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How to use your credit card rewards to donate to coronavirus relief

CNBC Select reviews your options to donate your credit card rewards to a charitable organization during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The coronavirus pandemic has delivered an unprecedented blow to the U.S. economy. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that U.S. employment fell by 701,000 in March, and the numbers will be much worse in April with more than 10 million people having filed for unemployment in the last two weeks.

While some workers are applying for unemployment, others are on the front line, exposing themselves to peril and donning face masks and protective gear as they treat people who are sick, disabled or elderly.

As we scramble to protect our most vulnerable and support our dedicated workers, nonprofit organizations are releasing action plans and requests for donations. The American Red Cross is calling for additional blood donations, and Feeding America started a COVID-19 Response Fund to help food banks feed the recently laid-off and their families, including children who no longer have access to school lunches.

Celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Dolly Parton have donated in a variety of ways, from helping small businesses stay afloat to supporting coronavirus research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In Italy, Donatella Versace donated €200,000 to a hospital in Milan to address supply shortages.

It can be more difficult for the average American to contribute during such uncertain times. If you want to donate to the frontlines but need to use your stimulus check for more pressing expenses, you might be able to donate your unused credit card rewards points or miles in a few ways, depending on your credit card rewards program.

Below, we go over exactly what your options are when donating your credit card rewards to a charitable organization so that you can give back without breaking the budget.

Donating credit card rewards to charitable organizations

There are a few ways you can donate your rewards points or miles to a charitable cause, including:

  1. Issuer rewards donation programs
  2. Airline miles programs
  3. Hotel points programs
  4. Credit cards for charitable giving
  5. Buying and donating gift cards

One thing to note: Donating your rewards is not always tax-deductible since the IRS sees them as discounts or rebates, not taxable income. But this could change if the rewards platform you use sends your donation through a 501(c)(3). If this is the case, you will likely receive a tax receipt. Before you claim it on your taxes, we advise speaking with a CPA or other tax professional first.

Issuer rewards donation programs

Not every card issuer has a formal rewards donation program, but some allow you to redeem your rewards as donations to your favorite causes. Currently, the following card issuers offer this rewards redemption option:

  • American Express — If your card earns Membership Rewards® points, like the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, you can donate to more than 1.5 million registered U.S. charities thanks to Amex's partnership with JustGiving. Currently. American Express is matching all charitable donations made to Feeding America up to $1,000,000 in total donations.
  • Discover — With Discover's charitable giving program, cardmembers can donate their Cashback Bonus® rewards to a variety of organizations including the American Red Cross. To donate, call 1-800-DISCOVER or donate online through your Discover Card Account Center. So if you have the Discover it® chrome, for example, you could donate to coronavirus relief efforts today.
  • Citi  — Citi Premier℠ and Citi Prestige® cardholders can redeem their ThankYou® Points for a charitable gift made payable to the American Red Cross in denominations of $25, $50, $75 and $100.

Airline miles programs

  • American Airlines — Donate your miles to organizations in one of three categories: social good, well being and heroes. Log in to learn more.
  • Alaska Air — The LIFT Miles program offers Mileage Plan™ members a way to support important causes. You can donate your miles to help charities with business travel for causes like disaster relief, global health, education and others.
  • Delta — Donate your Delta miles to the American Red Cross, breast cancer research and other causes.
  • Hawaiian Airlines  — Cardmembers can donate to organizations representing one of four pillar areas: culture, education, environment and health and human services. 
  • JetBlue — You can donate TrueBlue points to charities including the American Red Cross and the nonprofit disaster relief and health organization Americares.
  • Southwest — Give your Southwest miles to organizations like Team Rubicon, which is deploying veterans and first responders to safely serve communities and individuals impacted by COVID-19.
  • United Airlines — Through United's MileagePlus Miles on a Mission program, you can donate rewards to Americares and the Dream Foundation, among others. United is matching all coronavirus-related donations, mile for mile, through June 30, 2020 to help support those impacted across the country.

Hotel points programs

  • Choice Privileges — Members can use points to donate to a large selection of causes like education, human trafficking and global health.
  • Hilton — Hilton Honors members can create a PointWorthy  account and link it to your Hilton account, then you donate your Hilton points to thousands of charities.
  • IHG Rewards Club — Currently, IHG is asking members to donate to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to support communities affected by the pandemic.
  • Marriott Bonvoy — Marriot Bonvoy members can pick from an extensive list of organizations and causes to donate to.
  • Wyndham Rewards — Log in to donate your points to a large catalog of participating organizations.

Credit cards for charitable giving

These credit cards provide automatic ways to donate to your favorite causes:

Susan G. Komen® Cash Rewards Visa® — Bank of America guarantees to donate $3 for every Susan G. Komen Cash Rewards Visa that is opened, plus 0.08% of the total of all retail purchases made by each card. And when you use your card actively (meaning there is not a $0 balance) and it remains in good standing, Bank of America will donate an additional $3 for every annual renewal. You'll earn rewards at the following rates:

  • 3% cash back in the category of your choice: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement/furnishings*
  • 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs*
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases.

*Earn at the 3% and 2% cash back levels on up to $2,500 in combined spending every quarter, then 1%.

Charity Charge Mastercard — This card, backed by Commerce Bank, is the only credit card that automatically donates the cash back you earn to a nonprofit organization of your choice. Here's how the rewards break down:

  • 1% cash back to the nonprofits, K-12 schools, colleges and religious organizations of your choice
  • Support up to three causes at a time (and change them whenever you want)
  • Your donations will be considered tax deductible

World Wildlife Fund Credit Card — Bank of America guarantees to donate $3 for every World Wildlife Fund Rewards Visa that is opened, plus 0.08% of the total of all retail purchases made by each card. And when you use your card actively (meaning there is not a $0 balance) and it remains in good standing, Bank of America will donate an additional $3 for every annual renewal. You'll earn rewards at the following rates:

  • 3% cash back in the category of your choice: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement/furnishings*
  • 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs*
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases.

*Earn at the 3% and 2% cash back levels on up to $2,500 in combined spending every quarter, then 1%.

Buying and donating gift cards

In addition to formal rewards donation programs, you can also buy retail and restaurant gift cards with rewards and donate their value to food banks with the CharityChoice gift card program. Donate the value of a gift card you redeem with your credit card rewards, or the residual balance from a gift card you already have. On the CharityChoice gift card website, you'll choose your local food back and enter in the account number and details from your gift card. The value will then be sent to the organization for them to use at their discretion. 

You don't always get the best redemption rate when you redeem rewards for gift cards, so we only recommend this approach if you have a credit card that doesn't offer direct donations as an option.

As of now, this method is best if you have a Chase rewards credit card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. When cardmembers log in to the Chase Ultimate Rewards® Portal, they'll see the choice to redeem points for gift cards to retail locations, convenience stores and restaurants.

Typically, Capital One cardmembers can redeem their rewards for gift cards, but the company has temporarily suspended this redemption method.

"We can't issue gift cards right now due to COVID-19 constraints. While we work on it, check out other ways to redeem rewards," Capital One writes on its website.

Organizations on the frontlines 

If you need additional help deciding which organizations to donate to, here are just a few organizations that have released action plans for COVID-19 relief:

  1. Not sure how to find your local food bank? Feeding America lets you search for your zip code on its website. Once you find it, use your credit card points to buy gift cards and donate them to your food bank through CharityChoice
  2. Looking to support the World Health Organization? UNICEF is partnering with WHO on a global pandemic response, and you can donate to UNICEF with a number of loyalty programs, including Delta and Marriott Bonvoy.
  3. Want to protect future generations? Give to Save the Children with your Wyndham Rewards points.
  4. Stretch your United Miles further. United has pledged to match up to $500,000 in donations toward those impacted by COVID-19 with its United's Miles on a Mission campaign.

Information about the Bank of America cards, Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, Discover it® chrome, Citi Premier℠ and Citi Prestige® has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.