or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 12/2/07

   December 8th, 2007

IRS logoThis reference question is a bit self-serving, but...

A patron called my library's Director and said she wanted to donate money to the library. However, she said she could only donate to 501(c)(3) organizations.

My library is a department of the Town's municipal government, and has a trust fund, but our Board of Trustees had voted not to apply for 501(c)(3) status, as it is a tremendous amount of paperwork.

So, my Director asked me to find some kind of documentation stating that this patron could in fact donate the money to the library, and still write it off as a donation.

The first thing I tried was a Google search of the IRS website for "municipal donation site:irs.gov." Among the matches were the IRS' Publication 17 [pdf], Your Federal Income Tax, and their Publication 526 [pdf], Charitable Contributions.

In Pub 526 (page 2), I found the following to answer the question (emphasis added):

...You can deduct your contributions only if you make them to a qualified organization...

Types of Qualified Organizations
Generally, only the five following types of organizations can be qualified organizations.

1. A community chest, corporation, trust, fund, or foundation organized or created in or under the laws of the United States, any state, the District of Columbia, or any possession of the United States (including Puerto Rico). It must be organized and operated only for one or more of the following purposes.

  • Religious.
  • Charitable.
  • Educational.
  • Scientific.
  • Literary.
  • The prevention of cruelty to children or animals...

Even though that seemed to qualify us for the donation, I wanted to find a more definite answer. We still have a reference copy from of Pub 17 from last tax season, so I consulted that and found on page 150:

Deductible As Charitable Contributions
Money or property you give to:

  • ...
  • Federal, state, and local governments, if contribution is solely for public purposes (for example, a gift to reduce the public debt)
  • ...

Okay, "local government...for public purposes" - that's pretty clear. I still maintain that librarians should never give tax advice, but I copied that and gave it to my Director.

And since I enjoy reading the tax code as much as the next person, I read on, and was rewarded with this gem:

You cannot deduct contributions to organizations that are not qualified to receive tax-deductible contributions, including the following.

  • Certain state bar associations...
  • Chambers of commerce and other business leagues or organizations.
  • Civic leagues and associations.
  • Communist organizations.
  • Country clubs and other social clubs.
  • Foreign organizations...
  • Homeowners' associations.
  • Labor unions...
  • Political organizations and candidates.

The one that caught my eye was "Communist organizations." I thought it odd to single them out, especially since "Political organizations and candidates" is also listed. Commies can never catch a break.

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