The holiday season is the most popular time of year for donating to schools, places of worship and other nonprofit organizations.
This is the time many of us take stock of our blessings and think about the needs of others. That old PC we're no longer using or that long retired copier, printer, software application, desk filing cabinet or office chair might be just the thing for a nonprofit group that could put it to good use.
What's more, in some situations the payoff for generosity can be more than just knowing you've done a good deed. You or your business may be able to deduct the fair market value or net book value of the donation from your personal or business tax return.
The tax laws that govern the deductibility of noncash donations can be a bit complicated, and they vary depending upon how your business is set up, so be sure to seek professional help.
In some cases it could be worthwhile to hold on to the equipment until 1998 to take advantage of new tax laws. The 21st Century Classrooms Act that takes effect next year will provide additional federal tax incentives for some types of businesses that donate equipment to schools.
If you own all or part of a proprietorship, ask your tax advisor whether it's legal and advantageous to first transfer ownership of the asset to yourself so that you can deduct it from your personal taxes.
Whatever you do, don't just drop off a piece of equipment at an organization's doorstep. Talk to the people who run the organization to find out if they really need what you have to offer. If they don't, look somewhere else for a worthy recipient. The same item that might be put to good use by one organization could be of no value to another. If fact, it could even be worse than useless if it winds up taking up space and time as staff members or volunteers figure out what to do with it.
Be specially careful when donating to a school. Just because you've heard that schools need computer equipment doesn't mean they necessarily need what you have to offer. A lot of classroom programs depend on certain types of equipment to meet specific needs.
Some schools, for example, use only Apple Macintosh equipment and have difficulty integrating IBM-compatible machines. Others can use only equipment that can be connected to their campus network. Some depend completely on systems with CD-ROM drives and other multimedia resources. Ironically, a lot of machines that have more than enough power for business applications are not able to run some of today's multimedia or Internet-connected educational applications.
I speak from experience. Several years ago I donated a used Windows Multimedia computer to a school only to find out that it was put in a closet after the teacher--who knew only about Macs--gave up trying to get it to work. I came back to the school, installed some educational software and it was used productively for several months until something else went wrong. I wish now that I had given it to a school or organization that could have used it more productively.
Nonprofit groups and places of worship often need equipment to produce newsletters, maintain a mailing list or connect the group to the Internet but, as with schools, their needs are sometimes very specific.
Don't just donate a machine. Donate a solution. When you meet with the staff members, find out what they need to enhance their program. It may turn out that you have just the knowledge they need to solve a problem. Think about what you can do to help install and configure the equipment and software and how you can help them integrate it into their program by training staff members and volunteers and checking in occasionally to see that everything is going right.
You can, by the way, donate software as well as hardware, but be sure you're not violating the terms of any software license agreements. In general, it's OK to give away software (or a computer that has software on its hard disk) as long as you include the original diskettes or CD-ROMs. If you plan to use the same software on another machine at your office, you should in most cases erase it from the hard disk before you give away the machine. A few software companies make exceptions and allow you to donate copies of programs to schools and other nonprofits, but don't assume that it's OK just because it's going to a worthy cause.
If you don't know of a worthy organization for your equipment, ask your employees, friends and others in your community. If you still can't come up with a place to donate, consider contacting one of the clearinghouses that help link equipment donors with recipients.
The Detwiler Foundation's Computers for Schools program ( 939-6000 or http://www.detwiler.org/) seeks computers and printers for California schools.