Not all charitable activity is created equal, at least not according to the Internal Revenue Service. Donating your time to a charitable cause doesn't bring the same tax benefits as a cash contribution would. In fact, the IRS doesn't let you deduct any volunteer time at all. However, expenses associated with volunteer work may be deductible if you itemize your deductions on your taxes.
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Volunteer Time Isn't Money
The time you spend on volunteer work isn't deductible, even it's for a charitable organization and even it takes time away from your job. Charitable contributions almost always have to involve either monetary gifts or donated items, not your personal services. You might bill clients $50 an hour for your accounting work, but you can't effectively charge the IRS the same amount for similar work you perform for your church.
While your time isn't deductible, you can deduct expenses associated with your volunteer work. If you're hosting a charitable fundraiser, you can claim an amount equal to the costs you incurred to put it on. The cost of uniforms is deductible if you're required to wear one to perform your volunteer duties, as long as the uniform can't be used as everyday wear. Buying a uniform to volunteer in a hospital is deductible, but purchasing a new suit to staff the front desk at a charitable event is not. An afternoon spent stuffing envelopes for a qualified nonprofit mailer will at least allow you to deduct the cost of the stationary and postage required.
Some travel expenses for volunteer work are deductible, but not at a rate that business travel earns. For local travel, you can deduct the mileage, gas, parking and tolls related to that specific volunteer activity but not the proportional costs of vehicle depreciation or insurance. The deduction for volunteer work is 14 cents per mile as of the 2014 tax year, rather than the 56 cents per mile if the vehicle is used for business. If you take the bus, taxi or subway to volunteer activities, those costs can be deducted.
If you volunteer your services coaching a youth sports team, your deduction rules are the same as for any other volunteer activity. As long as the organization is recognized by the IRS as a qualifying organization, you can deduct your expenses but not your time. Depending on how much travel you do in the course of your coaching, however, you may want to figure your expenses differently. Directly deducting the cost of gas spent on traveling to a holiday tournament in your car may be a better deal than the 14 cents per mile standard volunteer rate.
For any volunteer expenses to be deductible, they have to be for a qualified charity recognized by the IRS. You'll have to itemize your deductions to claim any volunteer expenses, and you can't claim any deductions for expenses you were reimbursed for. The expenses have to be directly related to the volunteer activity -- and only related to that activity. If you're purchasing food for a soup kitchen at the grocery store and buy your teenagers lunch as a reward for coming with you, those lunches can't be deducted but the food designated for the kitchen can.