Monday, September 27, 2010

Travel to save the world (and take a load off of your wallet too!)

On a lovely afternoon, a power line fell onto the freeway and nearly decapitated me and my friend.

I had only been out of college for six months and my mortality came as a rude awakening. The car was totaled and we were stranded in the summer heat, but sitting on the side of the highway, I could think of only two things: I needed to spend more time giving back and I hadn’t seen nearly enough of the world.

Before the accident I had played with the idea of taking a volunteer vacation with Habitat for Humanity, and less than 24 hours after the accident, I had signed up for a two week volunteer trip to Georgetown, Guyana. By the end of the week I had booked my ticket and was ready to go.

Booking the trip may have been an impulsive reaction to a near-death experience, but it turned into an amazingly heartwarming trip. Not only did I have an opportunity to help build affordable housing in a community that sorely needed it, but it ended up not making the huge impact to my financials that I had expected.

Interested in having a similarly fulfilling experience? Consider some of these topics.

Pick a cause
Regardless of your personal interests or professional skills, numerous volunteer opportunities abound. Animal lovers can work to protect the habitats of endangered species in the rainforest. Interested in helping children have a brighter future? Think about volunteering with an orphanage or educational group. Medical professionals are welcome to share their skills in various areas of the world. There are many reputable charitable organizations in the international community that are interested in utilizing the skills of volunteers to help achieve the goals of their organization.

Be open to unusual destinations
When I decided to volunteer in Guyana, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know where the country was (South America), I didn’t know what language they spoke (English), and I was shocked that a 500 page guidebook to South America dedicated a mere 3 paragraphs to the entire country. And yet even though the country is not considered to be a tourist destination, I had an amazing trip. I saw unspoiled rainforest, endangered animals in their native environments and one day our group was alone in enjoying the view from the top of the tallest single drop waterfall in the world (Kaieteur Falls).

The destination for your volunteer service doesn’t need to be as impulsive as mine was, but try to keep an open mind and consider locales that may be a little off the beaten path.

Make friends
One of the rewards of volunteering is related to the relationships you gain. When volunteering abroad you have the chance to work side by side with people who share your passion. Utilize the chance to get to know the locals in a more intimate way than you often do when you are a typical tourist. Find out about their lives and their dreams. You may just learn that you have more in common with the rest of the world than you thought.

While it can be a wonderfully enriching to get to know the residents of another country, keep in mind one note of caution in this area. Don't make promises you can't or won't deliver on. Did you make a promise to send pictures or supplies once you returned home? Maybe you agreed to return the following year? While many offers are made with only the best of intentions behind them, keep in mind that people will expect you to honor your commitments. Remember that when you are volunteering with an organization, you become a representative of that group as well as of your home country and the impressions you leave people with will be associated with both of those.

Expenses related to charity work can be deducted on your tax return if “you are on duty in a genuine and substantial sense throughout the trip”. In other words, all expenses must be directly related to the volunteer work and cannot be personal in nature. According to Article 526 of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax code, deductible expenses include air, rail and bus travel, lodging costs and the cost of meals.

In order to maximize the tax deductions from your volunteer vacation, make sure to save all of your receipts and related documents. Keep in mind that every case is different and the specifics of the tax law as it applies to your situation can be reviewed at