Is your volunteer vacation deductible? That depends.

Is your volunteer vacation deductible? That depends.
Jason Gisclair sorts through a pile of Mardi Gras beads while salvaging items from his parents' house Sunday, Oct. 30, 2005, in Chalmette, La. Flood waters from Hurricane Katrina destroyed the community. (Robert F. Bukay / AP)

Consider the irony.

The same year that "voluntourism" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, I learned that such noble undertakings are often not tax-deductible.


For my family's weeklong volunteer vacation, we helped rebuild houses in New Orleans that had been damaged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This will fulfill my daughter's high school service hours requirement, but it might not give us a tax break, even though we worked with a qualified charity.

The Internal Revenue Service has specific rules that pertain to voluntourism. "No deduction shall be allowed under this section for traveling expenses (including amounts expended for meals and lodging) while away from home … unless there is no significant element of personal pleasure, recreation, or vacation in such travel," according to IRS Code 170(J).

Our days working from 8:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. with Youth Rebuilding New Orleans were hard. We hauled wood, shoveled mounds of sand, tore off siding and raked yards filled with broken glass and the occasional discarded needle. And we did it in 95-degree heat and high humidity.

I expected we would be able to deduct at least a part of the trip, in the same way we could if we had been in New Orleans on business. It wasn't just an assumption. I had read an article from a reputable source that said we could write off all trip costs as long as we volunteered with a recognized nonprofit and put in 40-hour weeks for the length of our stay.

But IRS Publication 526 gives some specific scenarios that seem to contradict that. It says if a person sails from one island to another and spends eight hours a day counting whales for a project sponsored by a charitable organization, "In most circumstances, you cannot deduct your expenses."

Another example: A person who works mornings for an archaeological dig with the rest of the day free for sightseeing "cannot take a charitable contribution deduction even though [they] work very hard during those few hours."

There are some circumstances under which voluntourism does qualify for a deduction. "Even if you enjoy the trip, you can take a charitable contribution deduction for your travel expenses if you are on duty in a genuine and substantial sense throughout the trip," the IRS says. It cites as an example a youth leader who, among other responsibilities, provides round-the-clock adult supervision for the group.

IRS spokeswoman Anabel Marquez in Los Angeles said she couldn't comment for this story because the law allows her only to make general statements. But, she added, a taxpayer may write the IRS and request a "private letter ruling" pertaining to his or her specific situation. To learn more:

David C. Holtz, a former IRS trial attorney now in private practice in Beverly Hills, offered this advice: "As the spectrum goes closer to being a classic vacation, the more likely you're not going to get the deduction if you're audited."

If an IRS examiner doesn't allow a deduction you've claimed, a negligence penalty may be assessed against you, said Holtz, now with Holtz, Slavett & Drabkins.

It's hard to know which way our trip would fall in the eyes of the IRS. Our sole reason for traveling to New Orleans was to volunteer, but it's nearly impossible to avoid pleasure in the Big Easy.

One night, we went to the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro and heard the Ellis Marsalis Quartet. After dining on French and Creole food the first few nights, we searched for something different and discovered Shaya, a Middle Eastern restaurant whose chef, Alon Shaya, won the 2015 James Beard Award for best chef in the South.

One evening, we toured the exhibition "Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond" at the Presbytère, part of the Louisiana State Museum.

That exhibition, which included such artifacts as a pair of jeans on which the owner had written his identification, reminded us of the real importance of our volunteer vacation.


After all, the new Oxford Dictionary entry defines "voluntourism" as a noun meaning "tourism in which travelers spend time doing voluntary work on development projects, usually for a charity." It doesn't say anything about a tax deduction.