This holiday season, Americans are spending $465 billion – a staggering amount that is almost equivalent to the gross domestic product of Pakistan – and a good portion of that on gifts.
Sunday, of course, is the climactic day of giving, as everything from slippers to flat-screened TVs are balanced in festive piles under Christmas trees, and as Hanukkah clocks its sixth day.
But don’t let the giving season end with the last of the eggnog or the final candle on the Menorah. These final days of the year offer a last chance to make a charitable contribution count as a deduction on your 2011 tax return.
“You certainly won’t be alone if you’re rushing to give at the last minute – charities get a huge spike in gifts at the end of the year, particularly in the last two days, and they’re equipped to handle the rush,” says Gail Perry, a Raleigh, N.C., consultant to non-profit organizations, and author of the book Fired-Up Fundraising.
Consider these five steps to maximize your last-minute giving:
1. Aim for a matching contribution. Your employer may offer to match your contributions up to a certain amount, but if not, browse through the website DonationDoubler.org to look for other ways to stretch your donation. The site is a central database for companies offering to match consumer donations for everything from local food banks to global human rights issues.
For example, through year-end, the Bank of Arizona offers to match donations of up to $5,000 to the Baby Emergency Fund, a Phoenix-area group that provides baby formula, car seats, healthc are services and other benefits to families in need.
And the Mosaic Company, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of nutrients used in agriculture, offers to match up to $200,000 in donations to the American Refugee Committee toward efforts to relieve famine in Somalia.
2. Size up the charity. How much of your donation actually goes to the cause you’re trying to support, versus the charity’s costs for fundraising, overhead costs, administration and executive pay?
Thankfully, finding out how efficiently charities use their funds doesn’t require too much digging. A charity’s financial information is detailed on its Form 990, which the charity is required to file with the Internal Revenue Service and is public information. You can request the form from the charity or retrieve it from Guidestar.org, which compiles information about non-profit groups.
You can also obtain rankings and ratings of charities, and analyses of their finances, by visiting CharityNavigator.org and CharityWatch.org.
Be careful of using rules of thumb about how much a non-profit group should be spending on overhead, however. “A sandwich program run by volunteers is going to have far less overhead than a mental health services program that needs to have licensed mental health counselors on staff,” says Marc Pitman, a Waterville, Maine, fundraising consultant and founder of Fundraisingcoach.com.
Beyond checking on finances, you might want to do a little snooping to make sure a charity isn’t involved in any scandals or lawsuits that could be embarrassing to you. Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB.org), and a quick Internet search of a charity will often turn up any legal problems or donor complaints, Pitman says.
3. Give directly. There are charities, and then there are third parties that collect money on behalf of charities. Don’t confuse them.
It may be convenient to simply give when you get a phone call from a fundraiser for groups working to combat Alzheimers, diabetes, autism and other worthy causes. But the calls may not be coming directly from the non-profit group itself. Many of these calls come from for-profit companies. They’re hired by charities to collect funds, but they often keep a big chunk of your change – sometimes as much as 90 percent of the total.
Instead, find a charity’s mailing address on its website, cut a check and send it. Better yet, since New Year’s Day is just around the corner, make a donation online. Most charities are set up to process online payments.
4. Give appreciated stock. Consider the benefits of donating appreciated stock, rather than cash: You get a full deduction for the value of the donated stock, and you will never owe capital gains on appreciation.
If you donate shares valued at $1,000 that you bought years ago for $500, you get to claim a tax deduction for the full $1,000.
5. Carefully follow the IRS’s stringent rules. First, remember you are only entitled to a charitable deduction if you itemize your deductions, and if the recipient has non-profit status.
For a contribution of less than $250, a returned check from a charity will suffice as proof of your giving. Otherwise you need documentation from the charity – a receipt or letter. To deduct gifts of clothes or household items, you also need a receipt. And if you give items you believe are valued at more than $5,000, an appraisal is required and you’ll need to get a signature from the charity on your tax return.
If you use a credit card to make your charitable contribution, it will still be considered a 2011 contribution even though you won’t get your bill until next year. However, if you made a pledge this year but the contribution won’t change hands until next year, you aren’t allowed to claim the donation on your 2011 tax return.
Above all, advisers say, keep good documentation of your giving. Then, you can sit back and enjoy knowing that you’ve given generously, you will benefit from a tax deduction when you file your return in April, and you have no worries if the IRS comes knocking.