Policies on Volunteering and Charitable Donations

Why it matters

Civic engagement, broadly, focuses on public involvement in activities that promote the common good. It incorporates an array of activities in the public arena through which individuals care for one another and their communities both individually and as a communal activity. These activities commonly take place within two spheres of action: political and social.

Civic engagement of a political nature encompasses many of the arenas of action discussed previously in this audit – political expression, voting, running for office – and provides a critical means through which individuals come together to influence and shape communal decision-making. Civic engagement of a social nature refers to ways that individuals come together to provide support to others in need and to strengthen communities, including through such arenas of action as volunteering and donating to help those in need.

One community leader illustrates ways that these concepts of social and political civic engagement may come together, while also sharing some concerns about public willingness to volunteer in a communal way:

Both volunteering and donating can take place between individuals, or in conjunction with groups, organizations, and communities, and are linked to positive impacts for the volunteer, donor, and those who are served. They also can take place both informally and formally, in both cases, offering opportunities for communities to become more socially connected. The more socially connected and civically engaged a community is, the better able its residents are to define and address public problems. In fact, volunteering specifically emerged in a number of community leader conversations as a valuable way to enhance inter-community communication.


Voluntary Service

The 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act reauthorized and expanded a range of federally-sponsored programs that promote volunteerism in local communities, including Senior Corps and the three primary AmeriCorps programs (AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, AmeriCorps State and National, and AmeriCorps VISTA). Each program is administered by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service.

[Originally, the law also included federal support for the national school-based service-learning program Learn and Serve America; however, this program was subsequently eliminated by Congress in 2011.]

Federal policy source: Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (2009)

The federal mileage reimbursement level for volunteers is 14 cents per mile. Volunteers who itemize deductions on their personal federal taxes can deduct unreimbursed mileage expenses, either at the 14 cents per mile rate, or using actual costs.

Volunteers who itemize deductions on their taxes may deduct other approved expenses associated with their volunteering, including parking fees and tolls when an automobile is used for charitable purposes.

Federal policy source: Tax Cut Jobs Act of 2017; Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Notice 2018-03; IRS, Providing Disaster Relief through Charitable Organizations: Working with Volunteers (June 2018)

Volunteer hours and material donations from individuals and organizations may count towards a local government’s match requirements when seeking grants for response, recovery, and repair of municipal infrastructure after a natural disaster.

Federal policy source: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Memorandum for FEMA Regional Administrators about donated resources policy (June 2018)

A 2003 Texas executive order explicitly encouraged volunteer action in Texas. It created the OneStar National Service Commission, run by the Texas nonprofit OneStar Foundation, to promote volunteerism and community service in Texas, serve as the state liaison to the national Corporation for National and Community Service, administer statewide volunteer and community service initiatives, and promote volunteerism through annual administration of the Governor’s Volunteer Awards.

Texas policy source: Executive Order RP-30 (2003)

Mandatory Service

supports state efforts to explore incentives for community engagement, including volunteering, as a condition for Medicaid eligibility for non-elderly, non-pregnant adults without disabilities.

Federal policy source: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, SMD 18-002, Re: Opportunities to Promote Work and Community Engagement among Medicaid Beneficiaries (2018)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires all non-exempt adult residents of public housing to provide volunteer service within their housing community or to work 8 hours each month.

Federal policy source: 24 Code of Federal Regulations 960, Subpart F

Most government action to support volunteerism in Harris County appears to be federal in nature, whether through national volunteer service programs or through tax incentives for volunteerism (which generally target individuals wealthy enough to itemize tax deductions). National service programs in Texas are supported by Texas’ OneStar Foundation, which currently administers $18.2 million annually in AmeriCorps Texas programs. Multiple of the 2018-19 AmeriCorps Texas grantees are located in the Houston region.

Local efforts to encourage volunteerism include the City of Houston’s Volunteer Initiatives Program, in existence since 2004. This program partners with nonprofits in the region to connect residents with volunteer opportunities through an online portal. Overall, however, the 2018 Houston Civic Health Index Report found that just 21 percent of Greater Houston respondents reported volunteering through an organization in the prior 12 months, and a smaller 15 percent reported engaging in more informal volunteerism by doing favors frequently for a neighbor.

Outside of the criminal justice system, most volunteerism to date in Texas is of a voluntary nature. This stands in contrast to the increasing number of federal programs and state partnerships that mandate volunteer (or work) participation for program participants. With the support of the federal government, five states have instituted a volunteer or work requirement for Medicaid recipients with the support and another ten have submitted applications for such a requirement as of November 2018. Texas is not currently included among these states. The benefits of such requirements lack strong research support in terms of both encouraging civic engagement and promoting recipients’ health.

The Houston region saw extensive informal volunteering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, as individuals around the region stepped up to help each other. Houston’s experience with volunteerism around national disasters has, in fact, helped it become a leader in making national change in how FEMA counts volunteer support in supporting regions through crisis and recovery. In previous disasters, FEMA counted volunteer hours as a local match solely for grants that help localities with emergency disaster response and debris removal. After Houston’s leadership post-Harvey, FEMA now counts volunteer hours as a local match also for grants focused on the repair and recovery of municipal infrastructure. This policy shift applies to volunteer efforts focused on municipal infrastructure; however, Congressional action would be needed in order to allow volunteer efforts focused on individual’s homes to count towards a FEMA match.


1) Providing Disaster Relief through Charitable Organizations: Working with Volunteers. n.d. IRS. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/providing-disaster-relief-through-charitable-organizations-working-with-volunteers

2) Volunteer Mileage Reimbursement. n.d. Independent Sector. Retrieved from https://independentsector.org/policy/policy-issues/volunteer-mileage-reimbursement/

3) Snyder, M. and Mike Morris. 17 Aug 2018. “FEMA to count volunteer work toward local match on Harvey projects.” Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/FEMA-to-count-volunteer-work-toward-local-match-13164425.php

4) Related documents. n.d. Legislative Reference Library of Texas. Retrieved from https://lrl.texas.gov/CurrentIssues/clips/resultsLink.cfm?clipID=312167&headline=FEMA%20to%20count%20volunteer%20work%20toward%20local%20match%20on%20Harvey%20projects

5) Volunteer Match. n.d. City of Houston Post Harvey. Retrieved from https://www.houstontx.gov/postharvey/volunteer-match.html

6) RE: Opportunities to Promote Work and Community Engagement Among Medicaid Beneficiaries. 11 Jan 2018. Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Retrieved from https://www.medicaid.gov/federal-policy-guidance/downloads/smd18002.pdf

7) A Snapshot of State Proposals to Implement Medicaid Work Requirements Nationwide. 11 Dec 2018. National Academy for State Health Policy. Retrieved from https://nashp.org/state-proposals-for-medicaid-work-and-community-engagement-requirements/

8) Executive Order RP 30. 22 Dec 2003. Governor of the State of Texas. Retrieved from https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/govdocs/Rick%20Perry/2003/RP30.pdf

9) AmeriCorps Texas Grantees 2018-2019. n.d. Onestar Foundation. Retrieved from https://onestarfoundation.org/americorpstexas/grantees/

10) Who We Are. n.d. Onestar Foundation. Retrieved from http://onestarfoundation.org/about-us/our-history/

11) AmeriCorps Texas Grantees 2018-2019. n.d. Onestar Foundation. Retrieved from https://onestarfoundation.org/americorpstexas/grantees/

12) Volunteer Initiatives Program. n.d. City of Houston. Retrieved from https://www.houstontx.gov/volunteer/aboutus.html

13) Chapter 11: Community Service. 1 Jul 2016. Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority. Retrieved from http://www.kckha.org/uploads/6/8/4/9/68497415/kckha-acop-chap11.pdf

14) Lappie, J. 2018. “2018 Houston Civic Health Index.” Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Center for Local Elections in American Politics. Retrieved from https://www.ncoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-Houston-CHI-Draft.pdf

15) Jacobs, D. 6 Aug 2018. “The Social Determinants Speak: Medicaid Requirements Will Worsen Health.” Health Affairs Blog. Retrieved from https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20180730.371424/full/

Volunteer Restrictions and Liability

Public sector and nonprofit employees are permitted to volunteer for their employer, but only when those services are distinct from an employee’s regular job duties and cannot be carried out during the employee’s working hours.

Federal policy source: Fair Labor Standards Act

This law outlines cases where a nonprofit or government volunteer cannot be held liable for any harm that occurs while volunteering. States may provide additional liability protections and add further limits to punitive damages against a volunteer.

Federal policy source: Volunteer Protection Act (1997)

Building on the federal Volunteer Protection Act, Texas law specifies when volunteers cannot be held liable for harm that occurs while they are volunteering.

A volunteer is protected from liability for their acts within the scope of volunteer duties if volunteering with a charitable organization that: has 501c3 or c4 status; is solely engaged in activities that further the organization’s purpose(s); has assets dedicated to the organization’s purpose even upon dissolution; receives at least one-third of its support from gifts, grants, contributions, or membership fees; and does not directly participate in any political campaign. The one exception to this protection is if death, damage, or injury has resulted from the volunteer’s operation of motor-driven equipment.

This liability protection extends to volunteers with homeowner’s associations, volunteer centers, and local chambers of commerce, as long as these organizations do not engage in political campaigns or contribute to political action committees.

Texas policy sources: Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. §84.001-.008 (“Charitable Community and Liability Act”);

Volunteers are permitted to utilize professional or skill-based licenses, certification, or permits in a political jurisdiction in which they are not certified, if their assistance has been requested due to an emergency or disaster.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management must have a liability awareness program for volunteers during natural disasters.

Texas policy sources: Tex. Govt. §418.043; Tex. Govt. §418.117

Some argue that “the willingness of volunteers to offer their services…is deterred by the perception of personal liability arising out of the services rendered to these organizations.” In order to promote volunteerism, states offer various levels of liability protections to volunteers, particularly those who help in cases of emergency and natural disasters. Texas’ Charitable Community and Liability Act was written with the explicit goal of encouraging volunteerism in the state.


1) Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, H.R. 1: Nonprofit Analysis of the Final Tax Law. 5 April 2018. National Council of Nonprofits. Retrieved from https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/sites/default/files/documents/tax-bill-summary-chart.pdf

2) Liability Information for Texas Volunteers. Mar 2010. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved from https://www.dps.texas.gov/dem/volunteer/liabilityInfoTxVolunteers.pdf

3) Citizen Corps Volunteer Liability Guide. n.d.. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved from https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1854-25045-1228/citizen_corps_volunteer_liability_guide.pdf

4) State Liability Laws for Charitable Organizations and Volunteers. Dec 2009. Nonprofit Risk Management Center. Retrieved from https://www.nonprofitrisk.org/app/uploads/2017/01/state-liability-laws.pdf

Charitable Donations

For taxpayers who itemize, charitable donations of money or property to a qualified tax-exempt organization can be deducted, with written notice from the charity. Donations of property can often be deducted based on the property’s fair market value.

Disaster relief donations can be deducted if made to a qualified organization, but not for relief targeted to a particular individual or family.

The 2017 Tax Cut Jobs Act changed prior tax law to increase taxpayers’ standard deduction amount, while instituting a $10,000 cap on deductions for paid state and local taxes and doubling the estate tax exemption. This law permits taxpayers who itemize deductions to itemize donations of up to 60% of the amount of their adjusted gross income.

Federal policy source: Tax Cut Jobs Act of 2017; IRS Publication 526: Charitable Contributions (March 2018); IRS Publication 3833: Disaster Relief: Providing Assistance through Charitable Organizations (Dec. 2014)

The 2018 Houston Civic Health Index Report found that despite Greater Houston’s economic and cultural vibrancy, it ranks on average 36th out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country on 21 indicators of civic health compiled by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). Figure 23 presents several of these indicators of civic health based on survey responses of Greater Houston residents. Of particular interest in this section, a larger percentage of Houstonians participate in donating to charity than in many other civic activities. In the 12-month period asked by the survey, just under half of all Houston-area respondents reported that they had donated at least $25 to charity during the past twelve months.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS) 2013-16.

While some people certainly make charitable donations because they want to provide support to the individuals or communities an organization serves, charitable donations in the U.S. have long been incentivized through the federal income tax system. Through this system, taxpayers who itemize deduct charitable contributions when calculating their federal taxes. However, the nonprofit community has expressed concerns that changes adopted in the Tax Cut Jobs Act of 2017 will reduce the number of taxpayers who benefit from claiming this deduction.

As a result of this policy change, the National Council on Nonprofits estimates that over 87% of taxpayers will not claim a charitable deduction moving forward. Without the tax-based incentive to donate, they argue that there will be a sharp decline in charitable giving, with an estimated decrease of at least $13 billion per year. Proposed bills in Congress include provisions to re-introduce incentives to donate, such as allowing charitable deductions for non-itemizers; however, such provisions have so far not been adopted.


1) Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, H.R. 1: Nonprofit Analysis of the Final Tax Law. 5 April 2018. National Council of Nonprofits. Retrieved from https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/sites/default/files/documents/tax-bill-summary-chart.pdf

2) Charitable Contributions: For the use in preparing 2017 returns. 12 Mar 2018. Department of the Treasury. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p526.pdf

3) Hispanics in Houston underrepresented at the ballot box and in local offices. 1 May 2018. Houston Endowment. Retrieved from https://www.houstonendowment.org/news/hispanics-in-houston-underrepresented-at-the-ballot-box-and-in-local-offices/

4) Lappie, J. 2018. “2018 Houston Civic Health Index.” Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Center for Local Elections in American Politics. Retrieved from https://www.ncoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-Houston-CHI-Draft.pdf

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