by your alma mater at a reunion, it’s best to find out about the specific financial goals of the not-for-profit you’re supporting. Learn how it achieves its mission, and have some idea of how your money will be used. In addition to reading the brochure and financial information put together by your favorite cause, check out reviews put out by groups such as GiveWell, which identifies and analyzes successful not-for-profits. Use what you learn to pick successful groups that make the most effective use of donations.

Know the Tax Rules

If you plan to deduct your donation on your tax return, be sure that the recipient is a qualified tax-exempt organization. If it isn’t, your deduction will not be allowed. In addition, you’ll also need some evidence that you’ve made the donation, such as a receipt or an acknowledgement from the charity or proof of expenses you incurred to do volunteer work. If you donate property, you may need a qualified appraisal for high-value items. Remember that the value of anything you receive from the organization will be subtracted from your donation. For example, you pay $40 to see a special showing of a movie for the benefit of a qualified organization, and printed on the ticket is “Contribution–$40.” But if the regular price for the movie is $8, your tax-deductible contribution is $32 ($40 payment − $8 regular price). When giving stock or real estate, it’s wise to check with your CPA beforehand on the tax consequences of giving the asset to the charity versus selling it first and donating the proceeds.

Watch for Tax Law Changes

Tax regulations can be revised from year to year, so don’t count on a past strategy if you’re not sure it’s still within the rules. For example, in 2014 itemized deductions—including those for charitable donations—taken by individuals with adjusted gross income (AGI) over $254,200 and married couples filing jointly with AGI over $305,050 begin to phase out the higher your income rises. It’s certainly still worthwhile to support your causes, but check with your CPA so that you understand how your income affects your deductions. In addition, those over age 70½ can no longer exclude from their taxable income any distributions from individual retirement accounts that they donate to qualified charities. If you had planned on pulling some money from an IRA for a charitable gift, your CPA can help explain your alternatives.

Turn to Your Local CPA

Giving to charity allows you to make positive change and to promote the causes you believe in. Your local CPA can help you understand your many options for doing good and taking advantage of any available tax benefits. Be sure to contact him or her with all your financial questions and concerns. Visit PICPA’s consumer page to find a CPA by location or area of expertise.

The Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) is a premiere statewide association of more than 22,000 members working in public accounting, industry, government, and education. Founded in 1897, the PICPA is the second-oldest state CPA organization in the United States.

Money & Life Tips are a joint effort of the AICPA and the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA), as part of the profession’s nationwide 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy program.