Check status of a charity before making a contribution

Americans donate hundreds of millions of dollars every year to charity. It is important that every donation be used as the donors intended and that the charity is legitimate. The IRS oversees the activities of charitable organizations. This is a huge job because of the number and diversity of tax-exempt organizations and one that the IRS takes very seriously.

Exempt organizations

Charitable organizations often are organized as tax-exempt entities. To be tax-exempt under Code Sec. 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes in Code Sec. 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization; that is, it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates. Churches that meet the requirements of Code Sec. 501(c)(3) are automatically considered tax exempt and are not required to apply for and obtain recognition of tax-exempt status from the IRS.

Tax-exempt organizations must file annual reports with the IRS. If an organization fails to file the required reports for three consecutive years, its tax-exempt status is automatically revoked. Recently, the tax-exempt status of more than 200,000 organizations was automatically revoked. Most of these organizations are very small ones and the IRS believes that they likely did not know about the requirement to file or risk loss of tax-exempt status.  The IRS has put special procedures in place to help these small organizations regain their tax-exempt status.


Contributions to qualified charities are tax-deductible. They key word here is qualified. The organization must be recognized by the IRS as a legitimate charity.

The IRS maintains a list of organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. The list is known as Publication 78, Cumulative List of Organizations described in Section 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.  Similar information is available on an IRS Business Master File (BMF) extract.

In certain cases, the IRS will allow deductions for contributions to organizations that have lost their exempt status but are listed in or covered by Publication 78 or the BMF extract.  Additionally, private foundations and sponsoring organizations of donor-advised funds generally may rely on an organization’s foundation status (or supporting organization type) set forth in Publication 78 or the BMF extract for grant-making purposes.

Generally, the donor must be unaware of the change in status of the organization. If the donor had knowledge of the organization’s revocation of exempt status, knew that revocation was imminent or was responsible for the loss of status, the IRS will disallow any purported deduction.


As mentioned earlier, churches are not required to apply for tax-exempt status. This means that taxpayers may claim a charitable deduction for donations to a church that meets the Code Sec. 501(c)(3) requirements even though the church has neither sought nor received IRS recognition that it is tax-exempt.

Foreign charities

Contributions to foreign charities may be deductible under an income tax treaty. For example, taxpayers may be able to deduct contributions to certain Canadian charitable organizations covered under an income tax treaty with Canada.  Before donating to a foreign charity, please contact our office and we can determine if the contribution meets the IRS requirements for deductibility.

The rules governing charities, tax-exempt organizations and contributions are complex. Please contact our office if you have any questions.


If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.

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