2 BIG Questions to Ask Before Donating Art to a Charity

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

There’s an ongoing debate about whether artists should participate with charities by donating artwork.

Non-artists are familiar with charities and simply donating money. But if you’re an artist, odds are good you’ve also had a charity approach you—sometimes out of the clear blue—and ask if you’d like to donate one or two pieces of artwork to their fundraiser auction or raffle.

Some artists see these events as a means of gaining exposure for their work, especially since many charities have high-power supporters who have money and aren’t afraid to spend it on art.

Other artists view charitable donations as devaluing their work. There is, after all, no way to guarantee the artwork will sell for anything near normal retail value. Not to mention that usually there’s no additional benefit from the sale except for the aforementioned exposure.

I’ve participated in many charities over the years, and I have my own opinions about it. Some have been good experiences and have resulted in subsequent portrait work. Some have been not so good.

For any artist considering donating to a charity, here are the two most important questions to ask:

1. Is it a raffle or an auction?

With a raffle, people buy a chance to win something. Unless the raffle is high dollar—a brand new Rolls Royce, for example—the tickets range anywhere from a dollar or less to $5 each. If you buy multiple tickets, you probably get a discount.

Chances are the winner will have paid no more than that amount for the prize they’ve won. Yes, the overall proceeds from the raffle may reach or even exceed the retail value of the artwork, but that benefits the organization raising funds; not the artist. With most raffles, there’s no monetary benefit from making a donation.

Not to mention that the winner of the artwork may or may not have an interest in what they’ve won. They may not even claim the prize.

Plus, let’s say you donate a custom piece—perhaps a custom portrait. If you do that, you run the risk of dealing with someone who really couldn’t care less about your work or the painting-to-be. The worst case scenario is that your new “client” will make impossible demands and expect more than you—or any artist—can deliver. End result? Net loss.

An auction, on the other hand, usually plays to a much smaller number of potential buyers. Those buyers may be pre-qualified and they’re also more likely to have an interest in at a least a few of the items being offered.

Of course not all of those bidders are going to be interested in your artwork, but at least with an auction you stand a much better chance of having your work go home with someone who values it and wants to display it. After all, someone who isn’t interested in art isn’t likely to bid on art. There is the possibility that someone will buy something they don’t want just to give money to a charity they care about, but if the auction is well run and has a lot of items to bid on, that’s not likely.

And who knows? You may end up with someone who buys from you directly at full retail in the future. It does happen. My advice? Steer clear of raffles and choose your auctions wisely.

2. What percentage of the sale goes to you?

Most fundraisers are more interested in raising funds than in paying them out. That is, after all, their purpose. But some organizers do realize that when an artist makes a donation, the artist may be donating part of their livelihood. Those organizers quite often offer a percentage of the sale to the artist.

Auctions like these are also more likely to be well-managed, well-publicized, and well-attended. But beware; there are exceptions to every rule.

When you’re approached by an organization and asked to donate, don’t be afraid to ask what percentage is paid to the artist. While most of us can’t afford to donate 100%, you have a little more flexibility if you know you’ll be getting 40-60% of the proceeds from the sale of your work.

Still not sure? Here are more questions to ask:

Has the organization auctioned art before?
If they have, what type or style of art sells the best?

Does flat art need to be framed?
Most of the auctions I’ve donated to have displayed artwork prior to the auction, so artwork had to be ready to hang. For most, that means framed nicely.

Do donations need to be original art or are reproductions acceptable?
Reproductions may be a good way to donate some of your best images without donating original art.

Who pays for shipping to the auction?
And for that matter, if the work is sold to someone who is not at the auction, who pays to ship it to the buyer?

How is the auction publicized?
Can the artist participate in publicity? If so, what is the cost?

Can participating artists set up a booth or mini-exhibit before the auction?
Having your own booth could lead to additional sales as well.

My recommendations:

I’ve participated in a lot of silent auctions, live auctions, and raffles. Most of them were satisfactory, if not overwhelmingly successful. Some were disasters. And honestly, the thing that’s worked best for me is to find the types of organizations I already want to support, because then I feel better about my donation anyway, and can build a relationship with them that’s mutually beneficial.

For example, one organization I work with has held a business meeting or banquet every year for as long as I can remember, and they usually feature a live art auction as part of the activities. The event typically takes place in my home state, so I attend as often as possible.

Just by being there, I get to meet people who will be bidding on the art, answer their questions, and discuss my artwork before the auction takes place. After a few years, attendees began looking for me and several of them became repeat buyers.

The longer I participated and the more I learned about the organizations, the better I knew their clientele and was able to provide the types of artwork that sold best in each venue.

Which brings me to another point—for all the reasons cited above, try to choose local charities to support whenever possible. If you’re known in your community, that will play a big role in how well your art donations sell.

Ultimately, donating to charitable organizations can benefit both you and the organization. But do your homework first! Find a group whose goals you support, and then support them in whatever way you can.


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