There are millions of innovative nonprofit organizations around the globe striving to make the world a better place. Many of these charities rely heavily on donations from private individuals. If you’d like to support charity in a unique way that costs you nothing, you might consider donating rewards points to charity!
This round-up will explore some of the best ways to donate to charity without spending your hard-earned money. We’ll cover how to donate air miles to charity, how to make cash donations without using your own funds, and other unique ways to do a lot of good for no out-of-pocket cost. Let’s dive in!
Easiest: Donate Miles Directly Via the Loyalty Program
Pros: Easy, low minimum donation (as low as 500 miles), great selection of charities
Cons: Not tax deductible, low redemption value, lack of transparency in some cases
Most loyalty programs have a donation feature built in. These typically allow you to directly support a variety of charities, with low minimum pledges. For example, United Airlines offers the chance to donate as little as 500 miles to one of 40+ charities. You can donate directly through your loyalty program account.
This is typically the easiest way to support charity with rewards points. However, there are some downsides. The big one is that for many charities, miles/points are converted to a cash donation – and you don’t always get the best rate. For example, a donation of 10,000 miles might only yield a cash donation of $50 or $100, yet you could easily get $150 or more in value if you redeemed those miles for a flight. Worse, the conversion rates are rarely disclosed, so you may have no idea how much benefit your selected charity will actually receive from your donation.
That said, this is a great way for the average person to donate air miles to charity. The minimum to donate is usually fairly low (500-1000 miles), so it’s a good use of small amounts of miles that aren’t really useful otherwise. It’s also a good way to burn miles that are set to expire soon.
Support Service Members: Hero Miles or Hotels for Heroes
Pros: Easy, low minimum donation (500 miles), miles are used directly by charity
Cons: Not tax deductible
Fisher House is a large charity that runs two very important programs for military service members and their families. Hero Miles helps provide no-cost airline tickets to wounded and ill service members and their families – while Hotels for Heroes helps to house families near the medical facility during treatment. Fisher House is a trusted nonprofit with a flawless rating on Charity Navigator.
The unique thing about these two programs is that they actually directly use the miles and hotel points. So if you donate 1,000 miles, that’s 1,000 miles that they will literally use to book a plane ticket for a deserving service member. The bulk of their 70,000+ successful flights have been funded by donations from everyday people, and they are always in need of more miles & points! With many other charities, the miles are converted to cash and not used directly – so this represents a good option to get a lot of value out of your miles, while helping a truly deserving cause.
These are two excellent programs, and the good news is that it’s very easy to support them! Fisher House’s Hero Miles program has a direct partnership with several airlines including American, Alaska, Delta, Frontier and United. If you have miles in any of those programs, you can donate them to Fisher House with a 500-1000 mile minimum, depending on the program.
Hotels for Heroes works in essentially the same way. It has partnerships with AmericInn, Best Western, Choice Hotels, Hilton, La Quinta Inns & Suites, Marriott, and Wyndham. You can easily donate hotel points with low minimums.
Minimum donation: 500 mile minimum for United and American; 1,000 mile minimum for other airlines. Hotel point minimums vary – see here.
Support Refugees: Miles4Migrants
Pros: Direct impact (miles are used to reunite refugee families), great redemption values
Cons: Takes time, high minimums for donation
Miles4Migrants is an innovative nonprofit organization that helps to relocate refugees. They use donated miles & points to fly refugees out of unsafe areas and help them reunite with their families abroad. For example, a Syrian refugee with family already settled in Europe may receive a no-cost plane ticket to Europe from Miles4Migrants.
The process works like this: Supporters “pledge” a specific amount of miles for a specific airline, then Miles4Migrants works to find a case that can utilize those miles to fly someone to safety. Once a case is lined up, the supporter will usually directly book the ticket for the refugee using those miles. So, this is definitely a bit more work than your average donation – but at the same time, you see directly what your donation is able to accomplish, and you get to hear the story of a family that was reunited directly due to your generosity.
Miles4Migrants spawned from the popular credit card forum reddit.com/r/churning, and is still a relatively young charity. They are very effective, however, having successfully relocated over 140 people in just over 1 year of operations. I personally worked with this charity to relocate a family, and for me it was definitely the most rewarding use of points/miles possible.
Minimum miles pledge: 10,000 Ultimate Rewards, 10,000 BA Avios, 15,000 for most other airline programs. Only 1,000 for Aeroplan (donate Aeroplan miles here).
Most Options: Redeem for Cash
Pros: Donate to any charity, low minimum donations, may be tax deductible
Cons: Low redemption value, not possible with most airline miles/hotel points
Cash is still king – even when it comes to charity. ALL charities accept cash donations, and there’s no red tape or complicated process involved like there can be with miles. But this guide is about supporting charity without spending money – so, what gives?
Well, most credit card rewards currencies and some frequent flier programs allow you to redeem miles for cash and/or statement credits. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards can be redeemed for $0.01 per point, and Amex Membership Rewards can be swapped for $0.006 per point. While this usually isn’t the best redemption rate, it gives you the flexibility of having actual money to donate to ANY charity of your choosing.
Most banks and card issuers offer a way to redeem points for statement credits. So, you can simply make a donation to a charity of your choice, using your credit card. Then, redeem points for a statement credit, which will essentially lower or erase the charge on your card. Alternatively, some rewards points can be converted to actual cash – in which case the card issuer will just mail you a check. This is a good way to use points from simple no-fee cards that earn cashback instead of miles.
Check the rewards program of your choice for cash redemption options.
Most Complicated: Redeem for Gift Cards
Pros: Donate to any charity, may be a better value than cash redemptions
Cons: Can be complicated, can be a poor redemption value
Another option that’s a bit more involved is to redeem points for gift cards, and then donate the cards to a local charity. For best results, call the charity first to see if they would accept a gift card, and ask what merchant would be most useful (think Amazon, Target, etc.)
This type of redemption can make sense in some situations. For instance, you can get $0.01 per point for Amex MR points when redeeming for many gift cards, while cash redemption rates are 40% lower at $0.006 per point. Also, many frequent flier programs, hotel rewards programs, etc. allow you to redeem for gift cards, but do NOT allow you to redeem for cash.
Want to get even more complicated? You could also sell those gift cards, and then donate the cash. Or, you could use the gift card for your own expenses, and donate the cash you would have spent on those purchases. You can keep traveling down the rabbit hole of complication if you’d like – I’m just here to spark some ideas!
Things to Know
Donating reward points to charity can be a very rewarding experience (pun intended)! It can feel great to know you are helping to make a difference, without having to spend your own money. With all that said, there are some things to keep in mind about donating frequent flier miles and other rewards points:
Charity selection: With so many charities out there, it can be tough to pick the best one. Obviously you may be somewhat limited if you’re donating miles, but we still recommend doing some research. Tools like CharityNavigator and CharityWatch can help you make an informed decision.
Taxes: Generally speaking, credit card rewards are not considered taxable income, and are viewed by the IRS as either a rebate or a gift. This also means that donations of miles/points are NOT tax deductible. Cash donations to the charities discussed above are usually deductible, but donations of any sort of rewards points are not.
Best use: In some cases, using reward points for charitable contributions is not necessarily the best use of the points. For example, you might donate 10,000 miles (converted to $50-$100), while that same 10,000 miles could have bought you up to $150-$200+ worth of free travel. Combine that with the fact that miles donations are not tax deductible, and the simple reality is this: sometimes it’s better to use the points yourself, and simply donate cash.
Friends and family: While supporting big charities is awesome, chances are you have someone in your life that could use a helping hand. In some cases, helping people you know that are struggling financially with free plane tickets, gift cards or hotel rooms may be a better use of your miles than donating miles to charity. Or, consider a more involved scheme: Offer to buy your friend’s $300 plane ticket with your miles, and have them donate $200 or so to charity. That way, your friend saves $100, and a deserving charity gets $200!
Have you ever found unique ways to support charity on the cheap? Let us know in the comments!