We’re often asked about donating miles — both whether or not it’s something we do, and if it’s a good way to contribute to a cause.
To be completely transparent: to my recollection I have only ever donated miles as a last-ditch effort to keep an account balance from expiring, and I don’t intend to change that habit. My husband and I set aside ~10% of our income each year to support charitable causes, and I feel like that money goes much further than my miles ever could.
But as there’s been a bit of a media buzz on the topic of mileage donations lately, I thought it was a good time to go over how mileage donations work, and where your contributions can make the biggest impact.
Donating miles doesn’t necessarily mean donating travel
You’d assume that when you’re donating your miles to a charity — especially one that partners directly with airlines — that your miles will be pooled with others, and used for travel.
For the most part, however, when an airline has a partnership with a charity, they’re not necessarily giving the charity control of the miles. Instead, they may be giving the charity a cash donation equivalent to the value of the miles, vouchers that can be used towards travel, and so forth.
As an example, here’s the disclaimer the Red Cross offers regarding mileage donations:
If you would like to donate your frequent flyer miles to the Red Cross, please contact your airline. The IRS recognizes the donation of airline miles or points as a gift from the airline to the charitable organization. Therefore, miles donated to the Red Cross are not considered tax-deductable by the individual donor. For further information, consult IRS Publication 526 and/or your personal tax advisor.
And honestly, that’s probably a good thing. If the Children’s Miracle Network needs to use “donated miles” to help a kid get across the country for an urgent medical procedure, I don’t want that treatment to be dependent on American’s abysmal award availability. If the airline wants to exchange donated miles in an accounting exercise that ultimately gives a charity more flexibility, I’m fine with that.
Just keep in mind that these organizations aren’t getting outsized (or even necessarily fair-market) value from the donated miles. Realistically, they’re getting less than 1¢ per mile in most cases.
Which, at the end of the day, anything still helps. It’s just not how I choose to support charitable organizations.
If you do want to donate miles, choose a miles-savvy organization
That being said, if you have more miles than cash, and are looking for a high-impact way to share that bounty with folks who need the help, there are a couple of great alternatives.
While there might be others out there, I know of two groups who are either run or supported by mileage geeks, so they’re actively using the miles for award tickets.
I first became aware of Miles4Migrants during my trip to Jordan, when I posted about the heart-wrenching scale of the refugee situation there. One of the Miles4Migrants directors is also an OMAAT reader, and shared how he and some like-minded folks had started using their frequent flyer miles to unite families separated by conflict.
Because they know about miles and points, they are able to parlay donated miles into international tickets that would otherwise be very expensive. How their process works is that donors “pledge” their miles, specifying the program and number of miles. When a match is found, volunteers at Miles4Migrants coordinate with the donor to get the flights booked for the recipient.
Over the past two years, Miles4Migrants has used ~3.1 million miles to help transport 150 people and reunite them with their families. Y’all can do the math on that and see that they’re clearly finding saver award space the vast majority of the time.
They’ve recently received a bundle of media attention due to their partnership with Michigan Support Circle, who is helping families and children who have been separated and detained at the U.S. border.
As a result, they’ve received pledges for over 28 million miles in the past few weeks, and are working with other organizations to best match donors with individuals who need flights. They probably need volunteers and cash more than miles at this point, though I’m sure they wouldn’t turn anything down.
Give A Mile
Give A Mile is a federally registered Canadian not for profit, with a goal of connecting people with their very ill loved ones.
Individual requests for flights are reviewed by volunteers, then posted on their website so people can donate directly to a specific person or situation. There’s a general fund as well, but there is something to be said for being able to see the immediate impact of your donation.
When I spoke with people from the Give A Mile team earlier this year, they said that for the most part they are able to use donated miles for saver Star Alliance flights, and do their best to keep the costs as low as possible.
Even better, because Give A Mile works closely with Aeroplan, they’re able to pool donated miles from a variety of individuals in order to secure the needed flights. They do separate fundraising to cover their operating costs, but also accept monetary donations to cover the taxes and fees.
Which brings us back to why I prefer to give money
No matter how closely everyone watches their pennies, this is still a costly endeavor.
At a minimum, there are airport and security taxes. In practice, there are also various fees to transfer or redeem miles, along with whatever other carrier-imposed fees and surcharges are included.
And beyond that, there are all the small expenses of running any organization that add up quickly. Phone bills and website costs and donor receipt letters and tax filings and, and, and…
Even if the organization has zero staff, and relies 100% on volunteers, they still need cash to supplement what they’re doing.
My experience in the non-profit space
Way back in the day, before OMAAT, and even before my corporate job, I worked for a time in international aid and development. I thought my career path was leading me to conflict and humanitarian law, so sought out internships and other opportunities in that space.
One of those was with an extremely well-intentioned but not extremely well-run group that worked to resettle refugees in the United States. Like many charities, they were better at identifying people that needed help than at funding their own situation, and it was not unusual for their small staff to work 100+ hours a week, use their own vehicles to take newly-settled refugees to the grocery store or a job interview, or otherwise bend over backwards for the people they were supporting.
And of course these dedicated (and often highly-educated) individuals made just nothing. Like, I made more working as a makeup artist on weekends than the woman I interned for — and she ran a dozen programs ranging from adult ESL classes to setting up apartments with basic goods and furnishings for new arrivals.
So in general, I’m sensitive to the fact that good people in good organizations make dollars stretch impossibly far. And at the end of the day some amount of money has to be spent on overhead and logistics in order for an organization to be effective, so as long as a charity provides transparency into their finances, I’m happy to give cash rather than an in-kind donation.
Time is treasured too
Having worked in the refugee space, I know how much work goes into resettlement and reunification. I also know exactly what is involved in redeeming miles at scale.
The effort required to combine the two cannot be overstated.
So if you feel compelled to help in some way, but don’t have the miles or cash to spare, consider reaching out to one of the above organizations (or any charity supporting a cause you feel strongly about), and offering to volunteer.
It may not seem like much, but I can speak firsthand to how valuable it can be to have even a few hours of help making calls or stuffing envelopes. In addition to taking some of the workload off the organization’s staff or regular volunteers, just knowing there are others interested and supportive of the same goals can be so helpful for morale in a tough environment.
Truly, it all helps.
Airlines could do much more here
With the exception of Aeroplan, it doesn’t seem that most programs make the donation process particularly easy for organizations that want to use the miles as miles. In many cases points can’t be easily pooled or transferred without a fee, which means that pledges from donors who only have a handful of miles might still languish unused.
Helping specific and credible organizations streamline the donation and redemption process wouldn’t necessarily take much work on the backend, but would have a tremendous impact.
It’s unfortunate that the major carriers haven’t been more proactive about this, but maybe the increased attention will inspire some process changes.
I tend to feel that donating miles to mainstream organizations isn’t an ideal option — in many cases the charity isn’t getting miles that can be easily or practically used, and the airline, not the donor, receives the tax credit.
If you do want to give miles, look to a group like Miles4Migrants or Give A Mile, who actually know about and understand miles. They are better equipped to extend the benefits you receive from your miles to others, which is likely what you’re after when considering a mileage donation. But even groups like that have costs and expenses that can’t be covered with miles.
At the end of the day, any contribution to an ethical charity that supports a cause you care about is better than nothing, regardless of the form the donation takes.
Have you donated miles, or worked with a charity that receives mileage donations? How did it work?