Sunday, August 27, 2017

Can I deduct the cost of a cup of coffee if I donate my time?

For several years, A.L. has supported a local nonprofit by donating her time as a job skills coach to unemployed adults who use the nonprofit's services to help them find jobs. It's a cause A.L. believes in and she's seen how successful the nonprofit has been in helping provide advice and skills to people trying to get on their feet.

A.L. has committed to donating two hours of coaching a week to clients of the nonprofit. At scheduled times she drives her car to meet the client either at the nonprofit or at a coffee shop that is conveniently located for each of them to reach.

"I love working with these clients," writes A.L. "It gives me the opportunity to give back to my community by using the professional skills I've developed over the past few decades."

And the clients she's worked with seem to benefit from the advice A.L. gives them on thinking about the type of work they can do, writing strong resumes and cover letters, and learning how they might successfully navigate job interviews. The confidence the clients get from their sessions with A.L. often helps them land a job that they might otherwise not even have thought of applying.

Even though others might have paid handsomely for her services, A.L. knows that she cannot deduct the value of her donated time from her income taxes at the end of the year.

"Frankly, I don't do this for the tax deduction anyway," she writes, noting that it's the thought of giving back that drives her to donate her time.

But over time, she racks up quite a few miles driving to and from her meetings with these pro bono clients and she also spends money on coffee and sometimes a light meal when meeting at the coffee shop. Now, A.L. wonders if it's both legal and ethical to deduct some of the expenses she's incurred while coaching the clients she sees.

I am neither an accountant nor a tax attorney, so A.L. would be wise to consult with a tax expert for specific details about what's permissible and what' not. But both the U.S. and Canada provide guidance that suggests that certain expenses incurred specifically in relation to the time donated to a charity could be deductible. (It seems unlikely, however, that taking deductions for the expense of a two-week trip to a fancy resort where you meet the client briefly and spend the rest of the time vacationing would be appropriate or legal. But again, check with a pro.)

So, yes, it's likely that the mileage and the cost of a meal might be legally deductible when incurred while volunteering time. But even if it's legal, A.L. wonders if it's right to take the deduction, given that she expected to be volunteering her time. As long as she doesn't violate any tax laws in the process, there's nothing wrong with taking the deductions from her annual tax obligation and doing so doesn't lessen the intent of the time she has devoted to the client or the nonprofit.

The right thing is for A.L. to continue to donate the time and services she wishes to donate and to take any legal tax deductions for related travel expenses with a clear conscience. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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