Dealers and auto makers are turning to new ways to raise money for worthy causes.

They are using “crowdfunding” that relies on a blend of social media, traditional fundraising and special test-drive events.

It involves getting prospective customers involved in exciting ways, from Internet guessing games to fitness events to country-music concerts. Several auto makers are on board, including Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Chrysler

“Given that so many nonprofits all across the U.S. are cash strapped, we sought a way to be relevant,” says Tracy Magee, a Ford marketing manager, who is helping to take crowdfunding to the next level of community engagement.

Last fall, Ford launched Drive 4 UR Community in tandem with its dealer body to help fund museums, public parks, zoos, symphonies, food banks and soup kitchens. A trial program in Canada raised $750,000 in the last two years.

Ford and Lincoln dealers team up with local nonprofit organizations of their choosing and schedule test drive, fundraising activities during a crowd-generating event such as a 5-K run, school functions and sports game.

Here’s how it works: A community group or school uses platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Four-Square, along with posters, flyers and old-fashioned phone calls to generate crowds.

The sponsoring dealer provides an array of vehicles for test drives at the event and brings a laptop computer to register participants. For every valid test drive, Ford pays $20, cutting a check for up to $6,000 per event.

With a social-media modern touch, “this is grassroots marketing, and we’re bringing vehicles right to the public,” says Kim Duley, special events coordinator for Huntington Ford in Rochester Hills, MI.

She has coordinated several events like that. “It is low pressure and lots of fun,” she says. “People have an opportunity to meet all of us, and when they are looking for a vehicle they remember us.”

One such event at a private religious college drew students, alumni, professors and parents. Lines were long and spirits high.

“Just think, in one day we can help a group like Rochester College raise more money than they could generate by selling pizza kits and magazine subscriptions,” Duley says.

The business side of it is that people who may not visit a Ford dealership out of habit or consumers who drive a non-Ford product become interested in the lineup and are more open to dealership personnel.

Through its sponsoring dealers, Ford provides the community group with all types of fundraising and event-planning tips including press-release templates, examples from other communities, graphic support and online guidance.

Internet consultants say crowdfunding is one of the hottest trends of the decade, led by platforms like www.kickstarter.org that allows people to contribute on a secure online platform to subsidize authors, artists, charities and cancer research.

Both Ford and Chrysler schedule ride-and-drive events combining new media and old-school test drives. With each success, measured from crowd participation and car-buying interest, they add more recipients and a wider variety of events.

For example, Chrysler worked with YMCAs in targeted towns across America including the North Oakland YMCA in the auto maker’s backyard of Auburn Hills, MI.

Last year, the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit and the Dodge brand celebrated Healthy Kids Day, a community event designed to encourage kids and families to stay physically and intellectually fit.

Milosch’s Palace Chrysler Jeep Dodge of Lake Orion, MI, hosted the Dodge Ride and Drive, bringing an assortment of vehicles. Dodge donated $20 for each test drive. The YMCA helped build crowds by involving parents, local schools and its members.

Representatives from Crittenton Hospital, Buffalo Wild Wings, Michigan Scholastic Cycling Club and Carousel Acres Petting Zoo helped coordinate a scavenger hunt, bounce house and healthy-cooking demonstrations, so people had much to do and learn while waiting for their test car.

By the end of the day, Molsch's coordinated 80 test drives, raising $1,600.

“People in the community remember us,” says Cathy Maniace, sales representative for Milosch, who helps coordinate dealership fundraisers.

“A lot of people are hesitant to visit a dealership because they don’t like shopping and fear the pressure,” she says. “They are more inclined to come in if they feel favorably disposed to a dealer, one that supports their cause."

Nationally, a total of $25,480 was raised for YMCAs across the country during the Healthy Kids Day events. The money came from donations made for each ride and drive activated by the local dealers in each market.

“The more people feel involved and amused, the more likely they are to participate,” says Eileen Wunderlich, marketing communications manager for Chrysler.

For those who skip to a country beat, Chrysler began its “Road to the Ram Jam” that ended in a late December concert.

Potential customers had online and in-dealer options for participating with Ram truck dealers, entering to win tickets to a concert featuring Kellie Pickler, Brantley Gilbert, Zach Brown Band, Easton Corbin and Billy Currington. 

Participating dealers gave away posters of Pickler and other entertainers and promoted the contest on their local radio stations.

Facebook and Twitter followers had exclusive contests and a chance to win memorabilia from people who worked on the Ram Truck by voting for their favorite one of the five recording artists. Two hundred contest winners attended the concert. Five Ram pickups were auctioned off for charity.

Kia Motors America joined with DonorsChoose.org, a nationwide crowdfunding platform with a $1 million donation.

“We fund 50% and encourage citizen philanthropists to donate the other 50%,” says Kia spokesman Scott McKee.

“We pre-selected projects in the zip codes of the corporate headquarters in Irvine, CA, the manufacturing plant in West Point, GA, and the cities near the 755 Kia dealers across the country,” he says.

Kia currently targets 4,000 schools in high-poverty areas and expects to help 300,000 other schools with incidentals such as class supplies and field trips. “Dealers decide how they want to be involved,” McKee says. Retailers may give the donorschoose.org gift cards to every prospective customer taking a test drive, issue these cards at special events or promote charities on their individual websites. 

“The broader message here is that Kia has experienced fantastic success over the last five years, and it is our responsibility to give back to the communities we do business with,” McKee says. “Over a million and a half gift cards are now in circulation, and we plan to integrate with dealers even more in 2013.”

Dealers on the board of Hyundai’s Hope on Wheels speak passionately about helping children with cancer. It is as much a mission as a program.

“Every Hyundai dealer gives a portion of every single car sale to help the cause," says Mickey Pong, owner of Carlsbad Hyundai south of San Diego and board member of Hope on Wheels. Since 1998, Hyundai dealers and the auto maker have given $57 million to pediatric cancer research. 

A New England Hyundai dealer, Tom O'Brien initiated Jimmy's Fund 14 years ago to help a young cancer victim undergoing treatment. By 2007, the notion of funding cancer institutes near Hyundai’s dealerships had taken off. A charitable foundation was forged, and all 820 dealers agreed to participate.

“We have handprint ceremonies on cars with kids putting their handprints in varied colors on the cars,” says dealer Gary Micallef, chairman of Hope on Wheels and owner of Hyundai of Everett in Everett, WA.

In 2012, Hope on Wheels made 41 grants of $250,000 each, for a total of $10 million. In 2013, the organization expects to use more social media to promote its events and contributions.

Dealers have posters of CJ George, the Hope on Wheels youth ambassador who travels to hospitals and events talking about his life as a teen survivor of cancer. John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai’s U.S. operations, runs the 5-K events.

Pont says he’d participate even if there weren’t the prospect of drumming up business. “I'm really proud of this campaign. We sell enough cars without having to do this. We do it for kids.”