Hurricane Harvey made landfall over the weekend. The category 4 hurricane crashed into the Texas coast, devastating families and businesses. At least two people have been reported dead, and estimates place the total cost of property damage and lost business in the billions.
If that isn't bad enough, Harvey is now a Tropical Storm and is lingering off the coast, dumping water onto coastal Texas, including the Houston area. As the rain continues, many people are in danger due to flooding while others have lost homes and property. Houston is the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the country: over two million people call the city home, while the metropolitan area counts nearly 6.7 million as residents. By geography, the Houston metropolitan area covers 9,444 square miles, larger than the state of New Jersey.
Many of you want to know what you can do to help out. Some of the tax rules that apply to charitable donations - like checking to see that the organization has its paperwork in order - are good rules to follow even if you're not claiming a tax deduction. So with that in mind, here are a few tips to keep in mind when helping out during Harvey:
- Cash is king. While you may want to send food and other items, the infrastructure may not support those donations. Many organizations have been clear that cash, or cash equivalent, is preferred (but keep reading). Keep receipts if you intend to claim those donations on your tax return.
- Stay put. Yes, we all want to get in our cars and help but don't rush to help without checking first. There are already professionals and trained volunteers on the scene, and due to the potential for more flooding, relief officials have asked that folks stay off the roads where possible. If your services are needed and you do volunteer, remember that you can claim a tax deduction for your out-of-pocket expenses but not for your time.
- Be smart. Be wary of personal solicitations on your doorstep or over the phone. Make sure that gifts made by checks or credit card gifts are secure. And don't send money by text or using apps like Venmo without first verifying the organization and the contact information. If you don't want to donate online or by text, most organizations have alternatives, like donation forms that you can mail together with a check (never send cash through the mail). Always keep excellent records of donations since the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires that you do so for tax purposes - and having the information available is handy if you want to follow up with another donation.
- Do your homework. Check out the credentials of a potential donee/charitable organization before you donate. Charity Navigator is useful for gathering information about existing charities and has a Hurricane Harvey specific section. Forbes has its own list of the largest charities in the US complete with details on revenues, corporate pay, fundraising efficiency, and more (just click on the individual charity's name for more info). Finally, you can always confirm charitable status through the IRS web site using the EO Select Check Tool. Remember that some organizations (like churches) may not be listed, so don't be afraid to ask organizations which don't appear on the list for more information.
- Check with the organization first. While most organizations prefer cash, there are some soliciting in-kind donations (see below). Those wish lists may change as needs are assessed and storage for items may be limited. Check with the organization before you send or drop off anything. And if you're planning to claim a tax deduction for any in-kind goods, be sure to keep receipts showing what you paid for the items.
- Use caution when donating to individuals. For tax purposes, you can only deduct contributions to qualified tax-exempt charitable organizations. Donations to individuals are never deductible for tax purposes even if the individuals are really deserving. But there's another, non-tax reason to use caution: money solicited for individuals could be part of a scam and even if it's not, the money might not be spent as advertised. Keep in mind that once you hand over the cash, you have no control over how it might be used.
- Rely on oldies but goodies. There’s nothing wrong with new charitable organizations but there is something to be said for those that have been around for awhile - like the Red Cross. Brand new organizations may not have the facilities in place to offer the most effective relief - or they could be scams. Use caution before handing over your cash.
- Pay attention to the rules. The rules for charitable giving apply even in extraordinary situations although sometimes those rules may be tweaked to allow for more generosity. Stay informed. Be sure to document your gifts and get receipts. And never hesitate to ask the charitable organization or your tax professional if you have questions.
(For more tips on making your charitable donations count for tax purposes, check out this article).
If you want to help but aren't sure where to start, tax-exempt charities that have indicated they are accepting Harvey-specific donations include:
- American Red Cross. To make a financial donation, visit the their website, call 1.800.RED CROSS or text HARVEY to 90999 to make a $10 donation for those in need.
- Catholic Charities of USA. To make a financial donation, visit CCUSA's disaster-specific website or text 71777 to make a donation.
- Global Giving. To make a financial donation, visit their website or text HARVEY to 80100 to donate $10 to Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
- Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has established the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund that will accept tax deductible donations. The fund is administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity. To make a financial donation, visit the GHCF website.
- Salvation Army. To make a financial donation, visit www.helpsalvationarmy.org, call 1.800.SAL ARMY, or text STORM to 51555.
(Please note that these are not endorsements of a specific charity. If you're not a fan of those organizations listed, there are many other charities which would welcome your support.)
Corporate donor sites and giving challenges include:
- GoFundMe has created a landing page that aggregates the campaigns already created to help those affected by Harvey.
- Starbucks has donated $250,000 to relief efforts. Customers in any U.S. company-operated store who want to help can make a donation to the American Red Cross at the register. Additionally, Starbucks employees who make a personal contribution to the relief efforts can request matching funds through the company's Partner Match program (pro tip: ask your company if they have a donor match program). More details can be found here.
- United Airlines will match the first $100,000 raised through its charitable campaign. United MileagePlus members who donate a minimum of $50 to any of United's charitable partners will receive up to 1,000 bonus miles (details, which download as a pdf, are here). Remember that for tax purposes, if you receive something of value in exchange for a donation, your charitable deduction must be reduced accordingly.
In addition to financial donations, what else can you do?
- Austin Pets Alive is seeking families that can foster cats and large dogs. In addition to cash donations, the organization can also use in-kind donations like large plastic or metal bins with lids. Space for some items is limited so check with the organization first before you gather supplies. If you can help with fostering or in-kind donations, check out their website for details.
- The SPCA of Texas has also put out a call for foster homes to help care for the animals already in shelters and those coming from the Gulf Coast. You can sign up at www.spca.org/foster. The organization is also accepting financial donations and in-kind donations, including cat litter, litter boxes, towels, blankets, large wire crates, toys, treats, pet beds, newspaper and gas gift cards.
- Donations of blood are also needed. You can't claim a tax deduction for giving blood but it sure is a terrific way to help. Find your nearest donation center by entering your zip code here.
- We know from past disasters that if you're able to write a handwritten note or two and send to those who are on the front lines of these disasters including police and fire departments, schools, and churches to offer your good wishes, it is typically appreciated.
Kelly Phillips Erb, Forbes.com