The Internal Revenue Service identifies some 29 different types of organizations that are exempt from federal income tax.
In the most basic of terms, these are “nonprofit” organizations, or entities that exist generally for a purpose other than making money, and it is to nonprofits that we think about directing our philanthropy.
While you may make donations to causes such as a fraternal organization or a political campaign, in terms of philanthropic giving, you are probably most familiar with 501(c)(3) organizations. These are more commonly known as “charitable” organizations, and the “501(c)(3) label refers to the specific subsection of the Internal Revenue Code under which they are organized.
These types of organizations include only those which are “organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals…”
So what does this mean for the average donor?
In deciding where to put your donation dollars, obviously it is most important to select a cause that you believe in. However, people choose to donate for many reasons beyond the simple “feel good” factor of helping a good cause. Of course, the deductibility of charitable gifts has been impacted by the recent tax reforms. But if tax deductibility is on your radar you will want to speak with your accountant or financial planner before making any large donations to be certain the donation will be deductible.
When searching for that perfect charitable cause, know that you will come across many, many options vying for your money, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Websites like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, GuideStar and Consumer Reports evaluate an astounding number of organizations on topics such as operating and fundraising overhead, total contributions, sources of contributions, and other information that may be of interest.
The majority of donors will look to contribute to public charities. That is, most people will make donations toward an organization that regularly receives contributions from the general public and has active programs. Organizations in this category might include a synagogue/temple/shul, an animal welfare organization, an educational organization, or a benevolence organization, just to name a few.
Of course, private foundations are another option. These entities are typically nonprofits that have been established from funds from a single source or small group of sources, such as a family or corporation. They often have no active programs of their own, but support the work of other public charities through grants.
Ultimately, what is right for you will depend on your personal tastes and how you prefer to see your funds allocated. With a little research you are sure to find the right fit for you.
This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.