A group of church members are traveling out-of-state to a conference for training to lead discipleship groups. Are contributions made towards travel expenses for this trip deductible?
While the answer to this question can change based on the circumstances of the specific situation, a few principles hold true across the board. According to IRS Pub. 526: "Generally, you can claim a charitable contribution deduction for travel expenses necessarily incurred while you are away from home performing services for a charitable organization only if there is no significant element of personal pleasure, recreation, or vacation in the travel. This applies whether you pay the expenses directly or indirectly. You are paying the expenses indirectly if you make a payment to the charitable organization and the organization pays for your travel expenses.
"The deduction for travel expenses will not be denied simply because you enjoy providing services to the charitable organization. Even if you enjoy the trip, you can take a charitable contribution deduction for your travel expenses if you are on duty in a genuine and substantial sense throughout the trip. However, if you have only nominal duties, or if for significant parts of the trip you do not have any duties, you cannot deduct your travel expenses."
In this situation, the church should carefully consider the purpose of the trip and the duties of the participants. Are the members traveling to the conference simply to enrich their personal skills? Will they provide services to the church based on this training? Travel expenses for personal enrichment are not eligible for a charitable contribution, because they provide no benefit to a tax-exempt organization. Even a church-sanctioned trip does not necessarily qualify if no qualified volunteer services will be performed for the church as a result of the training.
The Publication does provide several examples of activities that the IRS believes qualify or do not qualify. If these tests can be passed, then a charitable deduction claimed on Schedule A (Form 1040) is appropriate. This is true regardless whether the payments were made directly by the taxpayer or indirectly through the church.
For more on this topic, follow the link below:
Travel Expenses for Ministry Trips
Also, see IRS Publication 526.