Ask a Gallery Owner: Should I Donate My Art to Charity Events?

As an artist you could easily give away ten lifetime’s worth of work to all of the charitable causes that would love to have one of your works in their silent auction. The question is, should you do donate, and if so what should you keep in mind when making a donation? I recently received an email from an artist with some of these questions. Below is our conversation thread on the subject.

Original Email

Hi Jason,
What’s your opinion about donating pieces to charity auctions, and what should be the reserve or minimum value versus the commercial gallery price? Thanks.

My Response

Donations can be a great way to give back to the community and to get some exposure. Make sure the piece you donate is a good representation of your work and not an orphan piece. A reserve is a good idea, but the reserve can be lower than the gallery price.

Artist’s Response

Thanks, Jason. Good advice, but should the reserve value be 30%, 50%, 75%, from a gallery’s point of view.?

My Response

I’ve never really had too much of a concern with my artist’s donating work. I would be fine with the number being 30-50% of retail value. If you have a gallery in the local area it wouldn’t hurt to have a conversation with them about what they would be comfortable with. I have sold artwork to clients who missed out on bidding on an auction piece, so it was good exposure for us as well as the artist.

Some additional points to keep in mind:

  1. When making a donation, give only your best work. I know it’s tempting to go digging in the back corner of the attic to give away an orphaned piece of artwork, but remember that the attendees and a charitable event are likely your target customers. You want to show them your best work.
  2. Request that the charity give you the address information of anyone who bids on the work. While I would certainly understand that the charity might be reluctant to do this, I knew an artist who asked for this information once and was provided with addresses. Perhaps some junior charity worker didn’t know any better or perhaps it was the charity’s policy to provide this info. The artist sent out a low-key marketing piece saying something to the effect of “I understand you bid on my artwork at a recent auction and didn’t win it – I just wanted to let you know my studio is in the area and I would be happy to show you additional works that are currently available. Should you find one that you fall in love with, I will donate a portion of the proceeds to the charity.” He sold a painting as a result of this effort, and even though it was only a small one, he felt he built a great relationship with the buyer.
  3. Pick 2-3 charities or causes that you believe in and become a consistent supporter. This has two benefits: First, the more you participate the more likely you are to have the opportunity to serve on boards or committees where you can network with other volunteers, some of whom may be great community contacts for you. Second, once you’ve picked your causes you now have a great way to decline other invitations to donate – “I already support the American Diabetes association and Breast Cancer Awareness – while your cause is noble and important I’m afraid I can’t commit to any more causes.”
  4. Give out of the goodness of your heart. I realize all of the points made above talk about how you can optimize contributions to try and get a marketing advantage. I’m sure that most charities would be happy to see their contributors benefit from their participation, after all, you’re far likelier to donate again in the future, but this shouldn’t be your ultimate goal. While you should take advantage of any benefits available through your contribution, even if you don’t get any immediate advantage, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have helped the community.

What do you think – do you donate to charities and community causes? How have you benefited from your participation? What advice would you give to an artist who has been asked to donate art to a cause? Leave your thoughts and advice in the comments below.

 

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43 Comments

  1. That’s all great advice. The only thing you didn’t mention is the fact that you can only write off the cost of materials, not the value of the painting. Most artists know that but worth repeating. I donated to a gala recently and they invited me to the event where I was able to meet the collector who purchased my painting. ps. I listed the reserve at 50%.

    1. ok time for re-education ..I am an artist and a benefit auctioneer. I do believe in supporting the cause, but considering that the artist can only write off material expense used in that donated piece, I try to tell my non profits to offer a commission to the artist as well , This is a win -win because the artist will be more inclined to donate a better piece , knowing that they will get something for their efforts and the non-profit will most likely sell a better piece for more money. I feel strongly about this because too, if the purchaser of the artist’s work ends up donating that piece to another benefit , they can write off the entire value. Why shouldn’t the artist get a higher monetary compensation as well as the non-profit and the purchaser who donates. Also, if you, the artist, is selling your work in a gallery for a higher price and someone waits to try to “steal ” a piece at auction for less, where is the incentive for them to purchase at your gallery price point…. just my 2 cents

  2. For the number one consideration is, do I really want to support this organization? This is important because if the charity pulls in very little money on the piece then I’m not distraught about making so little money–the charity is getting whatever comes in. If the cause is something near and dear then I can live with those results more easily. I hadn’t thought of the exposure that being in an auction would bring, and thus the buyer to the artist or the gallery. I think that’s much more likely in a metropolitan area or one that has a large art appreciating community–not likely in a smaThere’s a lot to be said for believing in a cause. At this point I’m planning to bequeath horse paintings to the organization that preserves the horses that I painted. art.com

  3. A question – if you put a reserve price on a piece and no one bids high enough to get the piece, does the charity keep the piece for their next fund raiser or return it? I have donated to a university gallery fund raiser and when the piece didn’t sell, they asked if they could put it in their gift shop.

    1. They should have that information written on their donation form. The organization I donate to does state that any unsold pieces will be treated with dignity and saved for the next year’s auction.

  4. I am usually asked to contribute art pieces to 4 or 5 fundraising events each year… as items to be auctioned off during a silent auction. I don’t think I have ever denied a request. I have learned over the years that my generosity has served me well and will continue to serve me well. I find that I receive 3 or 4 times what I contribute. Oftentimes, I am compensated when I expect nothing in return. It just works out.

    I know that the people who ask me usually support (at some time or other) events that I hold at my gallery, so that’s an added benefit. But, I try to give from the heart, as stated in point number 4 above. It just makes sense. We all struggle with life’s events at times. If I can help in some way for an organization to help others to improve their situation, then I want to be a part of that.

  5. Yes, I donate my paintings to charities and auctions at my church and other worthy organizations, and it has helped buyers become interested in my work. It is also a fun way to help an organization fund important money making projects which I support, such as my sorority, which promotes literacy and donates books to schools.
    Joan E. Hogge

  6. I use to donate work because I was told it was good exposure. That was never true. The only thing donating to fund raisers ever did for me was being asked by more charities for donations. Then having seeing my hard work go for way less than market value was never good. These days when asked to donate my work I offer to volunteer during the event instead.

    1. I agree with Jenny. That has been my experience. When I’ve donated, I have gotten multiple calls to donate more art to other groups. “You gave them a free painting, how about us?” The “exposure” and “connection to buyers” was not forthcoming. People put the same value on your work that you do. When it’s “free”, that zero is the worth the charity puts on it. Some have been huffy about a reserve, even at 50%. Plus, I have yet to see a doctor donate a physical or a dentist donate a crown or a root canal. When other professionals start donating their services, I may resume. Until then, it seems like a racket where artists are used to create buzz for other endeavors (however worthy they be) and the art buyers can later re-donate and get the full value write-off of the art. I am very philanthropic, and give both money and time to worthy causes, but have been burned by the art donation experience.

  7. I have always donated a piece of artwork to a cause when asked to do so. Donating to any cause brings recognition of your artwork regardless. I also believe in the statement, what you give you receive 10 times fold. This is true in all things.

  8. I have seen abuse with donating to charities. I have had people ask me to donate something that they ended up buying themselves at a discount, so basically they played me and got my work for a discount. Left a really bad taste in my mouth. I would rather designate a piece as a donation piece, sell it myself and give the proceeds (or a percentage) to a charity.

    Along with my sculptures I make wood bangles and sometimes I will donate those as I don’t have the investment in them I do in a sculpture.

    1. I once saw 2 large framed pieces that I had donated to a local art organization at a consignment store. I was crushed. I almost bought them back!
      I think I am going to move forward with asking for a reserve and a 50/50 split. Hopefully, that will encourage higher prices which would be of benefit for all. We’ll see.

  9. I donate yearly to a few charities I want to support. I only donate work I’m proud of and that was created within the last two years. I ask the organizers what the work’s winning price was and that gives me a good idea about whether the price I would have tried to sell it for, is approximately the market value. I also hang around for a while during the silent auction and listen to what people say about the work – priceless feedback!

  10. I get charity donation requests all the time and it can be hard turning them down. I usually just say something like. “I get a lot of requests of this sort and If I donated to all of them I wouldn’t have enough work left to sell.” Most of them are understanding. I have chosen two charities I believe in, one religious and the other is in support of an art center who I have a good relationship with and who supports me with artist residencies and promotions whenever possible. One of these charities sends out blank 5×5 inch panels to multiple artists who will do artwork on them and then that is what they auction off. I like this method as they are just asking for a small original piece which will only take a small amount of time from each artist.

  11. As an amatuer artist and professional fundraiser I’ve observed art donations from both sides.

    I strongly agree with you and would emphasize that the first and strongest motivation in donating art is that the artist wants to benefit that cause. Silent and live auctions success are utlimately dependent on the right people being in the room. The right people for the charity may or may not be the right people for your art. Reserves can protect the artist but may cause extra work and could end up not benefiting the charity. Also, what kind of items will be in the auction with your art and how will that impact your brand or image as an artist? Is your piece going to be next to a book of car wash coupons or a luxury trip to Tuscany?

    If protecting the market price of your work is extremely important, maybe consider selling your piece through normal channels and donating the proceeds. This also provides the artist a tax benefit; as mentioned above, if art is donated, only the cost of materials can be deducted from the artist’s taxes.

    I sell some art, but I don’t make a living with my art, so protecting the market value isn’t a major factor to me at this time. I view my donations of art as allowing me to support my charities in a non-cash manner. I don’t get the tax deduction, but my works have ultimately brought in more money than I would have written personal checks to those same charities. As a side benefit to me, my art work gets exposure. That being said, I haven’t donated to any charities I don’t support just for the exposure.

    Your art and brand are assets just like your money. Your donations are ultimately investments in that chairity’s work. As with any investment, think through what you want the dividend to be and hopefully you’ll avoid disapointment. And believe me, no charity wants you to be a disapointed donor either. If you wouldn’t give them money, don’t give them your art.

  12. I no longer donate to charitable causes although I would like to – in the past there has been no minimum bid established or considered – and the works that I worked on for weeks related to their “theme auction” went at such low bids it was an embarrassment- the low bidders had a significant profile in the community and no one wanted to bid against them – but the charity lost out too, because if organized properly the works I donated could have resulted in several hundred dollars each, rather than the $30 they got each. So if I give now to a charitable cause – I give money directly or my time, not my art.

  13. For the past few years I have donated gift certificates for pet portraits. I set a size and expiration date. I have examples of my work for display. In addition to the gift, another commission usually results. At worst the purchaser refers me to others.

  14. I consider all my donations gifts and I donate to only two organizations, at the moment. I often donate gift certificates so I can work with the person on their commission. That usually gets me a happy client that will then spread the word about my work. I also do the annual t-shirt for one event and everyone likes them as they are based on horses they know, or know of, anyway. I consider it advertising expense. I am still trying to build my business and get name recognition.

  15. The suggestion that the charity give the artist the contact information of anyone who BIDS on the art is bizarre. Why would anyone want to bid on anything if they know their contact info would be shared simply for bidding? On the other hand, giving the contact info of the WINNING BIDDER to the artist is a good idea. This allows the artist to send a thank-you card, notify them of future shows, and keep track of where their art is (for example, if a museum wanted to do a retrospective show). A gallery should give the artist the contact info for a purchaser of their art for similar reasons.

    1. Hi Cynthia,
      I respectfully disagree.
      Whenever my husband and I do shows (we are both artists), we put out a sheet for people to add their contact information for our mailing lists. I realize that is a different situation, but people at the charity can request that their contact info is not given out. However, I have found that the majority of people are pleased for the opportunity to “hob-nob” with the artist, so are more than happy to give their contact info. Just my own experience…

  16. I look at donation as a form of self promotion. It seems you see it as this as well. It works best for me when the community is smallish. This way fewer items are in competition with the work. One thing for sure, people go to buy when they go to a charity auction. 80% of the time my work has sold although the dollar figure is not high.

  17. In the past I have donated many pieces to good causes, however my policy has changed! Instead I make a cash donation or purchase one of the auction items that appeals to me. This way I spend less money (my painting time plus materials is in the hundreds of $$$) and still support the cause.

  18. I donated a large custom stained glass piece to the central library in town when they were added on a new wing. Met with the director who showed me the color swatches, we came up with a a literary and ocean theme: Poseidon on a horse drawn water sled/shell with sea nymphs/mermaids. I was an English major and always felt my childhood fascination with mythology helped me to understand fine literature on a higher level.
    Not only did it feel great to donate a public piece for kids to see for the long haul, I received some press. Over the next couple of years, 4 newspaper features and a 1/2 hr. interview on the local tv channel were great bonuses! I couldn’t have afforded that kind on press!

  19. Yes and no, depending on your heartbeat. “Exposure” rarely is part of the decision because folks attending the benefit aren’t necessarily patrons. They are interested in the cause itself.
    …. which explains this chuckle from last year: I donated a rather large giclee to a city sponsored charity. It hung in the Chamber of Commerce for two months prior to the event (worthwhile exposure). The winner of the raffle didn’t bother to pick it up. Staff called her repeatedly while the giclee hung in their main office another two months. Embarrassed, the city called me since the winner obviously didn’t want it, so would I donate it again to ____, another worthy project? I had already written it off so yes, of course. The Chamber thanked me profusely and we joked I couldn’t even give it away. 🙂 Rapport is valuable and this episode was repeated to many civic leaders.
    We hold some charities close to heart. I donated another giclee to Hurricane Harvey relief in south Texas … I didn’t care about exposure or cost, I only wanted to help my fellow Texans. The Art Center of Corpus Christi, a premier public art facility in the Southwest, escaped the storm, https://www.artcentercc.org/ but was proactive in organizing benefits for local artists who not only lost their homes but their life work. Tragic. I didn’t care how much they sold it for but for what they could get.
    I’ve done a couple others the organizer didn’t even bother to thank me. Never again. You will become more discerning … but don’t lose your heart.

  20. I am an artist on the board of a charity called Cancervive.org.uk we support people affected by cancer. I haven’t donated any artwork to them yet although I do intend to in the future. The way I see it, my artwork gets out there on people’s walls & it’s all good marketing…

  21. I donate annually to a silent auction that raises money for a high school student continuing in art at a post secondary level. It warms my heart. Also this year I donated a couple of pieces to a fundraiser for a friend ‘s sister, who has cancer. One of the winners of one of my pieces was beside herself with pleasure. It makes it all worth it.

  22. I have never had a sale result from donating to a charity. In over 40 years. Ever. So I have developed two strategies – I only donate actual work to those I am passionate about, and to any other that asks I either donate an older work (still nice, but not current), or I donate “certificates” – on the certificate I list all my info and a link to my online shop, and a special code that gives them a significant discount – depending on the charity 25-50%. This lets me “support” the local charity without hurting myself. They can add the certificates to gift baskets, or give them as prizes – whatever they want to do. I think a lot of it depends on where you live – I’m in a very rural, economically depressed area. I know jewelers in vibrant urban areas who regularly give pieces of high value to favorite charities and reap the reward in sales many times over. That hasn’t happened, and won’t happen, where I live.

  23. I’ve donated pieces to a local (rural) organization that I really want to support. Because of that exposure I sold a couple of other pieces. I never expected that. So you just never know. I just want them to set a reasonable starting bid at the silent auction.

  24. I donate to charities but I have learned to be selective. I had one organization that asked for framed original work only, and I decided that does not work for me. I now have a great relationship with a local trail organization that sells prints of my work on cards and giclee prints. I each case, I make sure that I retain the cost of creating the work so that I am not out of pocket to produce more. Last year I had a show with work produced from this trail and I donated %15 of my sales to the group. The local gallery that held my show, only charged %30 commission so with the sales I had, it was a winning combination. The wonderful publicity gained by this was far greater than the small expense incurred. Next year, we have a group show planned in the park and they are providing additional advertising, volunteers and web space. I also receive tax receipts for donations which does help a bit and I get to give back to an awesome trail in the area that I truly love to paint.

  25. Interesting take on things. I expected Jason to be on the other side of the the discussion. As in “don’t” – good points that I had not considered. As always, good discussion.

  26. This is very topical for me, as I am dropping of a silent auction piece tomorrow. I am donating an ASU football limited edition framed print from one of mu original paintings for the ASU football banquet at the end of the season. For me this makes sense, as the people in attendance, boosters, hardcore ASU fans are my exact target audience for this small edition. I will have promotional cards out on display as well, so those that don’t win the auction, but are still interested in one will be able to contact me directly. But I agree with others that you really need to be selective regarding such donations.

  27. The last time I donated work for a fundraiser I was stunned at the results. It was in support of a local, government funded gallery. My work sold at double my asking price and since I received 50% of proceedings I did not loose a cent. The organizers went for a live auction format. I have again been asked to donate a work created in three hours of music and entertainment for another artist organization which will be auctioned off at a later date for the CBC. I am being paid a stipend and cost of materials. I love the challenge the three hour deadline gives. I have yet to decide what I might create. All in all it is a win-win.

  28. I have several objections to donating art. I live in a large arts community, and we are constantly asked to dontate. One year I saved the letters, and believe me, they made quite a stack of paper.
    One objection is that there is a perception that artists live some kind of charmed life, we are above the worries of having bills and normal family problems, illnesses etc. It seems that many think we flit around without a care, and it is somehow an honor to give away our hard work. I wish to dispell this notion, but rather stress that artists are business people, with very high overheads, using expensive materials, and work hard for every cent we earn. Asking us to give away our work is really insulting from that standpoint. I have heard people point out to me that I dont have to work!!
    Another issue is that we all get older. After years of struggle for lifelong artists, often we have only meager savings, and medical bills that mount up. We need our paintings are artworks to supply us with income, not a vanity show where others profit, and where gala fundraisers cost more than we earn in a year.
    Of course there is the point that we cannot get a deduction, it would not be worth trying. Giving away our best work might represent a piece that took months or even years to execute. Collectors wait to get an artist’s work at less than retail, and gloat over the fact when they do. Many auctions etc just lead to a perception that our work is of lesser value, and these collectors then do not want to pay a fair price. In the long run it can really hurt careers.
    I think that these fundraising projects should give the artist a percentate of the money raised…. period. Artists can always decline if they feel they are financially secure, or have a favorite cause. I know in some areas of the country, this is becoming standard, but not where I live.
    I hate to be a sore head about it, but I get weary of what is essentially a lack of respect for the hard work of the lifelong artist, and the lack of awareness that it is not an easy life. I do see that where I live, those who are freely donating are second career artists, who made a bundle for decades in other professions, like real estate etc. And good for them. But for those of us who have spent years working at our art, and to be constantly solicited for free dontations, it gets really old fast.

  29. Over my forty-five year (+/-) career, I have donated nearly a half -million dollars worth of my art to charitable causes. My experiences have been both good and bad and I remain conflicted about the issue. The comments above reflect the fact that decisions about donating your work can be rightly influenced by a multitude of factors, and the right answer will be a different answer for each individual artist. I came across two interesting articles relative to the issue just yesterday. Both are worth a quick read. (The HuffPo article is a rant; the Times article is not.)

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mat-gleason/charity-art-auctions-_b_872953.html
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/28/arts/design/28kino.html

    Additionally, regarding charitable donations and deductions, you should read this short piece by Michael Rips, which presents a timely and intriguing idea: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/opinion/painters-deserve-their-deduction.html?_r=0

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