Can I deduct my zoo membership?

February 15, 2021 by Robin Scott-Hutchens, EA
Mother and daughter at the zoo

It seems that every year, our local zoos, aquariums, and similar institutions send out mailers encouraging us to buy a membership. Purchasing a single or family membership may appeal to you and your household. Generally, such memberships come with free or discounted admission to the facilities, discounts on merchandise, and occasional publications and guest passes.

While you may be considering the benefits these memberships bring to you and your family, you may also be wondering if you can deduct them on your taxes. Most zoos, aquariums, museums, and the like are designated as non-profit organizations. However, it is essential to assume that not all organizations are charities. It is also necessary to understand how giving your money to these entities may or may not count as a deduction (charitable donation) on your taxes.

The San Diego Zoo, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium are all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. That means certain gifts made to these institutions can be deducted on your tax return. On the flip side is Wynnewood Zoo – also known as the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park – previously owned by the notorious Joe Exotic. This is not a 501(c)(3) designated organization, and any money given to this business would not be considered tax-deductible.

Following that same line of thinking, paying your admission to SeaWorld is not tax-deductible, but donating to the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund may be. Perhaps orcas and otters are not your thing, and you prefer seahawks instead. Taking your best friend to a Seattle Seahawks game is not considered a charitable donation for tax purposes, but donating to the Seahawks Charitable Foundation could be. If you are preparing to make an actual donation and want to see if the organization is indeed tax-exempt, you can visit the IRS website here. Through this site, you can find more information about organizations to which you can make tax-deductible contributions, including churches and other entities.

Just as you need to know the type of organization, you also need to understand if your outgoing funds are tax-deductible. Once you’ve confirmed the organization type, what you do with and possibly receive in return for your money should be considered. Generally, a membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is not tax-deductible because you receive benefits, goods, and services in exchange for your money. As an example, a single membership costs $95. With that membership, you receive free admission for one year (a $49.95 value for each occurrence), a subscription to their member magazine, and discounts on food and merchandise, as well as other perks. The value of these perks is higher than what you paid for them, and that is the reason your membership is not tax-deductible. When giving to a charitable organization, it is wise to understand the value of the benefit, whether used or not. On the other hand, if you choose to make a gift or donate directly to the organization, without the possibility of receiving any goods or services in exchange, this may be considered a deductible charitable contribution.

Overall, two things are important to remember. The type of organization you are giving to matters for the sake of being tax-deductible. When in doubt, check the IRS website or with a tax professional to see if the one you are considering qualifies. The other thing to consider is if the money you are parting with is in exchange for admission, publications or other perks – or if it is simply the fantastic feeling of doing some social good. When no goods or services are received in exchange, the reward you get (aside from that warm, fuzzy feeling) is a potential deduction on your taxes.



Robin Scott-Hutchens, EA
Corporate Trainer


Robin Scott-Hutchens is an Enrolled Agent who has worked in the tax industry for over a decade.   She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting.  Her love of taxes has led her to prepare taxes with large corporations as well as private practice.  She joined TaxAudit in 2016 as an Audit Representative where she enjoyed working with taxpayers to help them navigate the stressful landscape of being audited.  She then moved to the Learning and Development Team at TaxAudit, where she now serves as a Corporate Trainer.  When she is not preparing tax returns or teaching tax concepts, she enjoys reading and writing about taxes, being outdoors, and petting any dog that will allow her to do so.


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