The Good News Garage gives a lift to people who need cars in order to get jobs

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After many years and many miles of steady service, the trusty old station wagon still starts up every morning, but the body is dinged up, repair bills loom and, worst of all, the cup holder is broken. Time for a new car—but what to do with the old one? It’s worth little if anything as a trade-in, and trying to sell it privately involves a lot of hassle, with not necessarily much of a return. For many, this is when appeals to “donate your car to charity” start to sound good.

While some 1-800-number car donation operations do get some money into charitable coffers, they generally don’t give old cars new homes. They mostly sell off donated cars, including roadworthy ones, at low wholesale auction prices or even for scrap. What gets given to charity is the little that’s left over after expenses and overhead for running these outfits, which are often, in fact, for-profit entities.

But there is at least one program that actually does turn roadworthy older cars over to drivers who desperately need them—namely, low-income people who are ready to get off welfare but cannot afford the car they need to get to work. The Good News Garage, operated by Lutheran Social Services of New England, accepts donated cars that are drivable, repairs them if necessary, and gets their steering wheels into the hands of people who would otherwise miss out on jobs, often because they can’t get to training sessions or drop the kids off at day care. Recipients pay back some of the repair costs, often with financial assistance. Donated cars that are too expensive to fix are kept for parts or sold at auction, with the proceeds used to underwrite repair of vehicles that will get new owners.

Old cars go to people ready to get off welfare.
Though Vermont–based Good News runs welfare-to-work programs across New England, it is not currently doing so in Massachusetts. “The bulk of people who need but cannot afford cars are those coming off welfare,” says Good News president and CEO Chris Hendrickson. “We’d love to work with a social services agency to do more welfare-to-work programs in Massachusetts.”

Good News lost its toehold in the Bay State in 2003, when the Romney administration cut about $120,000 in funding for Good News to match cars to people through the Department of Transitional Assistance’s Access to Jobs program. But after a successful demonstration program with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission last year, DTA may reinstate its donated car component, according to DTA spokesman Brigitte Walsh.

During the six-month Mass Rehab program, Good News matched cars to about 20 people who had finished rehabilitation and had lined up jobs but had no way to get to them. “People who could get to their jobs with public transportation were not eligible, and car recipients were responsible to pay for registration and six months of insurance,” says Hendrickson. “The goal was to get them working and back into society.”

Founded in 1996 and now with locations in four New England states, Good News Garage—the name is used with permission of the Cambridge repair shop of the same name run by the Magliozzi brothers of Car Talk fame—has assisted more than 2,000 individuals and families in the move from welfare to work, says Hendrickson. A University of Vermont study found that 75 percent of those who received Good News cars were off welfare within six months. But as a small nonprofit, Good News has a hard time getting out its own good news.

“People are just simply not aware of the unique opportunity they have to give a roadworthy vehicle to Good News Garage,” says Tom Langdon, director of development in the Wellesley office of Lutheran Social Services of New England. “We suffer because these other used-car brokers overwhelm the market with advertising.”

But a change in the federal tax code may give programs like Good News Garage a leg up in the car donation game. Donors have been able to deduct full book value of their cars, or even more, but beginning this year, the Internal Revenue Service allows deductions only for what the car sells for. So if a donated car is sold wholesale or at auction for $200, that’s the extent of the donor’s tax break. However, if the car is donated to an organization that uses it as a working vehicle in its charitable programs, donors can still deduct the vehicle’s fair market value.

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“Initially, the press made it sound like the deduction was going away altogether,” says Hendrickson. “The new rules are complicated to explain, and we don’t have the big advertising funds” of the for-profit car-donation hawkers, he says. “But we think the new IRS rules will help.”

Good News Garage (www.goodnewsgarage.org) can be reached at 1-877-448-3288; donation of useable cars can be made at Good News’s Manchester, NH, location.