The Link Between Donation Acknowledgment Letters and Taxes

What Information Should You Include When Acknowledging a Donation?

There's more to a donation thank you letter than just saying thanks. They also affect tax deductions.
There's more to donation thank you letters than just saying thanks.They also have legal requirements. Sheer Photo, Inc/ Photodisc/Getty Images

There are two steps to thanking a donor. The first has to do with establishing a good relationship with each donor, and the other step has a very legal purpose.

First, you need a warm thank you letter, but you also must include legally required information so that donors can document that they gave a tax-deductible donation to your charity.

The IRS requires public charities (also known as 501(c)(3) organizations) to send a formal acknowledgment letter for any donation of more than $250.

The donor may use this letter as proof of his or her donation and claim a  tax deduction. Most charities send an acknowledgment for all donations, even small ones.

Both goals, thanking the donor and satisfying the legal requirements, can be accomplished at the same time or separately. Most charities manage to achieve both requirements within one letter.

When you should acknowledge a donation for tax purposes

The IRS says that acknowledgment must be made “in writing, at the time of solicitation or when the payment is received, and in a way that will come to the attention of the donor.” (See IRS Publication 1771)

Acknowledgment of donation must occur no later than January 31st of the year following the gift. However, best practice suggests that charities should send an acknowledgment as soon as possible after the gift is received.

Also, most charities send a summary of a donor’s contributions for the previous year by the end of January.

In an age of multi-channel fundraising appeals and donations, sending that end-of-year summary by mail (no matter whether the original donation/s came by physical check or online), assures that your organization has adequately notified the donor. 

Can you send that final summary of a donor's contributions for the prior year by email?

Yes. There is no legal prescription for the form any acknowlegment letter must take. For instance, it could be a postcard, an email, or a physical letter.

However, in my opinion, it's best to make that year-end summary a physical letter by mail. An email message might not be noticed in a crowded mailbox or even end up in the donor's spam folder. 

What you must include in the acknowledgment

  • Your organization's name
  • A statement saying that you are a 501c3 tax-exempt organization
  • The date the donation was received
  • The amount of the cash contribution (cash means checks, credit card, and payroll deduction)
  • A description (but not value) of a non-cash contribution. The donor estimates the value of non-cash contributions when reporting them to the IRS on his tax return.
  • A statement that no goods or services were provided by the organization, if applicable
  • A description and good faith estimate of the value of goods or services, if any, that the organization provided in return for the contribution. An example could be a dinner where some of the money pays for the meal while the rest is a donation.
  • A statement that goods or services, if any, that the organization provided in return for the contribution consisted entirely of intangible benefits if applicable. An example might be a small gift valued less than $75, such as a mug or tote bag with the organization’s logo.

    What will happen if my organization doesn’t provide a proper acknowledgment? 

    The IRS has denied tax deductions to donors who cannot offer proper acknowledgment for their donations to a charity.

    The “Chronicle of Philanthropy” reported on this in its article, IRS Crackdown Puts Focus on Gift Records.  In one case, the judgment hinged on the acknowledgment not being timely enough and lacking the required language.

    TIP: Develop your acknowledgment language and have it assessed by an attorney who specializes in nonprofit matters. Then use the same language consistently. 

    Some examples:

    There is no reason your organization cannot provide a warm thank you that will encourage your donors to give to you again and fulfill your obligation to provide an IRS acceptable acknowledgment of the donation.

    Although acknowledgment language should be suited to each charity, here are two examples of statements that meet all the requirements.

    The first came at the end of a written letter sent by mail; the second was part of an email thank you.

    1. "As a 501c3 charity, tax laws require us to notify you that this letter is the official acknowledgment of your gift. Also, we are required to certify that you received no goods or services in consideration of this contribution; therefore, the full amount of your gift is tax-deductible. Thank you!"

    2. "Partners In Health, a 501 (c)(3) not for profit organization, has not provided any goods or services, in whole or in part, to you in consideration for this voluntary cash contribution. If you wish to claim the tax deductibility of this gift in the U.S., please retain this acknowledgment letter for your files. Partners In Health's EIN number is xxxxx."

    Both of these examples work for cash donations. But what if the donation is not cash, but property or physical goods of some sort?  In that case use language similar to this example:

    “Thank you for your contribution of one used refrigerator and one used stove that [name of nonprofit], a 501(c)(3) not for profit organization, received on [Date]. No goods or services were provided in exchange for your contribution.”

    Resources:

    IRS Publication 1771

    GrantSpace Knowledge Base

    National Council of Nonprofits