Gas Rates, Volunteers, and Justice: Reader OpEd

Many people don't realize that on their personal tax returns volunteers can
deduct mileage expenses incurred as part of
volunteering. For example, if a volunteer drives 30 miles to volunteer at an art school or drive a patient to chemotherapy, the volunteer can deduct $4.20 on her next tax return. Even fewer people realize that in contrast, if this same person drives 30 miles for her business, she can deduct $17.55!

Clearly we need to help volunteers claim the deductions
they can
. And in this Blue Avocado Reader OpEd,
activist Susan Ellis talks both about how we can change
the law, and steps we can take now to support volunteerism in an era of high gas prices:

You may know that the IRS just raised the rate for the business-related mileage
deduction to 58.5 cents. But did you know that the charitable driving deduction
remains at only 14 cents a mile? So volunteers, who often use their cars to provide
life-or-death services to people in need, are deriving less tax benefits as their driving expenses rise.

This issue is particularly important since, as the cost of gasoline soars, Americans are trying to drive less. The high cost of driving is already discouraging some people from volunteering, which should set off warning signals about things we sometimes take for granted. Remember that. . .

Volunteers drive and deliver:

  • meals and other necessities to house-bound individuals
  • patients to doctor appointments and dialysis treatments
  • seniors on outings and field trips
  • children to visit their parents in prison

What's more, volunteers must drive to:

  • the sites of disasters and emergencies as firefighters and first responders
  • the places where they volunteer as museum docents, hot-line answerers, tutors, and so much more
  • board meetings, the county fair where their organizations have exhibit booths, CPR training, and often hundreds of miles to conferences as well as service projects

This issue is particularly important since, as the cost of gasoline soars, Americans are trying to drive less.

An Ongoing Struggle

The tax deduction for driving as part of volunteer service has been at 14 cents for
the last 10 years
, having last been raised from 12 cents by the Taxpayer Relief Act
of 1997
. Some of us can remember the struggles in the 1970s and 80s to get past
7 cents a mile, and the determined efforts of now Senator Barbara Mikulski (D,
Maryland) to champion better tax support for volunteer drivers.

Silence is not necessarily a sign that people don't mind the cost. Most volunteers will wait a long time before mentioning that driving expenses are hurting them. Even worse, they may drop out of volunteering rather than ask for reimbursement. Rather than exploit the charitable nature of volunteers, shouldn't we be working to support -- rather than penalize -- volunteering?

Here are first some short-term ideas, and then more on supporting changes in the nonprofit mileage rate.

Small Solutions for Right Now

Helping volunteers decrease their driving costs may give us an opportunity to address some things most volunteers have long wished to change anyway:

  • Consider organizing carpools among volunteers, especially among employer-based volunteerism or to special events
  • Raise funds specifically to reimburse volunteers for gas costs
  • Have fewer-but-longer face-to face meetings, and supplement them with conference calls and listserv exchanges
  • Actively focus on recruiting on people who can walk or bike to our sites
  • Find ways to engage parents in volunteering while waiting for their children to be finished with sports, painting classes, or therapy

Changing the Law

In July 2008, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) raised the business mileage deduction to 58.5 cents per mile (an increase of 16%). IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman commented, "We want the reimbursement rate to be fair to taxpayers." The problem is: gas doesn't cost any less for volunteers, yet the reimbursement rate of 14 cents per mile is 76% less than the business rate!

And . . . it turns out that this figure requires congressional legislation to change! The government gives lip service to "supporting and encouraging" volunteer and community service. Here is an opportunity for a simple, direct way of doing so.

Protest has come from various sources and Congress is responding. The Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofits has been one of the leaders of the effort to raise the charitable deduction rate and urges support of H.R. 2020, which would make the rate equivalent to any number set by the IRS for business-related driving. More information can be found at Collectively, we can remedy this injustice!

Sample Letter

Dear Representative/Senator _________________________:

It's wonderful that the IRS has just increased the mileage deduction to 58.5 cents a mile in recognition of the high cost of gas. But do you realize that the charitable mileage deduction has remained at only 14 cents a mile for the last ten years?!

It requires Congressional legislation to raise this rate. Please act now and recognize the enormous contribution of volunteers who use their cars to:
* Deliver meals to those who are homebound and otherwise might not eat
* Drive seniors to necessary doctor appointments
* Make sure people without the means to drive or without mass transit can get medical treatments, visit family members in custodial care, and other vital services.

Please support a bill such as H.R. 2020 that makes the charitable deduction equal to the business deduction, and prevents new legislation from having to be introduced ever few years.

Volunteers deserve this support and assistance. Please change the law now.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., a training and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. The Energize website has 1400 free pages of information and resources for leaders of volunteer efforts. You can sign up there for their free monthly email Update, and check out their online volunteer management training program. Here you see Susan with her 2006 Civic Hybrid at an event where she has driven to volunteer.

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