A social media-centric approach to car ownership programs

Car ownership programs have one thing in common – their goal is to place working cars into the hands of families and individuals that would not otherwise be able to afford them.

Two operating models of dominate the landscape.  The first type are “financial assistance” programs which work with lending institutions to secure character-based loans at an interest rate lower than the client would normally qualify for due to poor credit histories.  The second type are “acquire and distribute” programs which solicit for donated cars, repair them, then sell the cars to clients at prices significantly below fair market value to recoup the cost of repairs.  Programs operate regionally – either within a metropolitan area or across a few neighboring states – in conjunction with social services agencies that refer their clients with transportation needs to the program coordinators.

The types of connections formed in these scenarios are generally point-to-point; donors transact individually with program to have their cars towed away, and clients transact individually to pick up the car that has been assigned to them.

COP network diagram

Isolated network connections of the traditional car ownership program (G. Dela Rosa)


There is one exception.  In 1996, Brian Menzies started a car ownership program known today as Free Charity Cars.  Free Charity Cars operates two websites – one for donors and a second one for clients.

Brian Menzies profile

User profile of Free Charity Cars CEO/Founder, Brian Menzies.

The client site is billed as a forum for clients to provide each other peer-to-peer support.  Clients publicly post their stories of hardship explaining why they are in need of a vehicle and then are encouraged to read the stories of other clients.  Clients vote (the equivalent of a Facebook “like”) on the stories of other clients.  As clients accumulate votes, their profiles rise in the priority queue.  Although, vote accumulation is a factor in determining which client receives a vehicle, a major over-riding factor is whether donated cars are available in their areas.

Seven years on this site

User profile of Free Charity Cars participant: riga71154

Clients earn badges for a variety of promotional activities and good service acts.

List of badges

Profile badges available to clients of Free Charity Cars social media site

Even though the program is nationwide, the virtual nature of the social media component has allowed the client side to form a meshed network through the sharing of stories (clients also blog updates of their situation) and the reciprocity of voting for each other’s stories (votes can be cast daily for as many stories as one is motivated to do).  This meshed client network is much more resilient and supportive than that of a traditional car ownership program.

FCC network diagram

Clients of Free Charity Cars are motivated to form social connections, thereby creating a meshed connection that is not seen in traditional car ownership programs (G. Dela Rosa)

Note that the network structure on the donor side retains its isolated nature.  Network theory predicts that isolated nodes are much more likely to disconnect.  Reproducing a meshed network on the donor side – making those relationships stickier – would likely help increase the number vehicles donated to the program over time.

In addition, the donor and client networks remain virtually isolated from one another.  One wonders if this is an opportunity lost.  In the sake of donor and client privacy, are we sacrificing the opportunity to build a tighter community?

Good News Mountaineer Garage in West Virginia addresses this second issue by encouraging recipients to write thank-you notes to the vehicle donor.  My intuition tells me that more follow-up reporting to individual donors on the long-term benefits that a family experiences from receiving their vehicle is both possible and pragmatic.

Thank-you note

Note and photo source: Gotta Get Em to Work, a RuFES Refresher Webinar – 11/16/2010 (Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlhM7e3i7HM}

But before we close, let’s refocus on the unique goodness brought to the domain by Brian Menzies.  REGARDLESS of whether clients eventually receive a car through their efforts, Free Charity Cars provides a forum for people whose stories would otherwise not be heard AND gives them the opportunity to see that they are not alone in their struggles.

To see and be seen, to hear and be heard, to acknowledge and be acknowledged might not solve a person’s transportation woes but it is validating; and sometimes that’s enough to just keep going.

Cold war vet user profile

User profile of Free Charity Cars participant: ColdWarVet


  • Free Charity Cars has over 140,000 registered user profiles
    • There is a 25/75 male/female gender split
  • The three states with the highest and lowest number of user profiles are
    • 1st – Florida (16,903)
    • 2nd – Texas (10,685)
    • 3rd – California (10,440)
    • 49th – Alaska (149)
    • 50th – Wyoming (131)
    • 51st – North Dakota (92)
  • Pennsylvania ranks 7th with 5,797
    • The client story currently with the most votes in Pennsylvania (Ratt) stretches for three-and-a-half pages (2,514 words per Microsoft Word)
  • According to the 2014 IRS Form 990 filed by Free Charity Cars
    • 1,007 vehicles were donated
    • 322 vehicles were distributed
      • 14 of which were given to other charitable organizations
    • Some donated vehicles were sold at auction or salvage
This entry was posted in charity, Fundraising, Human networks, Non-Profit, Social Media and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A social media-centric approach to car ownership programs

  1. sydhavely says:

    This is a great story and, quite frankly, one hard to tell in photos alone, but you did admirably. I now have a fairly good foundation in what these programs are, how they differ, and who takes advantage of them. I would think the car companies, in the wake of declining sales to millennials in particular, would want to back these kinds of programs. I do hear the RTI solicitations all the time and often thought about what it would take to donate but it’s usually a case of holding on to my current one until the newer one arrives on the scene. Great post.

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