BBJ: The Takeaway: Vehicles for Change keeps on rolling with program expansions

Editor’s note: The following article appeared on www.bizjournals.com in February 2019.

By Jessica Iannetta

Martin Schwartz started his career in athletics, doing fundraising and marketing for local high schools and colleges. In 1999,he brought those skills to the nonprofit world when he became the president of Vehicles for Change, which provides cars to low-income families and trains ex-offenders to be auto mechanics. As the organization marks its 20th year, Schwartz is looking to expand its programs to Prince George’s County, the Eastern Shore and beyond.

The beginning

Schwartz started out in athletics, working in development, fundraising and marketing for Cardinal Gibbons School, Catonsville Community College and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He eventually started an athlete recruiting company, which had started to wind down when he was approached by a local auto parts distributor thatwanted to start a nonprofit as a way to give back. In 1999, Schwartz became president of Vehicles for Change, which provided cars for low-income families at a significantly reduced rate — often less than $1,000.

Studies show that a lack of transportation can be the biggest barrier to finding a job and breaking the cycle of poverty, Schwartz noted.

“In today’s culture, it’s virtually impossible to navigate life without a car, especially if you are a single mother with young children,” he said.

Vehicles for Change focused on providing this service for its first 16 years of existence, soliciting donations of used cars, fixing them up and then providing them to families in need. But right from the beginning, the organization always knew it wanted to do more, Schwartz said.

The challenge

Vehicles for Change typically receives thousands of donated cars every year and all the repairs those cars required frequently overwhelmed the local auto shops that did the work.

To fix that issue, Vehicles for Change had long toyed with the idea of starting an auto mechanic training program so it could to fix up the cars itself. But it wasn’t until the organization bought a 33,000-square-foot building in Halethorpe in 2013 that the program seemed feasible, Schwartz said.

Vehicles for Change started Full Circle Service Center in 2015, with the intent of building on a program from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation that taught inmates to be auto mechanics. When they were released from prison, these ex-offenders often struggled to find jobs because of their criminal record and lack of prior work experience.

Full Circle was originally tailored specifically to those who had already completed the DLLR program. The three-to-four month paid program consists of classes in the morning to help participants become certified mechanics, followed by on-the-job experience fixing donated cars as well as cars brought in by the general public, Schwartz said.

Since its founding, more than 90 people have completed the program, which has a 100 percent job placement rate, Schwartz said. The majority of those jobs start at around $35,000 a year, he noted.

But as the program continues to grow in popularity, Vehicles for Change is continuing to look for ways to expand and become self-sustaining, he said.

The solutions

Full Circle currently has three program locations: Baltimore City, Halethorpe and Detroit, Michigan.

The Detroit program came about after Luis Perez, a former chief financial officer for the Baltimore Ravens, took a job with the Detroit Lions and convinced the Lions to give the organization the seed money to start a Detroit program, Schwartz said.

But Schwartz also has his eye on starting more programs closer to home. While the Halethorpe programs requires participants to have some auto mechanic experience, a new program in Baltimore City is now open to those who have no prior experience working on cars, he said.

Vehicles for Change is also in the process of raising $650,000 to start a program in Prince George’s County and hopes to eventually start a similar program on the Eastern Shore, where there is a huge need for boat mechanics, Schwartz said.

But overall, Schwartz hopes that Vehicles for Change will eventually become totally self-sustaining. The organization brings in money by selling donated cars valued at over $6,000 and through revenue from its car repair services and Schwartz hopes that will eventually help cover the organization’s costs.

That’s become even more necessary with a decrease in donations so far this year, which Schwartz attributes to changes in the tax code. Last year, 2950 cars were donated, but that number is down 15 percent so far this year, he said.

The lessons

Schwartz said it’s vital that nonprofit leaders see themselves as running a business. With a limited pool of funding available, he said all nonprofits need to think about how they can support themselves.

“There’s a lot of nonprofit leaders that are good people but they also need to be business leaders,” Schwartz said. “It’s good to have mission but you need to run it like a business.”

The Takeaway is a weekly feature about the journeys of small businesses, entrepreneurs and nonprofits and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. To suggest a company or organization, email BBJ Associate Editor Jessica Iannetta at jiannetta@bizjournals.com.


Title: President, Vehicles for Change

Age: 63

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, University of Maryland; Master’s degree in information systems, University of Maryland University College

Source: Baltimore Business Journal

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