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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/19/12

Vehicles for Change: Unload that Clunker and Do Good!

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My guest today is Martin Schwartz, president of Vehicles for Change. Welcome to OpEdNews, Marty. Please tell our readers a little about your organization. 

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  Marty Schwartz

Vehicles for Change (VFC) is a nonprofit organization that repairs and provides donated cars to low income families so they may gain or maintain employment. VFC opened in October 1999 awarding three cars to worthy families in Carroll County, MD. Since then, we have awarded more than 3,700 cars and changed the lives of over 10,000 individuals. VFC is the largest and considered by many to be the premier program of its type in the country now serving Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC.

Our most recent outcomes survey revealed 75% of Vehicles for Change (VfC) recipients obtained better jobs/promotions and increased their income by an average of $7,277.00.

Recipients feel better about themselves, the independence they have gained and what they can do for their children. They are feeling healthier and less stressed. They are attending religious services on a regular basis, caring for aging family members, and spending more time with family and friends.

Most importantly, their car has helped strengthen the family structure. The children have more opportunities than ever. After school activities, sports, and recreational programs are the most common. All customers stated they are now able to get their children to doctor's appointments and daycare.

This sounds fabulous. Where did VFC come from? How did you get started with this project?

Vehicles for Change was the brainchild of an autoparts company, Precision Certipro. They sold auto parts to garages and wanted to create a nonprofit that gave back to the community.  I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and was invited to be the first director of the program and was given the chance to bring the program to life in April, 1999. I was given a $20,000 grant and a $10,000 loan. Unfortunately, Precision went out of business in 2002. At that point, VFC was strong enough to stand on it own and has since grown to a $4M organization serving resident of the MD/VA region.

You have a big event coming up very soon. What can you tell us about it?

The event was created to bring awareness to the trials of living life without personal transportation for low income families. The majority (85%) of the families we serve are single mothers with two-three children. This event will pair five local business and political leaders with one of our families. They will spend the morning traveling together to work, daycare or doctors office via public transportation. The leaders will get a first hand feel as to how it is to live without a car.

Following the morning of travel the folks convened at the Congressional Auditorium for lunch and a panel discussion which is open to the public.

The same event was held in Baltimore in October 2011 and was very successful. 

Marty presents another car to another VFC recipient and family

What a powerful concept.  What kind of feedback have you gotten from these events?

The feedback has been incredible not only for those being introduced to the trials of our car recipients but even for our staff and board members who also tag along. Personally, I joined a family at the October event in Baltimore. Remember I developed the VFC concept and have been the Executive Director since 1999. I was shocked by what these women must endure to survive life on public transit. The woman that I followed got her three children (twin two year olds and a four year old) up at 5am dressed and fed by six. She walked the four year old to school up the street then caught her first bus and walked six blocks to drop the twins off at daycare. Then the six block walk back to the bus downtown to Baltimore to the light rail for a 20 minute ride and a half mile walk so she could get to her first (yes, first job) at 10am at $8.50 an hour. Of course, at the end of a long day behind the cash register, she had the same 90 minute trek back home. That is if she did not head right to her second job (her mom watched the kids on those days). AND when I asked her how often she did this she said every day "but it is not that bad" with a smile on her face.

Honestly, I would last about two weeks or until the first rainy day when I got to work and was soaked. That would be the end for me. These ladies are truly superstars. They give a new meaning to "doing whatever it takes to provide for your family".  Each of our guests who travel with these women come away with the exact same impression.

You and I met because we donated the car that my son was driving while a student at the University of Maryland. Michael graduated a few weeks ago and we didn't think the car would make it back to Chicago in one piece. Hence, Vehicles for Change. You're a fellow Terp (named after the mascot for UMd). Was this work your first after graduating? Was this what you set out to do? What you saw yourself doing while a student?

There's a loaded question. I was one of those kids who graduated from college without a clue as to what the world held for me. I obtained a degree in accounting and figured I would do something in my field but have always been drawn to working with people, mostly with children. I have been a coach since I was 16.

After spending three miserable years as an auditor, I found myself gravitating toward athletics and coaching. I worked at a private high school, a community college and at UMBC morphing into a marketing and fund raising professional for athletics. In 1996, I started my own business that was an online recruiting service for high school athletes wanting to go to college. After two years of futile effort (the internet was not quite ready for this product in "96) I found myself looking for a new career.

I think you could call it destiny that I found myself talking to a group of people about how I would get cars in the hands of low income families. It did not hurt that I had the accounting, business and development background. They gave me a $30,000 grant and a pat on the back.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the right place at the right time. This was not luck, it was where I was supposed to be. I love what I do and the difference it makes in the lives of our families. 
I think you and Vehicles for Change really do change lives. I can see clearly how  potential recipients would be thrilled to participate in your program. What do you offer to potential car donors? Is it hard rustling up cars for your people? 

our recently donated '98 with 100,000+ miles that netted VFC $500

Finding cars has always been the most difficult part of the VFC program. Donated cars are used in two ways:

1. The obvious use is those that are provided to our worthy families 

2. Then, there are cars donated that do not meet our requirements to be awarded to a family. These are sold and 100% of those funds are used to prepare the cars that will go to a family. This funding provides VFC with 30% of its operating funds.

VFC is able to provide a better tax advantage than most any other nonprofit accepting donated cars. That is because in 2005, the IRS changed the tax law and the deductible amount a donor could take on their return. The new tax law only allows the donor to deduct the fair market value if the car is donated to a nonprofit whose mission is to provide transportation to low-income families and that car is the sold to a low-income family at significantly below market. The fair market value is the highest possible amount a donor can deduct. All other nonprofits sell the cars outright, mostly at auctions. Those donors can only deduct the selling price. The fair market value is usually approximately double the selling price. So, those donors with a good car will achieve twice the deductible amount if they donate that car to VFC.

Finally, most nonprofits work with a third party who handles the car donation, towing and sale of the vehicle. This not only reduces the total amount going back to the nonprofit but may impact the selling price and could impact the amount of the donor deduction. VFC handles all donations in-house. Car donations are brought to the VFC location and reviewed to determine the best use of the vehicle and how to maximize the deduction for our donor.

That's the VFC Tax Advantage.

Everyone  wins - donors, recipients and VFC - from this set-up. How often can you say that? And, having just donated a car, I can personally attest that the process was painless and easy.  What would you like to add before we wrap this up, Marty?

Every time someone donates a car, Joan. If the car is one which will not be awarded to a family but will be sold outright, (donor wins) we assure the donor the top sales amount (thus, tax deduction) by reviewing the vehicle and making a determination as to the best avenue to sell the vehicle to bring the absolute highest selling price. That could be one of our four auction houses or our used car lot, Freedom Wheels. VFC wins by receiving the highest possible value for the vehicle and the recipient wins because VFC now has the funds to prepare their car.

If the car is a keeper the win, win, win is obvious. The car is repaired and provided to our family, the donor gets the highest possible deduction and VFC serves another worthy family. I think we have covered it all. Thanks for all your help.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Marty. I'm so glad you were unhappy as an auditor. Good luck with Vehicles for Change. I think you're definitely onto something!

Contact info: vehiclesforchange .org/

All photos by Kim Hernandez
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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