Paul Sullivan New York Times
PHILANTHROPICALLY minded people regularly try to donate stuff — cars, catamarans, collections of all sorts — to nonprofits. In the best of circumstances, they believe that their donations will help a cause. Other times, they are just looking for an organization to take junk off their hands or validate their taste.
Then there is the case of Jason Wolff. At the end of 2007, Mr. Wolff, who considers himself a value investor, bought 16 radio stations in the greater Los Angeles area. He did very well with them, and this year he got an offer to sell them. But after the transaction was completed, he still had one left.
“My wife said, ‘Why don’t we just give it to NPR?’” Mr. Wolff said. “My first response was, ‘Because we can make a lot of money selling it.’ But then I thought about it. Intellectually, this felt good. This felt like a value donation — if there is such a thing.”
So he called the president of KCRW, the National Public Radio affiliate in Los Angeles, and asked if she wanted his radio station in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
“It was so weird,” said Jennifer Ferro, president of KCRW. “I didn’t understand what he meant.”
Radio stations are generally owned by conglomerates that are not in the business of giving them to public radio stations. But in this particular case, the offer seemed stranger still: Weeks before Mr. Wolff’s offer, KCRW tried to buy a station in the same area but was outbid.
Ms. Ferro called her board and explained what was happening. “They said, ‘Wait, you said we weren’t going to be able to buy this station.’”
The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is the giving season, when Americans make the bulk of their charitable donations.
Most of those gifts are checks written to favorite causes. But some come in the form of orphan radio stations, junked cars, unwanted boats or collections of baseball cards.
And many charities are more than happy to accept gently used or even broken-down goods that can be sold, like old cars. The proceeds go toward their mission.
“We bring in $500,000 a year from cars,” Ms. Ferro said, adding that a station in San Diego gets more than $1 million from unwanted automobiles. “Normally on a pledge drive, you’d get $10 a month. But that same person would say, ‘I have this car.’ Someone may only give you $400 for that car, but that’s $400 to KCRW.”
According to a recent survey by U.S. Trust, a banking company that caters to the wealthy, only 10 percent of people make nonfinancial gifts — like works of art, land or collections of all sorts. More than 80 percent write checks, and half of those donations are made online.
Still, more than twice as many people, the study found, give items rather than appreciated securities.
“I have a client who gave over a whole building, a rental apartment building, in the downturn,” said Claire Costello, national practice executive for philanthropic solutions at U.S. Trust. “The charity ran the building and used the proceeds for its operations. It had nothing to do with social services.”
As with any gift, advisers caution, people need to know what they want to accomplish with their donation before they make it, no matter what form it takes. And they need to understand the needs of the nonprofit.
“We were involved once when someone wanted to donate a building to a small arts nonprofit,” said Melissa Berman, president and chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. “But the building needed so much work that it wasn’t clear they could remodel a building that had so much asbestos in it. In the end, it wasn’t in the nonprofit’s best interest to take the building without more support than was being offered.”
When the gifts and needs match, it works well. For potential heirs, it can also ease the worry about whether to keep something or sell it — and the speculation about what mom or dad would have done.
Ms. Costello thought of a client who had given a sizable collection of sports memorabilia to charity, a collection that probably cost the client more than it was worth. “The charity has zero investment in it, so what do they care what it’s worth?” she said. “They’re not looking to recoup their investment, like the collector was. It’s like the junk car. Who wants the junk car? But it’s valuable.”
Many of these donations are one-offs. You have only one radio station or so many junked cars to give.
But there are other helpful ways to give away unwanted items. Ken Shubin Stein, a doctor turned investor, started Crutches 4 Kids with his sister and brother-in-law, both orthopedic surgeons. The premise is straightforward: collect no-longer-needed crutches and send them to the developing world, where lack of mobility is a public health problem for 50 million children.
Mr. Shubin Stein started the charity after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when he saw a wave of children having legs amputated. Since then, the foundation has collected and distributed about 10,000 pairs of crutches.
“One of the things about crutches is you can definitely solve the problem,” he said. “They’re low-cost, lightweight, and there’s no lucrative black market value, so they’re not likely to be stolen.” There are also schools and hospitals that serve as ready-made collection points for used crutches.
Mr. Shubin Stein said he and his family had been paying for the organization’s annual budget, which is about $100,000. They have also relied on groups like Americares and MedShare International to transport the crutches that last mile.
“Our landed-and-delivered cost for children’s crutches is about $10,” he said. “It seems like the ultimate return on investment.”
What has limited this effort, he said, is the logistics of collecting the crutches more widely and then getting them to places in need.
And this can be a challenge for anyone or any organization that wants to give or get: It’s a lot harder to get things from one place to another than it is to use a credit card to make a financial donation. This is often true in the case of a natural disaster, when people send care packages.
“Even if these places need things like tents or canned goods, it may often be easier for the groups that can reach the afflicted to get local merchandise than deal with customs to get goods off the plane,” Ms. Berman said. “You may be creating more of a headache than it’s worth when you send the canned sweet potatoes.”
That is not to say that small things aren’t appreciated. Ms. Berman said donating toiletries to local homeless organizations can be helpful.
James Dondero, the founder of Highland Capital Management in Dallas, came up with a solution: When his company gets expensive bottles of wine or the use of an event space as thanks for its $3 million in annual giving, it gives them to another organization in need.
The wine, for example, goes to the American Heart Association’s annual wine auction. The space, in places like the Dallas Zoo or the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, goes to smaller organizations that couldn’t afford to rent such space themselves.
“We make large gifts, so we have access to tables, admissions and golf tournaments,” said Linda Owen, director of Highland’s charitable giving program. “We’ve calculated that there is value in this, and we thought, ‘How can we give nonfinancial gifts to other organizations?’”
She said the firm supported Education Is Freedom, which helps underserved children finish high school and get into college. It took the access it had to the Dallas Zoo and gave it to the group for its graduation ceremony, which the company also underwrote.
This matchmaking is not always easy. “It is labor-intensive,” Ms. Owen said. “On one level, the easiest thing to do would be to decline these opportunities. But we try to be mindful and thoughtful about the access that we have.”
Mr. Wolff said the radio station donation was surely bigger than any other gift he had made. He said he was still waiting for the appraiser to give him the final value, though he sold an inferior station in the same market for $600,000.
And, like many people who get more involved in an organization, he said the gift felt different. “It’s like ‘The A-Team’: ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’” he said, quoting a line from the 1980s television show. “These guys are going to be able to fulfill their mission.”