Many donors are confused whether they can claim a charitable income tax deduction for gifts directly to individuals. Even if the donee is poor and in need, a contribution directly to that individual does not necessarily result in a charitable contribution deduction.
Some background: Generally only contributions to charities are tax deductible. The IRS determines whether an organization is a qualified charity. Charitable organizations are generally two kinds: (1) public charities, such as universities, churches, relief organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Way, and most hospitals, or (2) private foundations. While public charities receive much of their support from many donors, private foundations are typically created by individuals and receive support from a limited number of people, such as from one family. So if Mom and Dad create a charity and they are the sole contributors that charity will be private foundation.
Although contributions to both public charities and private foundations are tax deductible, public charities enjoy more advantages. For example, a private foundation must distribute 5% of its assets annually. If 5% of its assets are not distributed, then taxes are imposed.
So back to my earlier point: if Mom and Dad create their own private foundation and it is approved by the IRS, that foundation cannot make distributions directly to individuals unless the foundation receives IRS approval for such specific grants. Thus, it is not sufficient to receive IRS approval for the foundation; the IRS also must bless the contributions directly to the donee-individuals. Mom and Dad must tell the IRS they intend to offer scholarships or grants directly to individuals. Mom and Dad must tell the IRS the criteria for selection, the potential grantees, who will do the selection, and other information. The IRS wants to make sure the donees are not, for example, Mom and Dad’s family. On the other hand, if Mom and Dad’s IRS approved private foundation distributes directly to a public charity, no prior IRS approval is required for the distribution.
In sum, when you donate to your church or your university and don’t receive anything in return, you obtain a charitable contribution deduction. However, if you create your own charity you need to obtain IRS approval as a private foundation and additional IRS approval if your private foundation intends to give directly to individuals. No contribution deduction is allowed for contributions directly to individuals that do not flow through qualified charities.