What's the deal with vehicle donation? How's it all work — and how much money goes to your local NPR station, anyway? Good questions! To get answers to these and other questions, Car Talk recently sat down with three of our pals who manage our Car Talk Vehicle Donation Program, Mark Jones, Deb Blakeley and Joe Hearn. Here's what they had to say.


Car Talk: To be perfectly honest, this industry seems a bit shady. Is this one of those situations where someone is skimming all the money?

Mark: Vehicle donation did have a shady rep for some of its early years, but a lot of that has changed in the past decade, as reputable organizations have rightfully risen to the top. You still have to be careful and do a little homework, of course, to make sure the donation company you work with has got the interest of both the charity and the donor firmly in mind.

Car Talk: How do you do that?

Deb: You absolutely need to insist on knowing what percent of the gross sale price of the vehicle goes to the charity. We look for a number of around 50% to indicate that a program is being run reasonably efficient.

If a vehicle donation company won't give you this number, then you can safely assume they don't want you to know. You can also check the IRS' Form 990 for charities, to get this number, or the California Attorney General's office for more info.

Car Talk: Do these programs pick up my car? Or do I have to take a day off from work and wait forever for a tow truck driver?

Deb: Most, but not all, vehicle donation programs pick up vehicles. If they don't, think twice about donating through them. The most efficient programs do not require you to be with the car for pick up. Instead, they'll ask you to mail in the title.

 

Mark: In our case, you'll receive a call from our tow service to arrange a convenient time and location for the pick up. You do not need to be present when your car is towed. We pick up newer cars right away, and older cars within a few days of receiving your paperwork.

 

Car Talk: Will you take any car?

Deb: Yes. In fact, we even take motorcycles, RVs, boats, and even airplanes. We're still waiting for our first B-1 bomber. Or maybe an aircraft carrier? All we really need is a title or proof of ownership, though there are a few restrictions on some of these vehicles. And especially the aircraft carrier!

Mark: We once had a frantic call from a gentleman in Texas who needed his ailing RV towed that day, or he'd face a huge fine. We managed to quickly find a tow truck big enough to haul it off. KUHF got a nice gift out of it, too!

 

Car Talk: What kind of car is going to most benefit a non-profit? It doesn't seem worth bothering to do this if the car is going to be sold for ten bucks and ground into dog food.

Joe: The best donation is a car that's less than 12 years old and in reasonable condition. We'll sell it for the highest possible revenue, by putting it out to bid to our network of buyers in the wholesale used car market.

To understand how much a late model vehicle can gross, versus a junker, check out our website. And keep in mind, even dog food can help support programming on our favorite station! It's how Tom and Ray fed themselves in the early years of Car Talk. Or so we've heard.

Car Talk: So, word is out about that, huh? We didn't realize that. How much does the radio or TV station get?

Mark: In our program, the average net to stations across all vehicles is generally around $300 to $400 per vehicle, but that varies widely by geographic area and the price of scrap steel, so the price varies with the state of the economy, as you might imagine. Our long-term average is about 60% of gross and 75% of net.

Car Talk: I've never itemized deductions on my taxes. Will donating have any financial value for me if I don't itemize?

Mark: You do need to itemize to get the deduction. To quote from our good friends at the IRS, "For taxpayers, the decision to itemize is determined by whether their total itemized deductions are greater than the standard deduction."

Of course, regardless of whether you decide to take the deduction, you can still feel good about turning your vehicle into the radio or TV programs you love.

Car Talk: How do I claim the tax deduction?

Joe: We'll send you a tax receipt for the contribution, and if your vehicle sold for $500 or more, we'll also send you the IRS form 1098C to claim the deduction.

 

Car Talk: What's the most you've ever gotten for a donated car?

Mark: We recently sold a 2002 BMW X5 for $17,600. That netted WBUR $15,100! If only every donation were like that, All Things Considered would be broadcasting from a penthouse on Fifth Avenue!