Here’s What Happens When You Donate A Car To A Nonprofit

Aug 8, 2019

Fundraising is essential to nonprofits, and many organizations don’t just accept cash donations anymore. Public radio listeners may recognize the messages that describe how to donate old cars, RVs and other vehicles.


Good Question! asker Rachelle Haynik wanted to know what happens to vehicles after they’re donated.

CARS CEO Howard Pearl shakes the hand of Good Question! asker Rachelle Haynik at the WESA studios on the South Side.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA


“At first I thought maybe they get scrapped because some of the ads say, ‘even if your car doesn’t run, you can still donate it,’” Haynik said. “So I thought they might just recycle the metal.”


That’s not typically the case, according to Howard Pearl, CEO of Charitable Adult Rides and Services (CARS). The San Diego-based nonprofit works with organizations interested in having supporters donate vehicles. Pearl said generally they sell them at auctions.


“We have 400 vendors across the country,” Pearl said. “So we can reach a decent auction close to where most vehicles are donated.”


After the donor makes the call to a nonprofit, an employee from CARS schedules to have it picked up or towed away. Squirrel Hill resident Joel Saks recently donated his 1994 Toyota Tercel and said the process was relatively simple: he called and scheduled with CARS and the tow company, then made sure his title was signed over to CARS and notarized before pickup.


Joel Saks (right) talks with Tim from the local towing company about the receipt he'll receive after donating his 1994 Toyota Tercel to WESA on Wednesday, August 7, 2019. Saks says he's previously donated vehicles to WQED and the former WDUQ.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“It’s bittersweet to give [the car] up, but the mechanic said, ‘time to pack it in.’”


Once the towing company delivers the vehicle to CARS, the company makes minor repairs like a battery replacement or cosmetic work, Pearl said, and then washes it and sends it off.


If a vehicle is at the end of its life, the parts will be sold to disassemblers, where workers reclaim metals or recycle the plastics. There’s often a demand for those parts in other countries.


“If I can get two good doors off of that, I can put those in a container, send them overseas and probably get $3,000,” Pearl said.


After CARS calculates the selling price and factors in the cost of repairs, it sends 80-cents on the dollar to whatever nonprofit the donor requested. Donors get a thank you note or a tax credit form, depending on how much money their vehicle brought in. And Pearl said it’s not just cars they receive.


“We take boats, we’ve been given the occasional airplane,” Pearl said.

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.


The stories that accompany vehicles are the most interesting part of the exchange. Pearl said one family gifted a minivan in which their firstborn child and twins were born -- they didn’t quite make it to the hospital.


“We get loving stories about taking your last kid to college and realizing you’re an empty-nester in that car,” Pearl said. “It’s really endearing, there’s just so many stories.”


"It's bittersweet," says Joel Saks, who donated a car he bought in California in 1994.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

When listeners call the CARS phone line, they can record a story about why they’re giving up their vehicle. Pearl said he hopes to collect enough stories to write a book someday.


The biggest motivator for people to clear out their garages is the desire to benefit a nonprofit, but often a vehicle is donated because “you want to dispose of it,” Pearl said.


“Research shows it’s, ‘we gotta get rid of this thing.’”


The most popular season to donate is around the holidays. In December 2017, CARS took in 12,000 vehicles.