How to Get a Donated Car From Goodwill or Salvation Army

When you’re in dire financial straits, digging yourself out of the hole can seem impossible. In order to get a job, you have to have access to reliable transportation; for most of us, that means buying a car. But in order to afford a car payment, you have to have the paycheck from the job you can’t get.

If this situation sounds familiar to you, you could be eligible to buy a donated car from the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Read on to learn more about how to get one of these cars and start getting your financial life back on the right track.

Why the Salvation Army and Goodwill Sell Cars

Before we dive into how you can get a car from Goodwill or the Salvation Army, let’s talk some about why these two organizations sell cars in the first place. Both Goodwill and the Salvation Army are charity-based organizations. Both organizations accept donations which then get sold at their stores; the proceeds go to fund the mission of each group.

While the most commonly donated items include clothes or household goods, Goodwill and the Salvation Army can accept more substantial donations. Some people may choose to donate their car when they get rid of it, rather than selling it for a profit. Not only can these two organizations sell the car for a significant profit, they also have the opportunity to donate it to a person in need. 

The Salvation Army and Goodwill both auction off cars. If you plan to buy a car from them, you will need to have the cash available to do so. Goodwill also offers donated cars to people who meet certain criteria.

Find Your Local Salvation Army Branch

If you plan to purchase a donated car from the Salvation Army at auction, the first thing you need to do is to find your local Salvation Army branch. In the United States alone, there are nearly 8,000 locations with 3 million volunteers assisting more than 30 million people a year. These locations are spread throughout the country, and there is likely one near you. 

You can visit the Salvation Army website to find the location closest to you. Keep in mind that Salvation Army thrift stores may or may not be involved in the car auction process. You will need to arrange for transportation to the location of the Salvation Army auctions, so make sure you consider that when choosing the location you want to work with.

Get Information About Auctions

Once you’ve found the Salvation Army location that’s most accessible to you, you’ll need to get some information about their upcoming auctions. The Salvation Army auctions off its donated cars in order to create an affordable process for their buyers while getting a reasonable profit that they can put towards their ministries. When and where the group holds auctions will vary widely by branch.

In most cases, the Salvation Army will hold an auction about once a month. These are usually run by Salvation Army staff, though they occasionally hire a professional auction company to help them organize larger or more complex events. Your local branch should be able to give you information about when and where the next auction will be held.

Sign Up for the Auction

Oftentimes, the Salvation Army will require that people wishing to bid on a car at auction register for the auction ahead of time. This helps them to keep the event more organized, ensuring that there will be enough people for a successful auction without overcrowding. You may need to pay a small registration fee to make sure that only serious buyers register for the event.

It’s always a good idea to check with your local Salvation Army branch on the auction process, however. Some smaller branches do not require registration because overcrowding isn’t a concern. Ask the representative you speak to if you need to preregister and, if so, how to do so.

Show Up Early

On the day of the auction, it’s a good idea to make sure you show up early. The Salvation Army will not list which cars they’ll be auctioning off before the day of the event. You’ll have no way to know before you arrive if there are any cars you want to bid on and what sort of shape they might be in. 

Show up early the day of the auction and take a close look at the cars on offer to see if any fit what you want to buy. While you will not be allowed to test drive the car, the organization should let you check the interior, look under the hood, and start the engine to make sure the car is what you want. Make a note of the item number for the car or cars you’re interested in so you don’t miss it when the auction begins. 

Bid on the Car

When the auction begins, it’s critical that you pay close attention and have a firm budget established ahead of time. The auction process moves very quickly, and it can be easy to lose a car you wanted if you wander off or get distracted. Put your phone on silent, pay close attention to the auctioneer, and know before bidding begins what your maximum bid will be.

In most cases, you will be given a paddle with your identification number on it. When the car you want comes up for bid, raise your paddle when the auctioneer opens the bidding. As the bids increase, continue raising your paddle to secure the next highest bid until you hit your budget or you win the auction.

Arrange to Pick It Up

Once you’ve won an auction, you’ll need to make arrangements to pick the car up and manage the necessary paperwork. If the car works, this should be a fairly straightforward process. Once the auction ends, go see the auction manager, sign the proper paperwork, and drive your new car home

However, in many cases, the cars the Salvation Army is selling no longer run or are being sold for scrap. If this is the case for the car you bought, you’ll need to arrange to have it towed to a location where you can work on it or harvest parts. There may be a time limit on how long you have to get the car hauled off, so be sure you check on that before you leave the auction and make arrangements sooner rather than later. 

About Wheels for Work

If you plan to get a car through Goodwill, the best way to do it is through the Wheels for Work program. This program is designed to help families in need get the vehicles that will allow them to travel to and from a job. In some cases, Wheels for Work will provide low-cost leasing or financing plans; in others, it will donate a car for free.

In order to qualify for a Goodwill car through the Wheels for Work program, you must meet a few criteria. You must be able to provide proof of residence, have an up-to-date driver’s license in your state, and not have a car registered in your name. You must also have no drug offenses, be able to pass a background check, have been working in the same job for six months to a year, and remain working for a year after you receive the car.

If you will not qualify for the Wheels for Work program, you can also buy a car from Goodwill at auction. These cars are sent to Washington, D.C. and auctioned there. You can also bid online if you can’t travel to D.C. to attend an auction in person.

Talk to Your Department of Human Services

If you plan to get a car from Goodwill, the first thing you should do is contact your local Department of Human Services. The procedure varies from state to state, but many areas require you to work through the DHS to apply to receive a car. Only people deemed to be in need are given access to the Wheels for Work program, and a local social worker will be in charge of making that determination. 

Your state’s official website should have a page where you can find the DHS office closest to you. Tell them you want to apply for the Wheels for Work program and ask for the application to do so. Make sure you also check on any deadlines you need to meet or documentation you need to provide with your application. 

Contact Goodwill

In some cases, Goodwill may not work with the Department of Human Services to determine who is eligible to receive a car. If this is the case in your area, you’ll need to contact Goodwill directly. You can do this through the contact page on their website or by reaching out to your local Goodwill organization.

Goodwill has more than 3,200 stores spread across the country. However, these local stores don’t handle car sales; all donated cars are sent to Washington, D.C. If you don’t qualify for a donated car, you may be able to buy one at auction from Goodwill.

Get a Donated Car 

Trying to get a car while unemployed can be something of a catch-22 – you need a car to get a job, and you need a job to be able to afford a car. The Salvation Army and Goodwill can be great resources for you to get a donated car for an affordable price. If you meet Goodwill’s criteria, you could even get a car for free.

If you need wireless service so you can get or keep a job, the federal Lifeline program may be able to help.  Apply now and start getting the helping hand you need to get back on your feet.