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Tax-Deductible Compassion


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By John Hancock

You know the drill:

Charitable contributions are only deductible if you itemize deductions on Form 1040, Schedule A (PDF). To be deductible, you must make charitable contributions to qualified organizations. Payments to individuals are never deductible. To determine if the organization that you have contributed to qualifies as a charitable organization for income tax deduction purposes, review Exempt Organizations Select Check on IRS.gov. For more information, see Publication 526Charitable Contributions and Can I Deduct My Charitable Contributions? on IRS.gov. You can deduct only the amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received if your contribution entitles you to merchandise, goods or services, including admission to a charity ball, banquet, theatrical performance, or sporting event.

But the IRS doesn’t ask about my thinking or my motivations.

Why is it more or less than last year?

Which good organizations have stopped asking?

Which of my former enthusiasms have fizzled?

I wonder what happened to that project about _________?

Why did my new year’s resolution not stick?

Have I been generous enough with my children and grandchildren?

Have I spurned a fine organization because it’s not tax-exempt?

Which organizations share the details of their outcomes?

What did my gifts actually accomplish?

What’s the fine print on tithing?

Have my political campaign contributions yielded what I expected?

Which of my gifts are self-serving?


Have I given enough?


When income taxes began, for both individuals and businesses, 100-plus years ago, the issue of “public good” was raised right away by wealthy people giving their own money to churches, orphanages, hospitals, etc.  There was no government “safety net” at that time.  So the tax code, both then and now, accommodates personal generosity by making charitable giving a “pre-tax event” for some filers.

Registration by a non-profit organization qualifies the receiver of the transaction, sorting out the groups whose activities help the public good in specific categories.  And of course, that gets ever more complicated.  Never simpler.  The National Football League, for example, is a non-profit organization.  (Huh?)

Whenever serious tax-code revisions are proposed, elimination of the tax-deductible contribution triggers an uproar.  “The end of charities!”

But if we give money away only because our accountant explained how much it reduces our tax bill, we’re only being strategic with our money, not compassionate. Which of our professional advisors can we count on for what to do with our heart?

United Way campaigns are an excellent and powerful way for our donations to help a wide range of social service organizations in an array of programs for “a more educated, prosperous, and healthy community.”

Instead, I favor a narrower selection of topics that appeal more to me, such as public radio, homelessness, vets with PTSD and hunger.  Mostly local affairs, rather than worldwide campaigns.

The act of deciding which needs I’ll support seems like a crucial aspect of the whole idea of compassion; which the government incentivizes without favor as “charitable giving.”

I don’t, and can’t, care equally about every kind of suffering.  That’s not practical.  I’m learning to care about the kinds that confront me directly.  Empathy is a personal transaction to me.  That’s where the juice is.  When I’m asked to help another person, I do my best to say “yes.”  Some of those asks have pushed me in unexpected directions and some of the experiences have changed my world.  I’ve been asked to do things I had to learn how to do, and to feel things I’ve hidden from.

My own asks of others have yielded a richer response than ever before, often surprising to me in their extent and motivation. Whether it is about my needs or those of others, it’s a gratifying confirmation of the power of people to spread the wealth of human heartedness, not just money.

How much to give?

A lot, please.  To the needs that matter most to you.  You’ll be enlarged in the process.

It’s not necessary to consult your accountant.  It’s a busy season.

John Hancock
John Hancock
John Hancock had a first career as a symphony orchestra musician and was a faculty member at University of Michigan. He has advanced degrees in music performance from Boston University and U.M. Arts management was his way of problem-solving and expanding the public participation. He was orchestra manager of the Toledo Symphony, executive director of the Spokane Symphony and the Pasadena Pops and chief operating officer of the Milwaukee Symphony. Currently he’s an Eagle Scout, a Rotarian, a liberal libertarian of an Iowa small-town self-sufficiency and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. A childhood Methodist, he now instead pursues ideas of commonality among religions and philosophies. Volunteerism in civic, political and social services work draws him to town from his forest home outside Spokane. Since 2006, his Deep Creek Consulting has aided non-profit organizations in grantwriting and strengthbuilding.

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Brien Pittman
Brien Pittman
9 years ago

Nice Post!

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