For many Americans, charity begins at home and ends up going through the personal income tax offices of 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Checkoff boxes that let taxpayers convert part of their tax refunds into donations to good causes have proliferated on the front pages of state tax forms to such a degree that, in some states, tax calculations are pushed inside the return to make room for them.Alabama taxpayers have had as many as nine checkoff boxes. California has eight. Virginia and Rhode Island have seven each.

Typically, the donations go to state committees authorized to distribute grants to individuals, institutions and organizations doing work in a field related to the cause represented by the checkoff box.

The most popular checkoff, and the only one in the state of New York, is protecting wildlife. Contributions to state political campaign funds are available in 21 states. Nineteen states help to raise funds to prevent child abuse. Six will channel funds to Olympic committees.

The checkoffs are viewed as a painless way to help environmental, medical and social programs at a time of state budget crunches.

The money harvested by checkoff boxes pales alongside the $64.3 billion in charitable donations listed last year by those who filed itemized deductions on their federal income tax returns. (The total for all philanthropy in the United States is estimated at $126 billion annually.)

But the big difference for the groups benefiting from the checkoff funds is this: They do not have to spend money to raise money.

"It's almost like money falling from heaven," said Kelly Watts, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial project in Holmdel, N.J., a public subscription fund that has raised nearly a half-million dollars through a checkoff box on New Jersey returns. "These are people we might not otherwise find for contributions."

A checkoff box to help finance presidential campaigns has been on federal tax returns since 1972, and Colorado became the first state to have a checkoff box for something other than political campaign contributions - in 1977 for the protection of wildlife.

The concept was widely adopted by other states. Most offered people who are owed refunds a chance to donate $1 to $10 of their refunds to the listed causes via checkoff boxes. Several states have expanded the checkoffs to all taxpayers, so those people who are not getting refunds can send in extra money in the tax payments as donations.

In 1983, there were 67 funds in 33 states. By 1992, the Federation of Tax Administrators, a Washington-based group of state revenue-collecting agents, was able to identify 144 checkoff funds that raised $27.8 million.

Michigan, with three checkoff boxes, pulled in the most of any state, $2.9 million, followed by $2.7 million in Minnesota, with two boxes and $2.7 million in California with seven.

Even so, the survey showed that in most states, fewer than 1 in 50 tax returns came back with a marked checkoff box.

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Arkansas, with five boxes, attracted only $33,000, among the lowest state totals, although the average amount contributed by those who marked the box to protect wildlife, $10.23, was among the highest in the nation.

Causes rise and fall in popularity, sometimes losing their luster between the time legislation adding a checkoff box is passed and the next year's tax forms are printed.

In Colorado, for instance, veterans groups in 1991 thought it was a good idea to have a box to raise a bonus for Persian Gulf War veterans in the state. But it was well into 1992, more than a year after the war's end, before taxpayers saw the new forms. Altogether, the 7,664 veterans eligible for the bonus each received an average of $12.65 from the $97,026 contributed.

Some states have provisions to purge a checkoff box if a cause fails to attract a set proportion of taxpayers. Other checkoffs, like the Colorado veterans provisions, are on returns for a set number of years and are then automatically removed. But many checkoffs hang on whether or not they get much support.

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