Small Business Guide to Deducting Charitable Donations

Businesses can make tax deductible donations to bona fide nonprofit organizations. But you may be surprised to learn how it is deducted on your tax return. In fact, the only entity able to deduct a cash charitable contribution as a business expense is a C Corporation.

If you are a sole proprietor and you make a donation of $100 to a dog rescue society which is registered as a 501(c)(3) with the Internal Revenue Service – all bona charities must be registered as such for your gift to be tax deductible – and your business received no goods or services in return, the deduction is listed as an itemized deduction on Schedule A of your tax return. This provides a tax benefit only if you are able to itemize deductions.

You cannot deduct this contribution on Schedule C. It is not a business expense; it will not reduce your self-employment tax. The IRS views it as a personal expense paid from business funds.

But now let’s say you want to support young athletes and therefore donate $100 from business funds as a sole proprietor to the local soccer league. In exchange, they run a small display ad for your business on their program. This is no longer a donation. This is an advertising expense; you received something in return which can be classified as an “ordinary and necessary business expense,” and therefore the cost is deductible as such on Schedule C.

If as a sole proprietor you donate your services to a bona fide 501(c)(3), you have no deduction whatsoever. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? But the IRS places no value on your time or expertise. A manicurist donated her time to do nails for women clients at a shelter who were preparing for job interviews. While she was not allowed to deduct the $35 per manicure she would normally charge, she was able to deduct her mileage to and from the shelter, and the cost of all supplies and materials used in the performance of the manicures. She gave away bottles of nail polish to be distributed by the nonprofit to their clients. These were a write off for her as well.

By the same token, if this manicurist were to give away a nail care set of polish and files and other products to a poor individual who needs help, she would not be able to write off the donation. This is simply because the IRS does not allow the deduction of gifts to individuals, or for that matter to political organizations or candidates.

If your business is incorporated as an S Corporation or formalized as a partnership filing Form 1065, the same rules apply. In fact, any donations made at the S Corporate or partnership level flow out as a special line item on your Schedule K-1 and end up on Schedule A of your individual income tax return. Again, this is a tax benefit only if you are able to itemize deductions.

A C Corporation may take the deduction on Form 1120 but must follow all of the IRS rules regarding donations.

Remember to acquire and retain the acknowledgement letter from the nonprofit for your donation. Your cancelled check is not enough documentation and the IRS may disallow the deduction if you cannot provide this document. It must be obtained before filing your tax return. You cannot request it later during an IRS audit.