by Ginger Rough, Stephanie Russo and Matt Dempsey The Arizona Republic
In February 2000, Scottsdale resident Bill Wohl received a heart transplant - and a new perspective on life.
Now, everywhere he goes, he advocates for organ donation. It's easy to spread the message, especially when he's driving.
Wohl has a personalized "Donate Life" license plate on the back of his car. He has purchased several of the blue and green specialty plates over the past several years, giving them to friends and handing them out at athletic events around the world.
"I actually carry the front (license plate) with me wherever I go," said Wohl, who helped get a bill authorizing the plate through the Legislature in 2003.
"At first, it was just me and people involved in the (transplant) coalition who had them. But then the numbers jumped, and now there are renewals and people buying new plates.
"You see them everywhere."
View photos of all 61 specialty plates in Arizona.
The popularity of specialty license plates has steadily increased in Arizona in recent years. A Republic analysis of data provided by the Arizona Department of Transportation shows that more than 518,000 current license plates, or just under 8 percent, are now specialty plates, compared with just more than 205,000, or about 4 percent, in 2002.
In most cases, specialty plates benefit a specific cause or non-profit group.
Those that are popular yield not only money for that organization but also increased visibility for its cause.
But introducing a new plate remains a gamble. Groups must come up with tens of thousands in startup money, and there's no guarantee they'll recoup their costs through sales.
This year, the Arizona Legislature approved 12 new specialty plates, benefiting organizations and causes as diverse as childhood-cancer research and the "tea party" movement. Combined with previously authorized designs and standard-issue plates, the state's motorists will soon have more than 60 choices for their cars, trucks and motorcycles.
The extra options might be good news for Arizona drivers, who can already show allegiance to their alma mater or favorite sports team or advocate for an issue of personal importance.
But for non-profits that rely on the plate as a fundraising tool, it makes the competition for motorists' dollars that much tighter.
How it works
The Arizona Department of Transportation oversees both the design and the production process of the state's specialty-plate program.
The first step is getting the Legislature to authorize a plate's creation, which is not always easy.
New specialty plates are often the subject of intense debate, with some lawmakers arguing that having too many different plates creates a public-safety hazard for other drivers who can't easily identify them when calling police in an emergency.
If lawmakers approve a new plate and the governor signs the legislation into law, the non-profit must raise $32,000 in startup costs and come up with an acceptable design.
For the most part, the non-profits have flexibility in the colors and the symbols and emblems they put on their plate, though they must adhere to certain design standards.
A plate, for example, cannot contain an image or wording that could be offensive, said Harold Sanders, an ADOT spokesman. Organizations also must ensure that the images are easy to read and simplistic enough that law enforcement and other motorists can quickly recognize it.
The department has occasionally asked non-profits to redesign their plates for that reason.
Motorists can buy specialty plates for $25. Of that, $17 goes to the organization represented by the plate. The Department of Transportation receives the remaining $8 as an administrative fee.
That means an organization must sell nearly 1,900 plates before it starts to see a return on its initial investment.
Drivers who opt for the standard plate don't pay a special fee. The plate is included in the vehicle's license and registration charges.
The one exception is for personalized plates. Those also cost $25.
Groups that have successfully leveraged their license plate into a good fundraising tool say an attractive design and relatable cause are what make a plate a big seller.
The majority of the 10 most popular plates issued this fiscal year support organizations that help those who served in the military, benefit pets or children, or provide scholarships to college students, according to The Republic's analysis.
Of those, the veterans plate is by far the biggest seller, with 42,276 in circulation, including those issued to motorcycle riders. Proceeds from the plate benefit the Arizona Veterans Donation Fund for veteran health care, education, memorials and the State Veterans Home. The fund also benefits from other popular plates, including the military freedom and Purple Heart plates.
Another plate likely familiar to most Arizona drivers is white with tiny handprints on it.
The "child abuse prevention" plate was one of the highest-selling specialty plates in the past year, with 22,684 issued between July 1, 2010, and March 31.
Money from the plates goes into the Child Abuse Prevention Fund, which is managed by Arizona Republic charities and the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families.
The money from the sale of the plates is combined with donations and distributed to non-profit agencies that provide child-abuse prevention programs.
But with so many new plates coming online, the competition for drivers becomes more heated.
The possibility that an Arizona Future Farmers of America specialty license plate, released in October, might be a money-losing proposition weighed heavily on Tyler Grandil, the group's executive secretary.
"That was the tough thing going into it. We didn't know what to expect," Grandil said. "Whenever you are dealing with that kind of money, you have to be very careful, and it was definitely a calculated risk."
So far, 633 of the plates have been sold, according to ADOT's April data. Grandil is happy with that, though he expects it will be three years before the group sees a return on its investment.
"Honestly, I was going to be thrilled with 300 or 400 sold," Grandil said. "We were hoping to get it back in four to five years."
Some organizations say that although sales are important, the plates themselves serve a far more important purpose: They bring visibility to an organization's cause.
"This is the greatest way to just get the message out," said Anne Taylor, business manager of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, which receives proceeds from the "Golden Rule" plate. "There are so many instances of road rage and unkind drivers, we thought of it as a tool for peace."
More than 8,900 Arizona drivers have the plate, which strives to remind residents to treat each other as they would like to be treated.
If all the newly approved Arizona plates are developed and brought to market, the state's motorists will have more than 60 total plates to choose from, putting Arizona somewhere in the middle of the pack of U.S. states in terms of total designs offered.
The new options include plates that support public broadcast television, women veterans, litter prevention and the state's Centennial.
Any money raised by the centennial plate will help pay for events commemorating Arizona's 100 years of statehood and a planned museum that will celebrate the experiences and industries that helped shape Arizona.
Arizona State University, which has a Top 10-selling plate used to help fund academic scholarships, will add a new one to the mix with the soon-to-be-released Arizona Pub- lic Broadcast Television plate.
"We are hoping it will be a popular one," said Terri Shafer, a university spokeswoman. The plate is being designed by the university's art department in conjunction with Channel 8 (KAET).
It remains to be seen whether all the new plates come to fruition or whether the public has the appetite for an increasingly wide range of diverse designs.
But for Brett Lane, 21, a lifelong Phoenix Suns fan, having a specialty license plate is a no-brainer.
"If there is something you really firmly believe in, and it has a specialty license plate, then why not get it?" said Lane, who spent a few years working as a Suns ball boy and has "SNASH13" emblazoned across a Suns specialty plate.
"I was just really mad that they took forever to make it," he said of the Suns design, which became available in May 2009. "They had an (Arizona) Diamondbacks one (two) years before it."
Be an Organ Donor
“You Have the Power to Donate Life – Sign-up today!
Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
“You Have the Power to Donate Life – Sign-up today!
Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
United States, organdonor.gov (Select your state - top right)
United Kingdom, register at NHS Organ Donor Register
Australia, register at Australian Organ Donor Register
Your generosity can save or enhance the lives of up to fifty people with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants (see allotransplantation). One tissue donor can help by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves
Has your life been saved by an organ transplant? "Pay it forward" and help spread the word about the need for organ donation - In the U.S. another person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 11 minutes and 18 people die each day waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. Organs can save lives, corneas renew vision, and tissue may help to restore someone's ability to walk, run or move freely without pain. Life Begins with You