Car donations not a smooth ride

A new state report asserts that commercial fund-raisers soliciting used cars for charities end up giving only one-third of the revenues back to the charities.

"Californians should be asking any commercial fund-raiser who comes calling how much will actually be handed over to the charity from the donated car or other personal property," state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said last week at a press conference to release the report.

The report, which covers 1998, focuses on 112 nonprofits that used commercial fund-raisers for car solicitations in California. Three of them were Jewish charities.

In recent years, numerous nonprofits have begun seeking donations of used cars, trucks, RVs and even boats. They promise to turn the vehicle into dollars for the needy.

According to the report, the Southern California office of the Jewish National Fund raised $223,305 in a campaign managed by the O.N.N.E. Corp.

But only 20 cents on each dollar raised wound up in the hands of the JNF. Sherry Moore, JNF's director for the Western states, was unavailable for comment

What happens in Los Angeles matters in the Bay Area because the national board of the fund-raising organization closed the doors of its Northern California office some months ago. The entire California operation is now overseen by Moore.

"We never went that route," said John Rothmann, former president of the local JNF board. Problems with vehicle donation operations are rife, he said, although that is largely "if you don't have proper monitoring."

The report also cites the S.F.-based Jewish Foundation for Learning, whose operations were handled by the Charities Automobile Recycling Enterprises LLC. Although the campaign brought in $111,414, the charity got only $30,000 — 26 percent of the total.

In 1997, the JFL took over the programs of the Jewish Educational Center in San Francisco after the JEC was declared bankrupt. There is no current telephone listing for the JFL.

Unrelated to the report, JEC founder Rabbi Bentzion Pil pleaded guilty in federal court in December to evading reporting laws on currency transactions. His sentencing is set for May 4.

The third Jewish charity cited in the report, the Orange County-based Guardians of the Jewish for Aging, fared a bit better, although on a relatively small scale. Of the $1,840 brought in by the O.N.N.E. Corp., 57 percent went to the charity.

Not all nonprofits that solicit used cars use commercial fund-raisers.

Those that do, however, brought in just over $31 million in 1998. Of that revenue, the state reported, about $10.4 million — or 33 percent — went to the charities themselves. Still, that percentage is an increase of 77 percent over the previous year.

The report said donors face several problems when charities use commercial fund-raisers to handle car solicitations. One is that the transfer of ownership never gets reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles, leading to "subsequent penalties and expenses" — mainly, repeat parking tickets, the report stated.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.