Artist Donations: Testing the Limits of Your Love

How often are you hit up for a donation of your art?

All artists are, at some point, asked to donate their work for a good cause. Most artists have soft hearts and want to help out anyone who asks.

©Andie Freeman, Fragile Heart. Oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches. Private collection. Used with permission.
©Andie Freeman, Fragile Heart. Oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches. Private collection. Used with permission.

The problem is that U.S. tax laws prevent artists from deducting fair market value for their donations. You can only deduct the cost of materials.

In light of this rule disfavoring artists, you might think these philanthropists are testing the limits of your love and commitment to their cause. But they’re only doing their job.

Rather than get upset about being asked, resign yourself to the fact that you will be asked for donations. You need to be prepared with a response that reflects your boundaries while educating those doing the asking.

It’s perfectly fine to have a policy against donating your art under any circumstances.

If you choose to donate, you’ll be well served with written guidelines that you can share in a moment’s notice. These donation guidelines could include the following 3 aspects.

1. Educate those asking.

People should be reminded that the tax laws do not favor gifts from artists—that you cannot receive a full tax deduction from a donation. They should also understand the value of your art and why you can’t donate to every worthy cause.

It's your job to educate them.

They need to know that your art career is a serious endeavor, and that you rely on the full-value sale of the work to feed yourself and your family.

2. Choose your organizations.

You cannot support every cause, so choose one or two that are closest to your heart.

Identify specific organizations by name since you can’t even support every organization within a cause.

This is where I get on my soapbox and preach to artist organizations that ask for donations from their members. I believe that any organization whose mission it is to support artists should offer artists a percentage of sales to artists – even at fundraisers.

3. Set a monetary value limit.

Even though you might not be able to deduct the full-market value of a piece you donate, you are still losing the potential of the full-value income from it. What are your donation value limits?

Set an amount for the year and stick with it.

Two Alternatives for Donating Your Art

Rather than donating outright and creating guidelines like those listed above, you might offer a couple of alternatives that could allow you to donate much more frequently.

The first option is for the organization to buy your art at wholesale and sell it for as much as they can get. I like this option because it incentivizes them to maximize the sale price.

The other option is for you or the organization to find a donor that can buy the work, donate it for the auction or sale, and receive a full-value tax deduction.

Too many artists have been burned by disorganized events, lousy auctioneers, and devastating sales prices after donating their art. With policies and expectations in writing, you should be able to spread the love of your art to the nonprofits whose work you support.

©2014 Janice Mathews-Gordon, Heartthrob #1. Acrylic and collage on paper, 6.5 x 4.5 inches. Used with permission.
©2014 Janice Mathews-Gordon, Heartthrob #1. Acrylic and collage on paper, 6.5 x 4.5 inches. Used with permission.

How to say no, guidelines, and real-life artist emails to respond to donation requests

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36 thoughts on “Artist Donations: Testing the Limits of Your Love”

  1. I have offered my favourite charity, the local SPCA, several artworks for an auction. I explained that I would love to help them, but also need to earn some kind of income through the donated art, so we agreed that I will get 50% of the auctioned price. That worked really well. They had the incentive to auction it really high and the buyer knew that they would not only own a great artwork, but also have supported the animal shelter and the artist. That was a win-win situation for everybody.

  2. I used to get hit up for donations – last year it seemed like I got a steady stream. And I did donate pieces, but that has ended after two incidents where I felt my work was not respected. In one case, I had put together a selection of items in the same color scheme and actually put them in a gift basket, wrapped them, etc. I told the organizer it was ONE item as things went together more or less. I got the auction catalog and discovered it had been broken up into several lots.
    I emailed the organizer, gave him hell, and resolved then and there – no more.
    Before that, I would send something and get no acknowledgement. Or in another case, I gave something to a local non profit community art studio for an auction and found it bundled with other items that were irrelevant.
    I was not only doing donations because I liked the cause but also to get my name out there.
    No more. It will have to be a really, really special thing for me to give something now. It’s not the fact that I can only deduct materials – it’s lack of respect for the work.

  3. I love the last two ideas – selling at wholesale or finding a donor to purchase and donate the art. Both elegant solutions for the tax issue – but the education component must always be included until the organizations “get it!”

  4. I decided to take control of this last year and started “Pottery for the Good,” in which I select a nonprofit each month and put up a piece for sale (at a set price) with 100 percent of the proceeds benefitting the nonprofit. It’s promoted via social media and the “event” is usually over within two days. The piece goes to the first person to step forward and purchase.
    While it’s underway, there is a flurry of activity on Facebook and my studio blog, and I’ve gained new collectors and new followers, exposing my work to whole new groups of people. The nonprofit usually helps promote it on their social media platforms too.
    The buyer writes the check to me and I write the check to the nonprofit (minus applicable taxes). The result is so much more promotion for my work, and a much more meaningful connection to the nonprofit that I’ve selected as the beneficiary. The buyer is acknowledged and thanked by me and the nonprofit, with as much fanfare as we can muster.
    I have a public studio and gallery, so I get many requests for donations. Now, when I get requests for donations, I refer them to my “Pottery for the Good” program. But it’s also allowed me to be more purposeful in my donations, connecting me with new groups that I might not otherwise reach.
    Here’s a post on my studio blog about the most recent “Pottery for the Good” event:

  5. I was asked last year to paint a French wine barrel for a hospital fundraiser through an artists organization I belong to. The aged oak barrel was brought to me primed with white Kilz primer. Someone without my knowledge thought they were doing a favor for me, NOT. I stripped the barrel best I could, sanded it down, stained it to let the oak shine through & transformed it into a piece of art. It turned out beautiful, after 3 weeks of hard labor.
    The bidding was held at a posh resort. The resort put my baby in a dark corner & refused to move it under better lighting. The charity organizer refused to move it. I tried my best to politely but firmly persuade,it didn’t work. The art organization silent auction bid sheet started so low & someone grabbed it for a pittance right as they pulled the bid sheets. I received 50% of the pittance. It still stings & never again. It was an extreme lack of respect.

  6. Alyson,
    Thanks for this post regarding tax laws and art donations.
    Art consultant Maria Brophy has a fantastic recommendation for donating art (especially to a non-profit that is holding an auction). She advises artists to have a policy to donate 50% (or a set percentage) of the sales price of a work. The artist sets a minimum reserve price. If the work does not sell it gets returned to the artist.
    Read the entire blog post here.
    In any case, I submit to you that this is a “best practice” for artists when donating work for an auction.
    Thank you for all you do!

    1. I like it, but I still know that artists get burned – even with minimum bids. As you can tell from the comments above, it’s usually a disrespect for the work. Maria is awesome!

  7. I love taking part in charity events and I have participated in a few really great ones in the last 3-4 years. I would not be able to just donate this kind of cash and I think it’s amazing that I can support causes I care about through my art! I view the time I donate working on these projects as volunteering in kind.
    But of course there are conditions. I can’t donate a 100% of my art, I never do. This is my profession and not a hobby and charities should respect it. If a charitable organisation wants to take advantage of you, you probably need to ask yourself exactly how charitable, knowledgable and fair they are in the first place. If you want to donate to a charity, research it first even if you support the cause, because not all charities are the same and the very least you deserve is to work with a professional organisation which will put your donation to good use.
    For big public art charity events such as the Elephant Parade for example, there are set conditions, which I feel are fair. Not the mention the great publicity, new friendships and all the excitement of the public. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
    For other smaller events, where I’m directly approached by the organisers to auction or sell/exhibit my work for a set price, I donate a maximum of 25% of the profit (that is above my expenses for transport and materials), or agree on an artist price, and anything above that goes to the charity.

  8. Not sure if this is the right thing to do, but I generally donate pieces that I was having a hard time selling. I use auctions as an alternative to clearance sales. My studio does not have a lot of wall space for unsold paintings, so for me doing auctions is a good way to get rid of things to make room for new work. None of the auctions I have participated in have gotten me much exposure, though. That has been pretty disappointing.

    1. Tiffany: Yep. Don’t look for exposure at these events. But I’m glad it works out as a clearance for you. I still hope that you have minimum bids and are educating the organizations on the value of the work.

  9. Here is a letter that I adopted years ago and got the Oklahoma Visual ARtists, Tulsa branch, to sign on to. It helps to be able to say, ” I am a member of…. and we have agreed as a group that we not donate to charities who do not share the profit with the artist. I have also spread the word when charities ask for donations w no cut to the artist, to my blog/facebook artsy friends and in 3 different cases there were emergency board meetings and reissued emails to artists reversing decisions of no sharing to at least a 40% to artists, which I personally think is too low, especially when framing increases the chance of sales and framing is expensive. ( for those put the price w/o frame)
    As artists we are asked many times throughout the year to donate our work to various charities for use in fund raising. We love to be able to help our community in this way.
    We would like to provide a way in which your charity will be able to make a greater profit using our artwork. We respectfully request that charities share a portion of the profits with the artist. In this way you will benefit in retaining a higher quality of work from the artist, which will bring a higher price at your auction or event. Keep in mind that our canvas and framing often takes up 25-30% of the cost of our painting. We would hope that you would choose to give back to the artist at least 40-60% of your sale.
    When artists are asked to donate without a share of the profit it really puts us in a bind. Those of us who are struggling to make a living at this can’t afford to give away the piece that we can sell in a gallery but we also can’t afford to put pieces that aren’t quite gallery quality out in public. You also may not be aware that artists are unable to claim the value of their donation on their income taxes. We are only able to claim the cost of supplies used.
    When charities split the profits with the artist everyone wins. The artist is able to keep only their best work in circulation, benefactors get a quality piece of art, the charity makes a greater profit and may be able to get more than one piece from the artist.
    It is for these reasons that members of Oklahoma Visual Artists Coalition will willingly donate to organizations that adopt these practices and we will also respectfully decline all offers where there is no split with the artist.
    Margaret Aycock of

    1. Ellen: You could get a piece of paper that has the retail value on it, but you can’t deduct that. Maybe someone else around here has an idea. I’ll see if I can get someone from OVAC to respond.

    2. Hi Ellen & Alyson,
      We only send a thank you letter that indicates the donation of art. It’s considered an “in-kind” gift to the nonprofit, so we aren’t able to state the value of your gift (the materials you used, etc).
      In terms of courtesy, we give artists the buyer’s name and address plus the price for which it sold.
      As an aside– We do offer a commission. Several artists have used a smart tactic if they really want to support even more. They take the sales commission and then donate that money back to us (i. e. art sold for $600, they get a $300 commission and make that a donation). So they get full tax credit for part of the value for which the work sold. We certainly wouldn’t expect that, but of course thank them thoroughly and are glad they get more credit for their donation.
      Also, we’ve had good luck with “Buy It Now” prices that are a premium of above retail prices. This gives a visible value to the work and buyers frequently will purchase at that price to avoid the whole auction process.

  10. I prefer donating a coupon for a free small commissioned portrait or the equivalent amount off a larger piece (commission or otherwise). This assures me contact with the purchaser, brings them into my studio or to my website to look at other work and sometimes results in more than one portrait commission. This usually means income for me and still several hundred dollars worth of funds for the organization.

  11. I too have had good and bad experiences with donating my work for charitable causes. I really appreciate suggestions from the artists here on how to respond to donation requests!
    OVAC, of course, does it right with their annual 12×12 fundraiser (a silent auction) by doing the following:
    a) providing materials for artists who request them (i.e. blank canvases);
    b) giving each artist the option of retaining 50% of the sale price;
    c) I can’t stress this one enough: establishing a MINIMUM BID for every piece in the show;
    d) planning the event WAY ahead of time so artists have the time to produce a quality piece for the show.
    I received a request awhile back to create an original work, on a topic of the event organizer’s choosing, to donate outright (no portion of sales) for an event that was LESS THAN A MONTH away. No.

  12. Thank you very much for this post. It has made me think at what I do re donations. I donate mostly to animal and environmental groups. I have mentioned an auction to the SPCA many times over the years (I was willing to give a full price donation) but they said auctions were too much work so…since I care so deeply for this – and other – causes I give a portion of ALL sales to these organizations. Which is definitely not good financially. In fact, my accountant barely uses any of the receipts as my income is so low and my cash donations so high. A couple of local auctions took place and they take 100% or won’t bother and because they are small and local I’ve accepted that reluctantly- mostly because I care about the issues – but also because it is a bit of exposure….but in the end all of this is very costly and I can’t say any post-sales have resulted from my donations. My policy (or lack of one) really needs some tweeking. As always Alyson…you get me thinking 🙂

  13. What a timely article! I was approached today about donating art for yet another auction. This one gives you the option to donate 100% or 75% but you are able to set a minimum price. I did not know about the tax deduction law until this article. So I feel I’d have to set my minimum too high and would be reluctant to put anything really good where I’m basically losing on it. No ties to the benefit either. Probably will throw something older in (is that wise?) or decline.

  14. I’m a full time jewelry designer as well as a kidney transplant recipient. As a natural offshoot, I began a sideline business 12 years ago selling kidney shaped jewelry with its own website. Because there is really nobody else doing this exact thing, I get top billing in search engines. While this is great for my niche business, I am also easily found by small kidney related organizations and get almost weekly requests for kidney fundraiser donations. Because I already donate 10% of every sale to kidney patient education programs, I no longer feel that I have to donate to each request.
    My reply to them includes a letter regarding the above idea of selling wholesale to board members or organization supporters, letting them know that artists can’t deduct any part of the sale over material costs, but it is important to point out that THEY can deduct the full amount of their costs on THEIR taxes. This seems to be a key selling point for them and has worked well for me in the past. I usually donate a few smaller pieces of jewelry to the fundraiser if they make purchases from me in this way. I’ve also done this successfully with my higher end lines of jewelry. Several groups have come back annually to work with me for their fundraising efforts, so I’m glad their results have been a success. I love it when everyone wins!
    Thanks for another useful and well timed blog post, Alyson!

  15. The best advice I was given was to donate a gift certificate. Then the ‘winner’ uses it to buy something from you. Usually for more than you gave since they didn’t pay full price anyway. The gift certificate can be tax deducted at full price. Even if they don’t ‘spend’ the whole amount, you get to deduct the entire amount.
    Jean Marie

  16. I set only two requirements for donating to a local gala I could not attend. 1., tell me the final sale price and 2., tell me who bought it so I could thank them. The first year, this was not done. It was a fairly new event so I decided to give them another chance. I explained my rules. Again, they did not comply, and for the second time I was embarrassed to not be able to thank the purchaser. I no longer donate to this event.

  17. Sculptor Kevin Caron gets approached to donate regularly. As you suggest, Alyson, he has certain charities he donates to. Every request is approached from a perspective of:
    1) What is the organization and how does it relate to our target audiences?
    2) What are the benefits of donating to this organization?
    Benefits may be financial (some auctions do offer a percentage to artists), reaching the right audience, or simply because Kevin supports their cause. He has gotten some excellent exposure from selected events, including a recent one, which resulted in a full-page article about Kevin in a popular local magazine.
    One other thing to add to this wonderful thread: you don’t have to donate art work. A local theatre company has auctioned off spending time with Kevin in his studio, which costs us only time. Last year, the third year it has been offered, they sold it three times. Interestingly enough, no one has ever “cashed” their winnings ….
    So if you want to support an organization, maybe you can offer a painting lesson or something that does not have out-of-pocket costs.

  18. I really like Daggi Wallace’s advice to donate a coupon. Darn it! Just donated a small painting with gold for private auction at the Catholic school. Ok, next time….

  19. My experience with donations has not been positive. Either my work was put on auction and sold at far below the minimum fee I set, then not acknowledged anywhere, even in a thank you note, or it was part of a show where the point the whole process was disorganized and unprofessional. An artist I know in Ireland said she went to pick up donated work that hadn’t sold at auction and found it and other pro work stored in a wet, mouldy basement below the gallery. We agreed that donations are not a good plan for artists bent on making a living.
    I will have to really think carefully before I donate work again. But I bless the artists who still do make donations of work. I’d rather give money when I have it.

  20. A timely post Alyson. I just received a request from a children’s trust organization. Here’s their pitch: We sell the art by silent auction, with artists setting minimum bids, and a Buy It Now price. In past years we’ve had between 125 and 200 community members attend and achieve art sales of over $20,000 per year. Each participating Artists receives 60% of their sales with the remaining 40% donated to VCTF to benefit our grantee’s programs. I like those parameters and I’m thinking of trying it.
    P.S. Sorry you didn’t make it to VT!

  21. Nice to hear all these ‘case senarios’ and great solutions…
    I too have donated to my fave causes and have had good returns.After donating a painting which sold for $100,(my price),I then got a request for another and decided to make greeting cards,(much cheaper), out of them and last year donated them to the same and they raised the same amount….will try posters this year!!…OH…BTW…I received another order of the same painting from …that’s right…a greeting card!!!
    If you want to see it ..go to W.M.A.D…
    Making A Differnce

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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