I'd like to fix up and sell computers for charity...
April 25, 2010 12:15 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to fix up and sell old computers for our charity committee. What sort of red tape need I concern myself with?

My employer has a charity committee that raises money through a variety of means. We have a pool of various charities, many of which are local and constantly looking for more donations.

I love fixing up old computers and getting them to run smoothly.

I love Ubuntu Linux but also love Windows XP. So I'm thinking of asking my fellow employees (and perhaps folks on CraigsList) to donate their old computers to me, at which point I will fix them up if they are salvageable and donate the proceeds to our committee. Ideally the donors will provide all of the OEM software so I can install Windows, and if not, I'll go ahead with Ubuntu. I don't think licensing is an issue as long as I'm using the original OEM licenses with the original machines...

What I'm wondering is how much I need to cover myself legally. Do I need to talk to a lawyer about this? I'm interested in providing a tax-writeoff receipt to everyone who donates a computer and successfully sells it through me. I think this will motivate people to donate pretty decent machines. And there's certainly a chance I will burn out and at some point just have a stack of them sitting around for awhile until I get around to it again. I know the computers themselves can be donated but I'd like to invest my own time and energy into making them run smoothly, installing antivirus, bumping up the RAM, etc, adding value through my labor.

One simple option would be to fix them up for my own personal profit, and decide myself how much to contribute to charity, but I really like the idea of having the writeoff receipt go to the person who provided the machine. I might have to subtract any value I add with my labor and parts...?

If it's too complicated to provide the tax receipt I'll certainly skip that. I live and work in Jefferson County, Colorado. I know that we can't write off our own computer donations to charity as an organization because our workstations are scheduled to completely depreciate in 5 years and we never pitch a computer until it's at least that old.

Thanks for any help you can offer!
posted by aydeejones to Computers & Internet (16 answers total)
I think it is going to be selling them that is biggest ssue. First of all, don't mess with Windows. People are not going to have their original CD's or keys, and there are other legal issues there that I don't think you want to be involved in. You can't just use the original install because there will be personal information on the drive and it is probably full of malware or worse. Just do a complete format and install Ubuntu, it will run better anyway. Also, prices are going to have to be extremely low for someone to consider buying a machine that is a few years old or more. How are you going to sell them? Through eBay? Craigslist? Do you provide any kind of guarantee that it works, and for how long?

Keep in mind there are existing organization that provide similar services, such as this one. I think you might also want to look into your companies donation policy again, I don't see why having a computer that is 5 years old necessarily precludes you from receiving a tax write off from donating it. While I think the idea itself is admirable, there are quite a few hurdles.
posted by sophist at 1:08 AM on April 25, 2010

Why sell them and then donate the money to charity? There are way to skip the middle step! I tutor at-risk children of refugees, and none of them have computers at home. The three computers that are available at the community center where my group volunteers are old and unreliable.

If there was a way to distribute computers to these households, that would be a huge benefit (my city has a free community WiFi network in the neighborhood where these kids live, so internet bills wouldn't be an issue). If they could learn to type, do research, and gain general computer skills these kids would not only do better at school, they would also be more employable at graduation.

Your profile doesn't disclose your location, but feel free to contact me for more details if you are in/near Seattle.

PS. Ubuntu is great. I think it's time to forget Windows XP – it's older than most of the kids I tutor.
posted by halogen at 1:25 AM on April 25, 2010

When I first read the question I thought you were asking about accepting donated computers that would be used by the charity, but on second read it appears that is not the case and you would be selling the machines and donating the money. I think that puts this into much murkier waters. Color me skeptical, but is there really going to be a big enough market for 3-5 year old used computers with no Windows licenses that you will be able to actually sell more than a few of these? Also it seems like you'd have to overcome a problem of expectations as most people would assume that the computers would actually be used by the charity and not sold for cash, but maybe that's just me.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:40 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Unless your employer is a non-profit organization (such as a 501(c)3), donations of computers to you can not be considered as a tax deduction (I'm assuming you are in the US) by the person making the donation.
posted by HuronBob at 4:39 AM on April 25, 2010

oops, I didn't read the part about where you are..so , No, your donors can't take a tax deduction.
posted by HuronBob at 4:40 AM on April 25, 2010

This sounds too complicated. Find something for which there is a steady market and sell it on behalf of your charity.

There is little to no market for older computers, other than recycling.
posted by dfriedman at 6:42 AM on April 25, 2010

There was an issue with someone doing that locally here a few years back and found that even though he had legit OEM XP versions, the licences were not transferable. You might want to check that out.
posted by the noob at 7:04 AM on April 25, 2010

sophist: I have no trouble selling old computers. I always format drives and/or use DBAN with organizational computers to comply with our HIPAA policies. If I do this drive I will commit to using DBAN on all computers, to assure the donors their confidentiality is protected. I can even kick off DBAN on my lunch break and show them how it works.

I don't need to provide a guarantee; the people who'd buy computers from me (typically on CraigsList) have their own objectives and often don't care about the Windows license anyway, but it adds value for a lot of people. "As is" is pretty well accepted by the clientele I deal with, and I don't give them my real phone number or address, etc, so they can't harass me very easily.

I run into the occasional dad who wants a computer for his kid (what better than a $50 machine to destroy, I started on a VIC20 when 8088s were all the rage), I explain MTBF and offer to put in a new hard drive and possibly power supply to maximize the life of the machine, for an added expense of course. It's often not worth it, but a $50 computer that might die in 2 months or 2 years can actually be quite valuable to a kid, especially if s/he knows it can be fixed up and is willing to find out how.

halogen: I've thought about volunteering my time more and actually supporting the computers. It is a beautiful idea, I just like the idea of raising $2K or so for our committee, which donates to animal shelters, Red Cross, Haiti relief, battered women's shelters, etc.

Huronbob: Thanks! I was 99% positive I couldn't offer deductions on actual organizational computers, but I'd bet anyone here $200 that I'd have about 20 decent computers worth $50 resale donated by employees within a week of sending an email.

Rhomboid: I'm open to all possibilities. That's probably why my post is a little scattered. The end game is "I get old computers, I sell 'em, charity committee gets money." I just want to optimize my approach.

dfriedman: I don't know where you live, but what you're saying is not accurate here, based on countless personal experiences. Stay positive.

All in all it does sound like Ubuntu is the way to go. XP will be "end of life" eventually and Ubuntu makes old computers feel new again. I do love it. Thanks everyone!
posted by aydeejones at 9:28 AM on April 25, 2010

I'm running a 7-year old Vaio P4 with hyperthreading and 2.5GB of old DDR RAM. It screams. It flies. I named it "SCREAMER" back in the day and haven't renamed it...I can't play modern FPS games on it, but I love me some Counterstrike Source. Can't quite handle Team Fortress 2 well, but as a general productivity computer, it kicks ass.

It runs XP...I also have a 6-year old AMD Shuttle Box with 2GB of DDR RAM running Ubuntu 9.01. It blows my mind just how fast it is.

My son recently destroyed my one-year-old Sony Vaio Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz laptop. I brushed off an ancient Latitude C600, put about $100 into it, and it outforms the Sony by leaps and bounds, mainly because it's running XP instead of Vista. I'll definitely be trying Ubuntu on it and my work-provided EEE PC. Ubuntu is absolutely amazing to me.
posted by aydeejones at 9:34 AM on April 25, 2010


I'd bet anyone here $200 that I'd have about 20 decent computers worth $50 resale each donated by employees within a week of sending an email.

Now I better step out before I become one of those My-Thread-Me-Me-Moderators.
posted by aydeejones at 9:41 AM on April 25, 2010

The non-profit IT guy's best friend is TechSoup Stock
It allows you to get free/greatly discounted software as long as you're a registered non-profit and can provide proof to them.
posted by ijoyner at 10:51 AM on April 25, 2010

First of all, don't mess with Windows. People are not going to have their original CD's or keys, and there are other legal issues there that I don't think you want to be involved in.

If the computers have a legitimate Windows XP license, there will almost always be a sticker with the license number affixed to the outside of the case; as outlined here if the sticker is present and you have the original CD or recovery partition, you can reinstall using that media.

The situation where there's a valid sticker but no original CD/recovery partition is one where IMHO ethics and legality diverge; personally, I know many people who wipe their initial windows install and recovery partition when buying a computer, just to be free of McAfee and other junk installed by the computer vendor. Of course, it's up to you whether you'd be comfortable doing this.
posted by Mike1024 at 11:11 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you willing to provide training and support for the computers you sell? If not, maybe there is a group nearby to which you can refer your buyers.
posted by PueExMachina at 8:37 PM on April 25, 2010

Mike1024: The legal issue is that, as the noob pointed out, those Windows XP licenses are non-transferable. While this may not bother you from an ethical standpoint, it is an issue to consider if you are trying to raise money for a charity.
posted by sophist at 7:55 PM on April 26, 2010

freegeek.org and freegeekchicago.org do this sort of work, repairing old computers into a sellable state (and also letting people help repair the computers to get one free). There work may point you in the right direction.
posted by garlic at 12:31 PM on April 27, 2010

Mike1024: The legal issue is that, as the noob pointed out, those Windows XP licenses are non-transferable.

Just to clarify; I proposed using the license number on the sticker to install Windows on the machine carrying the sticker. I don't propose transferring the license (or the sticker) between machines.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:57 AM on April 29, 2010

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