Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2008 issue.

Give, Donate. Contribute. Bestow. All around Bahia de Banderas, from El Tuito in the south to San Pancho in the north, opportunities abound for residents, as well as vacationers, to help others. There are charitable and non-profit organizations designed to enrich the lives of children, the ill or incapacitated, seniors and abused women, while other groups focus on animals, the environment, education and cultural activities. There is something here to meet every humanitarian concern of the steadily growing population in and around Puerto Vallarta.

Many people come to Mexico after solid careers in large cities, while others arrive seeking a change or simply because they’re enchanted with the country. But once here, they discover a strong sense of community they wish to share. Moreover, life south of the border often provides the luxury of time to rediscover a sense of purpose and to act on it. Besides, joining with others helps you to meet people with the same interests you have and to learn about the culture and people. Whether you want to help protect butterflies, kittens or children, or want to be involved in the local art scene, dramatic productions or sports, there is ample opportunity.

Giving to the local community by foreigners has been a tradition in Vallarta for a long time. Much of this has been informal – people providing clothing, English lessons, toys and medicines as needed. But structured efforts to aid the local community have also been going on for decades. For example, Becas Vallarta, A. C., a non-profit, tax-deductible Mexican foundation, and its sister organization, the America-Mexico Foundation, Inc., a non-profit US tax deductible organization, were founded in 1961 and continue today. Their purpose is to raise funds to provide scholarships for Puerto Vallarta students. Working with no office and only volunteers – Mexican, Canadian and American, they manage to meet the budget of over $100,000 USD each year. Importantly, the Becas scholarship program is supported equally among the local and expat communities. This has a very positive value in helping to forge links between the two communities

Another longtime non-profit group in Vallarta is the local AA chapter, said to be founded in Gringo Gulch in 1966. And in 1972, Puerto Vallarta joined with Santa Barbara, California, in the Sister Cities program, which has now expanded to include Mission, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois.

Twenty years ago, the International Friendship Club (IFC), now with status as a recognized charity in Mexico and the United States, was formed to solicit and distribute funds and materials in response to humanitarian needs of the community. In addition, it promotes friendship through myriad social and cultural activities for the community and its more than 500 members and runs several of its own charitable programs, such as the Cleft Palate Project. In the 2006-2007 season, it distributed more than $1.5 million pesos to various charities.

And there are literally dozens of other not for-profit organizations around the bay, seeking support and doing good works. Help pregnant teens, read to children in the library, coach a team, adopt a prisoner, rescue turtles or dolphins or endangered trees. And there’s hardly an event in Vallarta that doesn’t have a charitable component, so you can attend breakfasts, lunches, dinners and cocktail parties and eat yourself silly for good causes.

So, how do you decide where to put your efforts and your funds? If volunteering your time interests you, pick an activity you enjoy. Don’t offer to help at a children’s shelter if you don’t like kids. And think about your skills: If you’re an artist, perhaps contribute by designing a poster. Or learn something new! If you never had the time or space for plants, volunteer at the Botanical Gardens. Just remember that once you commit to an organization, it will depend on you to follow through.

If you’re more interested in donating or pledging cash, there are other considerations. You may want to consider the deductibility of your donations and whether you wish the gift to be tax deductible in Mexico, the United States or Canada.

Deductibility of Cash Donations

While most not-for-profi t organizations (NPO) in Mexico are structured as civil associations with authority to receive contributions in their charters, very few have been able to obtain “Registered Charitable Status” from the Mexican government so that donations are deductible to the giver. Nevertheless, Americans may be able to deduct contributions to certain Mexican charitable organizations under an income tax treaty with Mexico. To deduct your charitable contribution to a Mexican charity on your US tax return, you must have taxable income from sources in Mexico. The charitable organization must meet tests that are essentially the same as the tests that qualify US charitable organizations to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.

To encourage more donations, several charitable groups have set up corresponding NPOs under section 501(c) (3) of the US Internal Revenue Code. Thus, you may be able to deduct funds given to your favorite charity in Mexico from your United States income. Moreover, the United States-Canada Income Tax Convention generally provides for the deduction of cross-border charitable contributions and the reciprocal recognition of exemptions for charitable organizations, so Canadians may be able to deduct donations to the corresponding US entity of a Mexican charity. Of course, before taking a deduction for any foreign contribution or making a sizeable gift, consult a tax advisor.

Community Foundations and Local Charities

Consider whether you want to contribute to a specific group or to a “community foundation.” Foundations are, in effect, grant-making entities – umbrella organizations. They raise money and scrutinize the NPOs to which they contribute. This is a benefit to donors who don’t have the time or inclination to investigate on their own. Additionally, the foundation may work with local groups to improve their effectiveness by raising the skills and knowledge of the NPO and perform needs assessments to see where funds can best be used. Community foundations usually have a geographic base, helping local groups of various kinds. Keep in mind that it is always possible when donating to a foundation to earmark your gift to be used for a specific charity or purpose

The IFC is an example of such an umbrella group, although it also pursues its own projects. P.E.A.C.E. is yet another model. Director Molly Fisher explains that its mission is to facilitate sustainable programs by providing communities with the tools to improve the quality of life. “I’m amazed by the number of people who do want to help, who do want to give,” says Molly. The diverse services offered by the groups P.E.A.C.E. works with range from after-school programs for children to spay and neuter clinics.

Altruism Festival

If you’re in Vallarta in May, take the opportunity to attend the annual Altruism Festival at the Marriott. Organized by United States Consular Agent Kelly Trainor, this event is designed to provide the public a way to investigate charities without making a commitment. At the same time, it’s a fundraiser for the groups involved. “I never imagined the positive impact the festival would have,” says Kelly. “If a charity can leave the festival with the addition of one good volunteer, we’ve done our job.”

In some ways, however, the abundance of organizations offering assistance has created its own problems. Peter Gray, founder of the Peter Gray Art Museum at the Centro Universitario de la Costa, points out that, although there is a lot more involvement by people over the last few years and growing support among the Mexican community for charitable activities, there is a proliferation of overlapping organizations. This can lead to confusion among donors, as well as an overload of fund-raising activities and duplication of efforts and administrative costs. “More collaboration among similar charities would be good,” states Peter. Another difficulty occurs for some charities because of the seasonal nature of Vallarta’s population. For example, R.I.S.E. is a year-round shelter, but for several months in summer, it is difficult to find enough volunteers.

When you volunteer, you give part of yourself – your time, energy, skills and feelings. You give to your family and friends, to your neighbors, to your community. Volunteering is also a way of saying thank you for the opportunity to be in this wonderful place, and it’s a way of recognizing the countless others who, in big ways and small, have made life richer and better through donations of time and effort. So join a group – make a pledge – and don’t worry about not speaking Spanish! Smiles, handshakes and hugs are universal!

Weekly Events

So many activities in Vallarta involve a charitable component that it’s hard to list them all. There are breakfasts and dinner dances, chili cook-offs and golf tournaments, but two rather special weekly events have become especially popular.

Banana Cantina owners Mike and Debbi Egan help raise funds for bay area schools and charitable organizations by hosting “Local Celebrity Nights” each Wednesday from 7 to 10 pm at their restaurant on the corner of Pulpito and Amapas near Los Muertos Beach. They came up with the idea of inviting representatives of local charities to entertain and explain their activities. In addition to the money raised by the “host” through contributions and raffles of prizes generously donated by local businesses, the Egans donate 10% of the night’s sales to the charity of the week.

Bingo upstairs at the Santa Barbara Theater on Olas Altas has become a Tuesday night ritual for many. Bingo cards are $10 pesos apiece, with prizes generously donated by local businesses, all proceeds going to the Refugio Infantil Santa Esperanza (R.I.S.E.), which shelters and provides for all the needs of more than 50 children.

Best Practices of Smart Donors

Be Proactive

Take the time to identify which causes are most important to you. Be specific about the change you want to affect, and make sure the group you support has that goal as well.

Be Careful of Imposters and Sound-alike Names

Many groups have similar names, especially if your Spanish isn’t great. Also, a group may adopt the name of a charity in the United States and have no connection with that group, while others (Make-A-Wish Foundation, for example) are local chapters of an international group.

Confirm Organizational Status

At the very least, an organization with a charter enabling it to receive donations has some accountability, even if you are not able to take a deduction. Generally, smart donors don’t drop money into milk cartons, but if a beggar comes up to your car at a traffic signal, you might consider rolling down the window and dropping a few coins. It’s worth hearing, “¡Dios te bendiga!” (God bless you!) as you leave.

Obtain Financial Reports

The financial health of a charity is a strong indication of its performance. A charity should spend at least 75% of its budget on programs and services and no more than 25% on fundraising and administrative costs. In fact, most well organized NPOs in the Vallarta area spend no more than 15% of the budget on overhead, even with some paid employees.

Concentrate Your Giving

Whether it’s time or money that you’re providing, focus your efforts and plan to make a long-term commitment. Only with consistent support can a charity ultimately be successful and bring about substantive change.

Make Certain Your Charity Can Communicate

If a group cannot articulate its mission and programs, it may struggle in delivering those programs. Likewise, quantifiable goals should be clear, so that progress can be measured and expressed.

Express Clearly What You Can Offer

Contact your chosen charity to determine whether your skills match their needs and if your availability will suit their programs when volunteering. Find out if you will need any special training. Most importantly, express clearly the amount of time you can promise and make a personal commitment to be there.