BREAKING THE CYCLE OF POVERTY
Vehicles for Change
Ever since Marty Schwartz started Vehicles for Change (VFC) in 1999, the nonprofit has been committed to a simple mission: providing low-income families with cars so they can connect with the educational, job and housing opportunities that will immeasurably improve their lives. But the mission hasn’t remained stagnant by any means — it now also includes job training for some of the hardest-to-serve individuals.
Q: Vehicles for Change provides independent transportation for low-income families. Why is that mission important to you?
A: There are many barriers that low-income families must overcome to break the cycle of poverty — employment, education, housing — but none of these are possible without access to transportation. VFC not only provides cars to families, but we are now actively involved in exploring other options that would have a greater impact, like van pool and ride share.
Q: Do you have any favorite stories of families or individuals who were able to get a car through Vehicles for Change?
A: There are so many. Recently, we provided a vehicle to a family with a little girl who went through extensive brain surgery. The family was staying at Ronald McDonald House. They stayed in the U.S., but had severe problems with getting their daughter to her numerous doctor’s appointments, let alone finding employment. VFC changed all of that!
Q: Prior to founding Vehicles for Change, you started a company called Student Athlete Information Link. What did that experience teach you about running a business?
A: That business failed after two long years of hard work. It helped me believe in my instincts as a businessman and be a better leader. It also helped me understand that I could not do it by myself. The lesson was surround myself with very intelligent individuals and listen to them.
Q: One of the challenges any nonprofit faces is attracting donors. How do you find your vehicle donors?
A: That has gotten more and more difficult, with Kars 4 Kids taking so many cars out of the area. We have relied more on social media and are actually rolling out a new creative campaign in December. We think this will help distinguish us from the competition.
Q: A little over a year ago, Vehicles for Change opened its Center for Automotive Careers. What is the center’s purpose?
A: We have always felt that with all we do around automobiles — repairing, cleaning, etc. — it made sense to use our experience to create a training center for detailers and mechanics. This program trains some of the hardest-to-serve individuals, many of whom have a criminal background. The training program is employer-driven and a social enterprise. We are very proud of the early success, as up to 75 percent of our grads are securing full-time employment at a living wage.
Q: For any nonprofit, it’s crucial to find staff members who are committed to the mission. How do you find the right people?
A: We do use word of mouth quite a bit. We have a very good reputation in the area and our friends are quick to recommend individuals for open positions.
Q: Vehicles for Change is in the process of expanding to new locations, including Detroit. What challenges are you facing during this expansion?
A: The same problems I think most organizations face when expanding: staffing, overstressing current staff, funding and, in our case, car donations. Car donations are the toughest to predict. We are moving slowly in Detroit as a result. The good news is that we are looking at a different model where we purchase cars, as opposed to relying on donated cars. So it has forced us to be creative.
Q: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
A: Surround yourself with great people, but trust your gut. Be honest and transparent with your team and yourself. Stay humble personally and financially. So many entrepreneurs overspend in the beginning and put themselves in financial stress early on. Take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them. Enjoy the ride no matter the outcome, because so few people get to do it!