Car donations must be vetted

November 06, 2007 -- LIZ WOLGEMUTH -

It seems so simple. As the radio jingle says, call 1-877-Kars4kids, and “donate your car today.”

Not only will you get a tax deduction and a voucher for a two-night hotel stay, you also get the satisfaction of knowing that all the proceeds of your donation will help provide food, clothing, education and guidance to children between 6 and 18 years old, as the Kars4Kids Web site says.

Cars donated through Kars4Kids actually go to the Lakewood, N.J.-based nonprofit JOY for Our Youth, which uses the catchier Kars4Kids name in its fundraising efforts.

And the vast majority of JOY’s program services dollars go to another organization that shares its same New Jersey address and devotes its efforts to orthodox Jewish education.

The confusing chain of charities behind the simple radio ad highlights a problem for many donors who want to better understand where their contribution is going, particularly when it comes to car donations.

“Sadly, the onus is really on the donor,” said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, which evaluates and rates the country’s largest nonprofits.

Car donations lately have drawn the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. A tax law instituted in 2005 requires that taxpayers receive a charity’s written confirmation of their donation before they claim a tax deduction, and it limits the deduction to the gross proceeds from the sale of the vehicle by the charity.

Many donors approach car donations in the wrong way, Miniutti said.

Rather than simply handing over a car for the benefit of the deduction – or the two-night hotel stay – donors should look at what the charity does with the proceeds of the car’s sale, she said.

Plenty of Illinois charities accept car donations through intermediary organizations, many of which are for-profit, but Miniutti recommends finding a charity that accepts them directly.

The nonprofit Marklund at Mill Creek in Geneva accepts cars directly, as well as riding lawn mowers, golf carts, airplanes, boats and RVs.

Mutual Ground, a nonprofit shelter for domestic abuse victims in Aurora, also accepts car donations, according to its Web site.

In 2005, $2.8 million of JOY’s $3.1 million total program services expenses went to an organization called Oorah, according to JOY’s 501 (c)3 tax form for 2005.

Phone calls to JOY for Our Youth and Oorah were not immediately returned.

Oorah’s goal, according to its Web site, is to awaken Jewish children and their families to their heritage, by sending them to Jewish day schools, or yeshivos, or even helping pay for their airfare to, or education in, Israel.

“While the children learn and grow, we bring adult education opportunities to the parents, as well as all the ritual objects and support they need to live a full Jewish life,” the organization reports.

Although Oorah’s goal might be admirable, its evasive marketing efforts are not, said Rabbi Maralee Gordon of the McHenry County Jewish Congregation.

“Jewish education of children is of utmost importance in Judaism,” Gordon said. But any deception in the organization’s marketing would be strongly against Jewish ethics, she said.

The Better Business Bureau has said the charity did not meet four of its 20 standards for charity accountability. JOY just missed the BBB’s standard that 65 percent of its total expenses go to program service activities, as it spent 64 percent on programs.

Oorah spent 52 percent of its expenses on program services and 32 percent on fundraising. Miniutti said the typical organization evaluated by Charity Navigator spends 75 percent on program services and 10 percent on advertising.

JOY also does not meet the BBB’s standard for including a detailed functional breakdown of expenses, for making detailed information available on its Web site, and also for providing information on how it protects the personal information of donors.

Tips on donating your car

– Donate to a charity that accepts cars directly

– Drive a usable car to the charity yourself, to lower its costs

– Make sure the organization is a non-profit to ensure the donation is tax deductible

– Be sure to formally sign the car over and reassign its ownership

– Value the car correctly for the deduction. Visit for guidelines.

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