500 Cars and Counting

Matt Carlson is president of Fix It Forward Ministry, the charity he cofounded to provide transportation for people rebuilding their lives. He also heads Fix It Forward Auto Care, which generates funds to support the charity. (Photo/Nancy Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Matt Carlson has always been a car guy. “I like old cars. I like fixing them and playing with them,” he says. “But it does eat up a lot of your time and energy. So why not use that passion to do something good?”
That was the genesis of Fix It Forward. He talked it over with his friend Jeremy Jensen, a fellow software engineer at Microsoft who shared his passion. They would continue, they decided, to invest tool time together, but not just coaxing their personal vehicles to purr. Instead, they’d focus on providing free repairs for people who couldn’t afford a mechanic.
The idea took root and quickly grew. “Jeremy and I started by fixing cars for people in tough situations who needed a little help. But then we had another idea – how about if we found a way to actually donate reliable cars to someone who needed them?
“We tried the idea out at the YWCA Women’s Shelter … asked them, ‘Would this be helpful for you?’”
The answer: Yes! “Transportation is the number one obstacle standing between a woman and independence,” Matt says, quoting professionals he’s come to know. “Without a car, you can’t take the kids to day care, then get to work or school. You can’t get away from an abusive situation. The MAT buses don’t run everywhere or at all hours. Uber doesn’t work so well if you need three child car seats. You can have all the support in the world, but there’s a critical piece missing.
“Here was something that could really make a difference.”
That was nearly 10 years ago. The program thrived from the first: “It’s pretty easy to build a business when you give your work away free,” Matt laughs.
Last week, Fix It Forward Ministry handed over the keys to their 498th, 499th and 500th cars – an achievement not even imagined back when the two men set out to make a difference.
Matt left his IT career back then to head the fledgling nonprofit, which has never paid him a dime; Jeremy, now a senior software architect at Microsoft, continues as Fix It Forward’s vice president. And the two men kept on thinking: How could their project be sustained?
That was the genesis of Fix It Forward Auto Care, a full-service auto repair business that opened its doors in 2018. Not only does the company, now grown to four locations in Moorhead, Fargo and West Fargo, provide trustworthy, high-quality service to auto and truck owners. Just as importantly, its profits are funneled back to keep the car donations rolling.
“Fix It Forward Auto Care covers all the overhead for our ministry,” Carlson explains. Volunteer “car guys,” including some off-the-clock technicians, use the two largest shops’ facilities, lifts and tools to work on donated vehicles after hours. The business supplies them with oil, antifreeze and rags, as well as provides other critical essentials – utilities, telephone, internet and insurance.
The nonprofit arm pays only for parts, at an average cost of $355 per vehicle.
Fix It Forward Ministry has grown into a robust charity that provides roadworthy transportation to those with the drive to rebuild their lives … lives shattered by domestic violence, homelessness, chemical addiction, or reentry into society after incarceration. Potential recipients are vetted by the community’s social service organizations, which provide referrals to Fix It Forward. No applications are made directly to the shop.
“Our work is faith-based, to be the hands and feet of Christ,” Matt says. But he stresses, “We help everybody. We never consider religion when we get referrals.
As for the cars that keep the program rolling, they come directly from individuals who have learned about their work. Some cars are third wheels, so to speak, no longer needed after grown children have moved away from home. Others come from elders no longer able to drive, or families who have lost a loved one. “When they learn that they can change someone’s life by donating Grandpa’s car, it becomes a kind of legacy,” he observes.
Along with the income donated by Fix It Forward Auto Care, the nonprofit relies on gifts from organizations and individuals. Not long ago Matt’s church, Hope Lutheran, raised $70,000 with a spring fundraiser. Jeremy’s congregation, Triumph Lutheran, has also been supportive, as have others. Individuals, too, support its work through charitable giving. “We count on building a broad donor base to stabilize income,” he notes. “You never know what’s just around the corner.
“When we started out, Jeremy and I could never have dreamed of what Fix It Forward has become,” he muses. “This was never even a dream. After we’d repaired and given away a dozen, we thought, ‘Wow, what a run! But this will be over soon.’”
Wrong. After presenting the keys for their 500th car last week, they took the next logical step. They raised the bar: 1,000 by the end of 2026.
For more information, check out www.fixitforwardministry.com and fixitforwardautocare.com

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