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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

THE SHORTLIST:

TRIPS TO CHECK OUT

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GIMME A BREAK

Volunteering for a nonprofit organization is great for your conscience, but did you know that it can be good for your wallet, too? In general, volunteers are allowed to deduct certain expenses incurred during volunteer work when preparing their federal tax returns.

However, charitable contributions such as donations to nonprofit organizations usually only benefit you if you itemize deductions. This means filing the long Form 1040 and Schedule A, reading the Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 526 and, in most cases, saving a lot of receipts.

Though you should consult your tax adviser for the official details, here are a few rules of thumb for making the most of your volunteer work come tax time: Keep detailed records: Keep credit card receipts, canceled checks or a travel diary to document the money you spent while volunteering for your favorite nonprofit in case the IRS questions your deductions. Also keep any receipts the organization gives you for donated goods.

Don’t go overboard: You can’t write off money given to individuals or wages you sacrificed in order to take a volunteer trip. Bills from five-star restaurants probably won’t qualify either, so choose your deductions wisely.

Material donations: Did you give food, medical supplies or other goods to a nonprofit to give to the needy? You can deduct their market value from your tax return. If you donated used goods such as clothing or household supplies, you can deduct what a buyer at a thrift shop might pay for these items in their current condition. List each item and its value separately when you itemize.

Out-of-pocket costs: Did you buy stamps, books, office supplies or other materials for a nonprofit organization? Did you pay for parking or phone calls while volunteering? If you weren’t reimbursed, you can deduct these items on your tax return.

Driving expenses: If you used your car to perform volunteer activities, you may deduct 14 cents per mile traveled. Gasoline and tolls can be deducted, too: Just be sure to keep a paper trail. Travel incidentals: If you traveled away from home for more than a day on a volunteer trip, you can deduct expenses for food, lodging and transportation, as long as the price tag is considered “reasonable.”

Nonprofit status: Not sure if the organization you volunteer for is tax-exempt? Check its tax status by calling the IRS toll-free at (877) 829-5500.


THE SHORTLIST:

TRIPS TO CHECK OUT

So you’re thinking about taking the plunge and joining the ranks of VolunTourists across the globe? The first leg of your journey involves gathering information and finding the program that best matches your skills and interests. As with any trip, you’ll want to make sure you have a trustworthy host. Daniela Papi, founder of VolunTourism operator Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself (PEPY), suggests obtaining an itinerary for the trips that interest you most, as well as a list of past participants and their contact information.

Here are five suggestions:

1
Get Moving: Whether it’s by plane, train, bike or donkey, VolunTourists serve as movers of valuable medical and educational supplies, building materials and ideas. Horses—plus a caravan of camels and a herd of goats—are the preferred mode of transport for Relief Riders International (reliefridersinternational.com), which sends VolunTourists to remote villages throughout India to set up medical camps, give goats to needy families and distribute educational materials to schools.

Meanwhile, PEPY (pepyride.org) hosts bicycle trips across Cambodia that focus on learning about the cultures, geography and needs of each region along the route. In addition to transporting supplies, each rider collects donations for his or her trip, which are used to fund activities such as a library-andliteracy initiative, a school-building project and a program that provides bicycles to rural schoolchildren.

2
Help the Big Easy: New Orleans, once one of the most culturally vibrant cities in America, is still a disaster zone due to Hurricane Katrina. But you can make a difference by rebuilding wrecked homes, assisting with a pet-rescue program, tutoring kids or simply picking up debris. Visit Common Ground Relief (commongroundrelief.org), Animal Rescue New Orleans (animalrescueneworleans.org) or the Greater New Orleans chapter of Volunteers of America (voagno.org) to locate some of the projects going on in the area.

3
Go Green: Adventure Service Tourism (adventureservicetourism.com) coordinates a variety of eco-friendly vacations in South America for VolunTourists. This year’s options include projects to regenerate the yellow spotted sideneck turtle population, conserve three threatened species of palm trees and help women in rainforest communities grow medicinal plants.

On the other side of the globe, Volunteers for Peace (vfp.org) coordinates trips to African countries that last two to three weeks and focus on sustainable agriculture and environmental protection activities. For those interested in a longer trip, Global Vision International (gvi.co.uk) hosts a 10-week program researching marine mammals in Kenya and a 10-week program monitoring coral reefs, migration patterns of whale sharks and other ecological concerns in the Seychelles.

4
Surf and Turf: Finnish VolunTourism operator Otra Cosa (otracosa.nl) is looking for “enthusiastic people just wanting to help out and see Peruvian life behind the tourist facades.” Local organizations in Huanchaco, Peru, offer volunteers discounts on food, Spanish classes, Shiatsu massage, surfing equipment rental and accommodations. Volunteers can help out at places such as an organic sugar or coffee farm, a vegetarian restaurant or a surf-and-skateboard academy, or aid activities such as a photography project for kids or an English training program for mountain guides.

5
Om My God: Through Conscious Journeys (consciousjourneys.org), VolunTourists don’t just backpack their way through Tibet’s breathtaking scenery. They explore temples, monasteries, festivals and rituals and interact personally with lamas, yogis, monks and other scholars. In return for the teachings they receive, the volunteers deliver medical supplies to remote areas, help set up clinics and assess health needs in rural communities, where conditions such as malnutrition, rickets, tuberculosis and epilepsy are widespread. Throughout the trip, guides educate volunteers about Eastern and Western approaches to medicine, spirituality and healing.