Car washes are a standby of grassroots nonprofit fundraising efforts. This is particularly true among schools, scouting troops, sports teams, and band groups, which have lots of energetic young people ready to do the actual washing. (Fifth graders through high schoolers tend to be best suited for washing cars – anyone smaller can't reach high enough!)
One perennial issue, however, is that it takes a fair amount of time and fresh supplies to properly wash a car. This can mean either that the nonprofit doesn't make much money, or that customers end up dissatisfied when soap bubbles dry into spots on their windshields.
To ensure efficiency and quality, practice car-washing techniques with your volunteers, and explain to everyone what's expected.
Most groups don't go for fine detailing or interior work: As Jackie describes of her children's Band Boosters' car wash, it's usually "a quick rubdown with a soapy sponge, a hosedown, and then you clean windows with squirt-bottle cleaner, finishing with paper towels or a squeegee. Just make sure to have constant parental supervision, to deal with things like the occasional arrogant driver who's looking for imperfections in the wash job or the kids' overly enthusiastic hosedowns that erupt into horseplay."
Volunteers should work in teams of four or five, so that cars move in and out quickly. This is hard work, so it's best to schedule volunteers for two-hour shifts. Bring refreshments to reward and motivate your volunteers. Also consider making some extra money by selling refreshments to the people waiting to have their cars washed.
It is essential to use an appropriate space, preferably one loaned by a gas station, car mechanic, tire company, barber shop, or other place with lots of hose hookups. In many areas, certain businesses are required to drain their outdoor wash water to the sewage treatment system rather than through the storm drains to local waterways. That makes these locations an environmentally friendlier choice for your group, as well – you wouldn't want anyone to point out that your supposedly "do-good" group is creating pollution by sending toxic waste down local storm drains.
Kyung describes their hockey team's annual car wash in Paoli, Pennsylvania: "We arranged to use the parking lot of a local McDonald's. They let us hook up our hoses into their kitchen. That meant that we got customers from people who were stopping anyway, and I think they got customers from people waiting to have their cars washed."
How much should you charge each customer? From $5 to $10 is typical. However, many groups do as Kyung describes: "Instead of setting a fee, we've done it on a donation basis for the last couple of years. This has worked surprisingly well, with people donating an average of $10 to $20. Of course, we're on Philadelphia's ‘Main Line,' a relatively affluent area where it usually costs $20 to get your car washed anyway. You have to know your audience before going with this plan."
NOTE: This article is an excerpt from The Volunteers' Guide to Fundraising (Nolo). Please see that book for further guidance on special events and other grassroots fundraising methods.