The pastor of a church in Northern California received a phone call from a member asking if the church would be willing to accept a seven-passenger van. The donation seemed an ideal solution to the congregation's growing need to transport young people to various events. It could even be called an answer to prayer. All such donations aren't so ideal, as church leaders are well aware. And many people have questions about such gifts. For example, what goods should they accept, and what are they better off declining? Does the church nursery really need secondhand toys and furniture, or would it be better off buying new? Should boxes of old books, videos, and CDs be unloaded onto church library shelves or would that just minimize its appeal? Some church leaders question how to give donors credit for tax purposes. Who determines the value of secondhand goods? Who signs receipts that will accompany tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service? How much can be credited without a qualified appraisal? To answer those questions, consider these guidelines:

We are blessed today with the kind of affluence that gives us far more than we need at home and in our businesses. And what we no longer need could be exactly what a growing church needs to furnish its programs. People and businesses don't always think about donating to churches, though. So churches should make their needs known. They should also keep their eyes and ears open about possible sources of goods that they could use. For example, many business organizations are restructuring and down-sizing in order to operate more efficiently. As the size of their staff decreases, the amount of excess office equipment and furniture increases. Such businesses find they have more than they need in office chairs, tables, computer systems, filing cabinets, and modular cubicle systems. And that may be exactly what a church needs for its offices and classrooms.

Churches should look for news of changes in large retail establishments, financial services, government organizations, and manufacturing firms. They should also check with other churches in their areas for people who know about sources of donor goods. The churches should then contact the property distribution departments of large business firms and ask if they can be put on a call-up list. Even if the company has nothing at present, it might have donor goods available in the future. Putting your church name on record with such firms will give you an edge for future distribution and a better choice of materials to pick from. Sunrise Community Church in Northern California experienced that. By putting its name on record with area businesses, the church received top quality office furniture from two banks that were restructuring. One year later, the church received phones and portable computers from an insurance company. Six months after that, a church member who worked for a company that specializes in commercial liquidation told his pastor of a firm that was going out of business. That led to the acquisition of a large collection of modular work stations at no cost to the church except for transportation costs and the labor (all volunteer) to disassemble and reassemble the material.

A word of caution: be careful about accepting whatever people or businesses might think you need. If you really can't use the stuff, it's better to decline the offer. If you're not sure about whether to accept something, get a second opinion. Example: accepting a used car or van is fine if it can be used by a visiting missionary or a youth group director. But be sure you have the vehicle inspected for safety and reliability. Do whatever repairs are necessary to keep it in top working order. And be sure you have adequate insurance.

In recent years, churches and some Christian organizations have begun using script to raise funds for things like sending kids to camp. The way this works is that a person buys a script from a trained volunteer. The person then spends the script at a participating business. The business credits the nonprofit organization with the difference between the script and a discounted cost of what was bought. The percentage of the discount can vary from 1 to 12 percent, depending on the profit structure of the business donor. Some churches have raised as much as $4,000 a year through script programs. Churches can receive other kinds of donations. Dave Schutkee, administrator of Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, in California, says that when Fair Oaks has a capital stewardship drive, the church receives real estate, stocks, and bonds. Those assets can appreciate over time, but some can be a bother. Schutkee warns churches about accepting land that can be hard to sell. He advises that the title of any property be searched to make sure there are no liens against it or that the land contains no environmental hazards, such as toxic waste. Land gifts come with obligations, he adds, such as property taxes and insurance, which must be paid at least yearly, "Allow for this in your general budget," Schutkee says.

When individuals give goods to the church, they may ask for receipts that they can send with their tax returns to the IRS. Such receipts must include the following:

• The name of the organization that receives the goods.
• A description and evaluation of the items donated.
• The amount of any goods or services provided by the church in return for the donation
• The signature of the person who accepts the goods.

The donor should ask for a receipt if the value of the donation exceeds $250. If the value of donated property exceeds $5,000, the property must be appraised by a property specialist. According to the IRS, a taxpayer must receive a written receipt from the church prior to filing a tax return with itemized deductions, or before the due date for filing an extension on a return. Receipts aren't required on a tax return with standard deductions. A church should decide who should sign such receipts. The business administrator, executive pastor, or corporate officer of a church could do it. So could most anyone else trained to do so. Warning: Whoever signs the receipts should not decide the fair market value of the item and write that on the receipt. It is the sole responsibility of the donor to declare the value. If a donor isn't sure about the value, he or she should get advice from an appraiser, accountant, or income-tax preparer on what to declare.

By determining guidelines for accepting donations as well as communicating your needs to potential donors in the congregation and community, your church can enhance its ministry. As the pastor of Sunrise Community says, "If it were not for donations, possibly 10 percent of our projects would not get done.

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