To Donate or Not to Donate?

Portland's Art Fundraisers

Artists’ inboxes are often stuffed with pleas for art donations. Occasionally the organization offers a cut of the money. Often they allege that the artist will get great exposure to an art-loving public. Sometimes artists feel pressured because it’s a good cause, or they know the organizers. Newer artists might be flattered to be invited, or swayed by claims of prestige and exposure.  But fundraisers are a mixed bag. How does an artist know whether contributing will be a good use of her limited time and resources? Here are a few tips to help you evaluate these solicitations.

Evaluate the cause

The first thing an artist should do is ask herself whether this cause is close to her heart. Because you can’t really count on anything more than doing your little bit to help the organization. As painter Joanne Licardo puts it, “As with most donations, they are a gift, but with hopes of it also being advertising.” So far she has gained little from donating her work, other than a positive feeling about contributing. 

Painter Edith Casterline had a good experience donating to the Basic Rights Oregon auction. “They are just plain awesome,” she said. “I'm a long-time supporter.” She appreciated BRO’s enthusiastic acceptance of her work, and the fact that they followed up about the sales price and the buyer’s happy reaction.

Is there money?

Some organizations give the artist a percentage of the auction price. Others take it all. The wildly popular holiday show The Big 500 (originally the Big 100) at The People’s Art of Portland invites artists to make small works which sell for $40 each. The artist gets $30, and the rest goes to the Oregon Food Bank and the gallery. 

But just remember, even if an organization promises you part of the auction price, it may be far less than you’d make selling the piece directly to a buyer. After a bidder won painter Anna Magruder’s contribution to one fundraiser, they wanted to commission a painting. “But since they bought it so cheap they thought they could get a commission that cheap,” she said. “But that’s not the value of my art, that’s just the auction.”

Artist Shanon Playford prefers donating to charity auctions where the artist sets the minimum bid. “I don't believe that art donations further your career,” she said. “It's just a nice way to contribute to a worthy cause.”

Heide Davis participated in the Albertina Kerr Center’s Art from the Heart benefit, which paired working Portland artists with developmentally challenged artists. “I took my chosen painting and embellished it,” she said of the collaborative project. “I enjoyed doing this and would say it was a good experience. The artists were given a percentage of the selling price and some went to benefit Art from the Heart.”

Other perks

One of Portland’s more prestigious fundraisers is the annual Cascade AIDS Project Art Auction. Although it’s a juried show, the artists get no money. However, artists rave about getting free tickets to an event that is fun, glamorous, and more expensive than most artists can afford. “It’s a blast!” said Licardo. “I had the best time ever. But I wish we could maybe get at least 10% to cover our expenses and a little extra.”

Magruder agreed about the CAP auction. “A fun event with lots of free food and drink is totally worth it to donate for me.” She also enjoys networking with the other artists at the event, and possibly rubbing elbows with art buyers. 

Her first time contributing to a fundraiser was especially fruitful. “I got noticed by someone who had me in their gallery later,” she said. “So that was beneficial.”

Pet portraitist Elizabeth Chadwick contributed two small bird paintings to Audubon Wild Arts. “I got two free passes to the event plus some other modest goodies,” she said. “I felt this was a good way of them showing appreciation. My pieces sold, and all round a positive experience.”

But what if…?

However, what if your piece doesn’t sell? Some fundraisers, such as the Big 500, give your work back. But others keep it.

One artist who donated to the Community Warehouse’s Chair Affair was disappointed when her painted chair didn’t sell and she never found out what became of it. Artists often feel attached to their work. And if your work doesn’t sell, and you have no idea whether it’s been hauled to a landfill or is gathering dust in some dark storeroom, you might be unhappy. It’s always a good idea to find out ahead of time what the organization’s policy is for unsold work. 

Give it one chance

So, you endorse the cause and want to donate. Give the organization a chance and see how it goes. You can always do it again next year. Or not, depending on your experience.

Remember that many organizations that host fundraisers are staffed by busy volunteers or low-paid nonprofit workers responsible for 100 other tasks besides dealing with artists. When donating work to a fundraiser, it helps to keep your expectations and sensitivity low.

Several artists mentioned being disappointed by a lack of follow-up. Elizabeth Chadwick donated a pet portrait to one animal organization. Somebody bid on her portrait services, but then she never heard from them. “It was discouraging and a bit of a head scratcher -- did the person bid solely to help out the cause and didn't really care about having my art?” she wondered. “Did they lose my contact info?  Are they procrastinators?  I would not do this again.”

Magruder appreciated the drop-off and pick-up service when she contributed to a symphony fundraiser. “If you’re not giving the artist anything, make it easy,” she said. “They brought the violin to me, then they picked it up when I was done. That was so helpful.”

Once you try out an organization, next year you can more easily decide whether you want to do it again, or press delete when the solicitation appears in your inbox.


Artists craft different strategies to deal with the demands of fundraisers. “The best donation for me is a piece I make specifically for the event,” said Playford. “That way the work is meant for the function, and I don't have to have expectations for it beyond that.” She only contributes to causes she feels strongly about and doesn’t expect anything to come out of it. “I find that art is a pretty subjective thing, and the likelihood of someone attending a fundraiser for a few hours really connecting with your work, well, I think it is pretty slim. On average, people seem to be more into spa days and vineyard vacations.”

Magruder has donated to many fundraisers. “I might give something small or that I haven’t sold,” she said. “I’d rather show off my best work, but I won’t do that if I’m not getting anything out of it.” Still, she is open-minded about potential unseen benefits from fundraisers that might manifest later. “As I move forward in my career, the desire is to get my name out there and have an audience see my art, see my name and become familiar with me. So that’s something that can’t really be measured right now.”

—Post by Teresa Bergen,