Thinking of donating your car, Tampa Bay? How’s that work anyway?

Sue Carlton, Tampa Bay Times
·4 min read

For Sue Hicks, it was the right car at the right time.

It was a pampered Pontiac Grand Prix, only 4 years old and previously driven by an elderly woman who clocked a mere 4,000 miles. And the price was right.

“The perfect car ... exactly what I needed and wanted,” said Hicks, a realtor who lives in Palm Harbor.

Many miles and more than a dozen years later, Hicks found herself the owner of an SUV that a friend left to her in his will. She wanted her old car to go somewhere it was needed.

Enter WMNF 88.5-FM, the eclectic community radio station in Tampa.

“Is your car ‘driving’ you crazy because of high gasoline prices? Do you want to unload your boat instead of finding safe harbor for it AGAIN this hurricane season? Instead of going through the hassle of selling them, you can donate your car or boat, as well as motor homes and trucks and other vehicles to WMNF!” the station’s website says with enthusiasm.

Hicks did, with just the smallest twinge as she watched her old car be towed away that morning.

“I felt really good about it,” she said. “Any little way to make a difference is really welcome to me.”

From animal shelters to cancer research groups, organizations large and small have long looked to vehicle donations to boost their budgets. That funding source got even more important in a year when the coronavirus pandemic hit charities and nonprofits hard.

And no, your car doesn’t need to run for them to want it.

“As long as there’s clear title, and it can get on a tow truck, we’ll take it,” said Scott Nolan, who manages fundraising at WUSF Public Media, which broadcasts National Public Radio and other programs at 89.7-FM.

Organizations from Habitat for Humanity to Susan G. Komen take car donations. Many groups also take RVs, motorcycles, golf carts, water scooters, farm equipment and, on rare occasions, even planes. To see if a favorite organization has a car donation program, donors can call, visit the website, or search online for the group’s name and “car donation.”

Donors can also consult Charity Navigator at charitynavigator.org for evaluations of organizations.

People donate for lots of reasons: They’re downsizing. After a year of pandemic-induced telecommuting, they’re considering whether their household needs more than one car. Maybe a relative passed away and left a car behind. Maybe that car unused in the driveway won’t get much if it’s sold. And maybe they want to support a favorite cause.

Organizations that take cars tick off the benefits: You avoid the hassle of selling to strangers. You can claim a charitable deduction for a donation if you itemize on your taxes. You can support a cause you like.

Many organizations work with companies that handle the logistics of all this, such as the nonprofit, California-based Charitable Adult Rides & Services, or CARS.

“It’s really a simple program,” said CEO Howard Pearl.

An organization usually details how the program works, along with a form and phone number, on its website. A vehicle must have a title, and boats may be required to be on a trailer. Once scheduled, a tow truck comes to take it away.

”It was really quite simple,” said Hicks.

Vehicles may be auctioned off to be resold. They can be sold for parts or recycled. Occasionally, a donated car is kept by the organization to be used in its fleet.

“And you donate it to an organization you really love and support,” Pearl said. Generally, 70 to 80 percent of what’s made goes back to that organization, he said.

And yes, vehicles are occasionally refused, such as an RV that had too much mold inside or a car with a lien on it.

At WMNF, donations have been a boost in the pandemic when the station hasn’t held in-person events like benefit concerts that help sustain it.

“This is a very, very important revenue source,” said Laura Taylor, WMNF’s director of development.

Nolan at WUSF said the station took in 220 vehicles last year, bringing in more than $340,000.

“It ends up being a pretty significant source of support for the work we do: the journalism, the classical music, the jazz,” he said.

Not all donated cars are clunkers. A late-model Porsche was once given to WUSF. (They did not keep it for station use.)

Michael Clayton, who lives in Brandon and has a lawn business, had a 1987 Nissan 300ZX he bought as a pet project. Clayton also likes the mix of music and programs such as Democracy Now! on WMNF.

“I thought I’d be able to sell (the car) someday, but when it wouldn’t crank ... I just thought, ‘Let’s give it to the station,’” he said.

“I don’t know what they got out of it, but it must have been a little something,” he said.