General | Finances | Operations | The Wheelchairs | How to Help
Why Wheelchairs? Wheelchairs provide mobility, and mobility changes everything. Mobility means independence, the ability to participate in society and earn a living. Mobility means dignity, leaving behind the days of living on the ground. Learn more.
Why do your wheelchairs look different from traditional wheelchairs? Our wheelchairs are designed with resources in mind. FWM wheelchairs are built for maximum cost efficiency with parts that are readily available in the developing world. You may notice the wheels on our wheelchairs resemble bicycle wheels. Bicycles are everywhere, and so are the parts to repair them. You also might be wondering how the chair on our GEN_1 model is different from the common patio chair. While the mold we use to shape the resin used in our GEN_1 wheelchairs looks very similar to that of patio chairs, the similarities stop there. We use a specially designed polymer blend that incorporates UV stabilizers and impact resistant additives. These additives allow our wheelchairs to withstand UV rays from the sun and endure terrain impact in the developing world. Learn more about our wheelchair design by clicking here.
What is Free Wheelchair Mission’s actual mission? Our mission is to provide the transforming gift of mobility to people with disabilities in less-resourced countries, as motivated by Jesus Christ. See our full mission, vision and values by clicking here.
What does Free Wheelchair Mission do? Headquartered in Irvine, California, FWM works around the world in partnership with a vast network of humanitarian, faith-based and government organizations to give wheelchairs to hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in less-resourced countries. For as little as $80.00 you can provide not only the gift of mobility, but also the gifts of dignity, independence and hope. Our future holds continued innovation and expansion of our work. We’re currently developing a cost-efficient folding wheelchair for easy transport. We’re also in the preliminary stages of implementing a gift-in-kind program to send other mobility aids. We’ll continue making strides towards our short-term goal to provide 1.2 million wheelchairs by 2017, and ultimately 100 million wheelchairs. Learn more about our mission by clicking here.
How long has Free Wheelchair Mission been giving out wheelchairs? FWM has been giving out wheelchairs for over 16 years. The President and Founder, Don Schoendorfer, produced the original GEN_1 chair in 1999, but as an organization FWM has been operating under 501(c)(3) status since 2001.
How many wheelchairs has FWM given out? In What Countries? The number of wheelchairs is constantly growing, as we distribute them all around the world. Our wheelchairs are currently used in 91 countries. Every week we provide a Shipping Status Report via social media. The report shows where and how many wheelchairs were shipped during that week. You can view the current wheelchair total and distribution map by clicking here.
FWM is a 501(c)(3) - what does that mean? FWM was awarded 501(c)(3) status in 2001. Essentially 501(c)(3) is legal recognition of our status as a not-for-profit organization and it allows those who donate to us to list their donations as tax-deductible when they file their return. In order to qualify for 501(c)(3) status, there are several standards that must be met and maintained. We can neither operate to make a profit, nor can we participate in political lobbying activities. Learn more about our financial management policies and standards by visiting our Financial Accountability page.
FWM is an ECFA accredited nonprofit - what does that mean? Being ECFA accredited means the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) has recognized FWM as a Christian organization operating with the highest standards of integrity and transparency. ECFA accredits only those who adhere to their Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship™ which focus on board governance, financial transparency, integrity in fundraising and proper use of charity resources.
FWM is a "faith-based” organization. What does this mean? FWM believes that when Jesus Christ walked among us, He had a special heart for the poor, sick and disabled. When one of our beneficiaries is seated in a wheelchair for the first time, it is our hope that they feel they have been placed gently in God’s hands and that they find themselves wrapped in His love and care. However, we are not affiliated with any specific denomination or church and we do not, nor would we allow our partners to, deny people wheelchairs based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. We're often asked if we evangelize when we distribute wheelchairs. Since our wheelchairs are distributed by partners, it’s up to them whether the wheelchairs are given along with a Christian message. We request that they provide a message, which many partners do, but not all. If not through words, we believe the message is delivered through our actions, as the wheelchairs serve as evidence of Christ’s love. Learn more about our mission by clicking here.
Where do your donations come from? More than half comes from individual donors. Approximately one-third of our donations come from charitable foundations, and the rest is from a mix of churches and civic/corporate donors. To see more details about our finances, click here.
Do you receive funding from any government agencies? Not directly, but many governments offer us support in terms of manpower and services to help distribute wheelchairs.
How much of every dollar goes to wheelchairs? What is Free Wheelchair Mission's programming percentage and what does that mean? This is a great question, as it applies uniquely to FWM. Charity watchdog and rating websites provide what’s known as a program percentage, which shows donors how much of each dollar donated goes toward the actual program or service that organization provides versus how much goes towards operating costs. This ratio is affected by how much an organization spends on overhead, management and fundraising, relative to how much they spend on programs for those in need. FWM is unique in that we pay to manufacture the wheelchairs that we then give away free of charge. Many nonprofits will have a higher program percentage because they’re not in the manufacturing business; they operate using the gift-in-kind model in which donated goods and services are given to those in need. Even though we pay for the manufacturing of our wheelchairs, FWM’s program percentage is competitive with those who don’t fund their own manufacturing. Our current program percentage for this fiscal year is 80%.
How many staff and volunteers work at FWM? Currently FWM has 20 paid staff (a mix of part-time and full-time employees) and over 2,000 volunteers around the world that act in support. You can find a full list of our Irvine-based, paid staff members here. In the spirit of good stewardship and accountability, FWM has a rigorous system in place to ensure that any paid staff is hired and retained only as-needed. Volunteers support our administrative needs as often as possible. Additionally, our Ambassadors for Mobility program is a national network of volunteers who give of their own time and effort to help raise awareness and funds for FWM. More information on the Ambassador program, click here.
Who sits on your board of directors? A full listing of our staff and board of directors can be found here.
How do you decide who receives a wheelchair, and how do you distribute them? FWM does not hand-select recipients for wheelchairs. Individual distribution is left up to our Distribution Partners who handle everything following the shipping containers’ arrival at the destination port. Our partners are required to sign an agreement that they will give wheelchairs to people most in need - those who don’t already have one and cannot afford one. Further, we ask that they give the wheelchairs as a gift at no charge to the recipients. Our Distribution Partners send reports on distribution, and we often visit our partners to see their performance firsthand. Learn more about our distribution model by clicking here.
How do you select your Distribution Partners? FWM carefully selects our Distribution Partners (DPs). We require that our partners are nonprofits with experience in importing ocean containers. We also require that our partners provide references from other groups for whom they have supplied humanitarian aid by ocean freight. We do not require our DPs to be faith-based. We do require that our partners have a zero-tolerance policy for bribes and have no intentions to sell the wheelchairs. Learn more about our DPs by clicking here.
Can I designate my donation to go to a specific country? We don’t allow people to designate a specific country for their donations. There are cases where we will make an exception; however, this scenario is generally reserved for when one entity funds an entire container’s worth of wheelchairs and wants to send them to a country where there is an existing partnership. We’ve found that the vast majority of donors opt for their wheelchairs to go wherever they’re needed most. We do offer one campaign a year, our Christmas Giving Campaign, that does allow people to designate a continent to send wheelchairs to, but not specific countries.
I need a wheelchair, or I know someone who needs one - can you give them one? We only distribute wheelchairs through approved DPs who work in developing countries and who receive and distribute full containers of wheelchairs in their immediate area. Unfortunately we do not provide wheelchairs to anyone inside the United States and cannot fulfill any domestic or international individual requests. If you’re in need of a wheelchair for someone who lives in the U.S., please contact our front desk during normal business hours or click here for a list of resources.
Do you give wheelchairs to hospitals and other health organizations? There are a handful of hospitals and health organizations that we give wheelchairs directly to. For the most part, we let our distribution partners determine where the need is most pressing, and we trust them to act accordingly.
Do you work with government agencies? There are a few places where we have elected to work with federal, state or provincial authorities. Other times, the government health agency will act as a consignee for the wheelchairs when they arrive in conjunction with our in-country Distribution Partner. Typically it would be up to our Distribution Partner to decide if the local government would be a strategic partner, and in many cases they team up.
Where are the wheelchairs manufactured? Our wheelchairs are manufactured and packaged in Shanghai, China. We don’t manufacture our products in the United States because of the cost associated with doing so. The suppliers we work with offer us the best price per unit without compromising quality. Keeping our costs to a minimum allows us to maximize the numbers of wheelchairs we give to recipients. Click here to see how our distribution process works.
How are the wheelchairs shipped? Once our wheelchairs are manufactured and packaged in Shanghai, they’re packed into containers of 550 wheelchairs each, loaded onto a container ship and sent around the world to the one of the countries in which we currently have an active Distribution Partner (DP). When they arrive, our DP pays for all importation fees and overland transport fees to get the wheelchairs to wherever they need to go in-country and is also responsible for assembling and distributing the wheelchairs. In many cases our partners will also negotiate with the local government to reduce or eliminate importation tariffs and duties.
How much does it cost to ship a wheelchair? Shipping costs vary based on destination and every country is different. At this point, our volume is not large enough to lock-in rates via contract, so we solicit rates on the open market. We procure free shipping whenever possible. Based on the average of shipping all of our wheelchairs annually, we include the shipping cost in the $80 per wheelchair price.
Why don’t you distribute wheelchairs in the US? There are several reasons why our wheelchairs are not given away in the United States, but the biggest is that there are already systems in place here to help support people in need of a wheelchair. In addition to private health insurance coverage, Medicare and Medicaid are available in the US to help provide for peoples' medical necessities. People in the United States have options available to get a wheelchair if they need one - people in the developing world have no options. FWM is happy to provide interested parties with a list of wheelchair organizations that distribute within the US if someone has a need. Please call our offices during business hours for a list of organizations that do provide wheelchairs within the US.
What challenges do you face in transporting wheelchairs? The biggest challenge we face related to wheelchair delivery is customs clearance. Wheelchairs are shipped via ocean liner directly from our manufacturer to the recipient country, at which point the DP is responsible for ensuring that the wheelchairs are able to pass through customs. Since each country has their own unique set of requirements, it's the responsibility of the DP to stay informed about local policies and to communicate them directly to FWM in order to ensure a smooth container delivery. We work closely with our DPs, shipping companies and freight forwarders to manage this process as efficiently as possible.
How much does a wheelchair cost? Both FWM wheelchair models cost $80. This price includes the wheelchair itself, shipping and distribution to each recipient, as well as administrative costs. We are able to keep the price of our wheelchairs low because of the strategic partnerships we’ve developed with our distribution partners, manufacturers and shipping companies. Some wonder why we provide such an exact figure of $80. Our reason is to provide the true cost of each wheelchair. The cost is based on a yearly audit that calculates the actual cost of each wheelchair for the past fiscal year. We pride ourselves on transparency with our supporters and in the interest of being transparent, we prefer to provide a number that’s precise.
What’s the difference between your three different wheelchairs - GEN_1, GEN_2, and GEN_3? The main difference between our GEN_1 & GEN_2 wheelchairs is adjustability. GEN_1 is a one-size wheelchair designed to give mobility to the greatest range of users possible. We gear our GEN_1 chair for people who are large enough to fit in it and only need to commute a short distance. Our GEN_2 chair is designed for users who have a longer commute, users who need more support due to their disability and for users requiring a smaller fit. GEN_2 is customizable, available in three different widths and has multiple adjustment points. GEN_3 is functionally the same as GEN_2, however it can be folded up for storage or easier transportation. To see a full product comparison of our three models, please click here.
How do you decide who gets which model of wheelchair? This process is the responsibility of FWM’s Distribution Partners. See previous FAQ question “How do you decide who receives a wheelchair?” for more details.
I have an old wheelchair; can I donate it to you? As much as we admire the generosity of this question, we cannot accept used wheelchairs, wheelchair parts or other mobility aids since our distribution model doesn’t support these types of donations. There are a number of great charities that can and will accept used wheelchairs and wheelchair parts to be redistributed to someone in need - please contact email@example.com for a list.
Do you train recipients how to use and maintain their wheelchairs? All FWM wheelchairs come with an assembly, maintenance and usage guide. Developed by physical therapists, this guide highlights all of the necessities of using and maintaining a wheelchair. These instructions include preventing pressure sores, recovering from falls and safe methods of transfer in and out of the wheelchair. Each manual contains contact information for us as well as our distribution partner in the recipient’s area.
Is your training manual available in language other than English? Yes - we make an effort to provide simple-to-understand instructions for wheelchair assembly, along with clear visuals. Currently our wheelchair training manual is available in 18 languages for our GEN_1 wheelchairs and 6 for our GEN_2. We are always looking for people who are willing to translate them into new languages. If you are interested in potentially volunteering to help us in that process, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to get started.
How long does your wheelchair last? An academic study of our wheelchairs reported that after 18 months of use, 199 wheelchairs out of 200 were still functional (a 99.5% success rate). An internal study monitored 354 wheelchairs over two years, and in that period only 17 needed any kind of repair.
Is there a study that shows how well your wheelchairs work in the field? Yes, in fact there are two. Both were conducted by Dr. Susan Shore of Azusa Pacific University’s Department of Physical Therapy and cover the quality of life of FWM recipients before and after receiving a wheelchair. Study results concluded, “…recipient evaluation of the Free Wheelchair Mission wheelchair in two different countries has shown a positive, cost-effective benefit to both health and function without unusual risk.” Both studies demonstrated that a wheelchair had positively impacted families and demonstrated a decline in the problems of skin breakdown and pressure sores. The abstracts of our most recent study (2012) can be found here while the abstract of the original study (2008) can be found here.
How do you test your wheelchairs for durability? We test each model with 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of weight for 200,000 cycles on an ISO standard double-drum unit each month at our manufacturing facilities to ensure their durability. This amount of stress is estimated to be the equivalent of five years of use in the field.
What happens if a wheelchair breaks and needs repairs? Replacement parts are included in every container, and recipients are provided with their local Distribution Partner’s contact information in the event repairs are required. Furthermore, our wheelchairs are designed so that replacement parts can easily be located in most parts of the world.
Do you only give wheelchairs? What about other mobility aids? Currently FWM provides wheelchairs exclusively. However, we are in the preliminary stages of implementing a gift-in-kind program to send other mobility aids including canes, walkers and crutches.
What if a wheelchair recipient no longer needs their wheelchair? In the event that a recipient no longer needs their wheelchair, they generally pass it along to someone else who does.
How to Help
I would like to do more than donate, what can I do? That’s great! There are a number of ways you can extend your support for the gift of mobility. Volunteers provide indispensable support to FWM. Possibly the easiest way to support us is to spread the word about us; tweet about us, pin us, check out our blog and share our Facebook page with friends. Click here for ways to stay connected with our mission and for our social media outlets, or click here for information about volunteering.
What is a Free Wheelchair Mission Ambassador, and how do I become one? An Ambassador is someone whom we empower to use their own creativity and passion to represent FWM. They are part of a nationwide community of people who love our mission and who are dedicated to spreading awareness and raising funds. Ambassadors volunteer at events or at our headquarters. They spread our message at their workplaces, civic groups, schools, sports teams and social networks. Ambassadors have hosted gatherings, competed in athletic events, put on bake sales, played benefit concerts and built lemonade stands. Matching your talents or interests with the story of Free Wheelchair Mission is the key to becoming an effective Ambassador. Learn more about the Ambassador Community by clicking here.
Can I go on a Vision Trip to distribute wheelchairs? As a small yet growing organization, rarely do we get the chance to meet our partners before a container of wheelchairs is shipped; nor do we send volunteers over to assist in the distribution.
How can my church get involved? We would love to have your church get involved. If your church is interested in partnering with FWM, click here for our church-related resources.
If our church already has a partnership with a group where we want our wheelchairs to go, can we send them the wheelchairs? Currently we only ship wheelchairs to approved Distribution Partners. To learn more about shipping wheelchairs to an international group you are affiliated with, please contact email@example.com.