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Making a Difference, One Clunker at a Time

East Grand Forks, MN, 04/01/1997 -- Humane Soc...

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Virtually everyone has had the experience of having an old car that has finally outlived its usefulness, and poses the disposal dilemma. Is it worth trying to sell for parts, or pay someone to tow away – or is the car donation concept worth pursuing? Practiced by many nonprofits as a fundraising measure, the idea  is still not widely seen as having a significant impact, but it may indeed be coming to scale.

onPhilanthropy spoke with Jeanene O’Brien, who oversees the One Car One Difference program for Insurance Auto Auctions.

More than 12 million vehicles are de-registered annually, but only approximately 3.5 million are sold through salvage auctions, mostly by automobile insurance companies, So the question is, what happens to the rest? 

 O’Brien explained that anecdotal discussions indicate that many people have cars that they’d like to get rid of, but don’t want to deal with selling or junking a low-value car. Insurance Auto Auctions began to look at it from a big-picture perspective.

 The business model fits beautifully. We have been doing this over 15 years, but we decided we needed to assist the nonprofits with marketing and encouraging donations. We’d found there was limited awareness among the general public about the difference that donating cars could make for community organizations. We developed One Car One Difference to be able to build awareness and provide a platform for encouraging donations, in addition to managing the donation process for them.

 John Berry, CEO & Executive Director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, spoke of some of the unique challenges in incorporating One Car One Difference into his organization, which has hundreds of local chapters. “The Society has run car donation programs locally,” he said. “But when we began in 20008 to look at consolidating the programs, it became rather divisive.”  Berry explained that most of the local programs depended on car donations for much of their budget, so it was difficult at first to get buy-in from programs who feared its impact would hurt them. The solution was to keep revenues from car donations at the local level in states where the chapters had such programs, and the revenues in states that did not would flow to the national level. Berry said the revenues were substantial: “It’s generated half a million dollars in the first 8 months, and we expect it to bring in $1 million for the first full year.”

 Another challenge for St. Vincent de Paul organizations is that its chapters often accepted donations of cars that could then be given to people in need, in addition to the cars that were processed for revenue. Through the platform provided by One Car One Difference, the technology facilitates accepting the car for either purpose.

 The One Car One Difference program drew upon research which indicated that individual donors perceived that a car donation would make little difference to a nonprofit organization. But if they feel connected to the organization’s mission, and learn what impact that old car will have, they have a better incentive to make the donation.

Jeanene O’Brien  explained that by translating the donation into terms such as “Your donation can enable 2 boys to go to camp, or buy X pounds of groceries for a food bank, donors can appreciate how that car can make a difference.”

 O’Brien explained that a group of “Benefactor Charities,” major nonprofits identified on the website, such as the Yellow Ribbon Coalition, American Heart Association, National Kidney Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States were working with One Car One Difference to spread the word that car donations can indeed make a difference in important causes.

 Not to mention leaving a whole lot of driveways looking much more attractive.

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