Donation schmomation

After the newsletter about donating art, I received this shocking email, which I’ll share as anonymous because the author didn’t respond to my questions nor give me permission to use his name. I’ve slightly edited it to insure the anonymity. It’s shocking not because it’s rare (I fear it isn’t), but because of the egregious deception of the organization.

I’m a senior citizen, seasoned award winning painter who got bit in the but last year after I donated a large painting as a fund raiser for a charity. The person who manages this charity came to me last year and asked me to donate a large oil painting. . . .  This painting was to be a feature piece that was to be auctioned off at a $250 a plate, black-tie fund raiser.

Two weeks after the banquet, I visited the person’s office to find out what my painting brought in dollars for the cause. The person said they had a confession to make. The painting was withheld from the auction and given to the chairman of the charity because he loved the work!

I valued the painting at around $1,000. The bottom line is, I and my wife did not get a ticket to the auction, but my name, other to the chairman who got the painting, was not mentioned in any press release nor did I even get a thank you letter. How would you handle this one ?

My response as to how I would handle it is based on the facts that I don’t know how long ago the auction took place or what the author of this email said when he discovered what had happened.

First, as the artist realizes, this is completely unacceptable. He didn’t donate it to the chairman! He donated it to raise funds for a charitable organization. If they had changed their mind and wanted to donate to the chairman, they should have gone back to the artist and received permission.

My immediate response to the person who "confessed" would be that I will think about what has taken place and form a response to her. I would then go home and draft a letter saying that since you placed faith in the organization and they violated that trust, you would like to be remunerated. You expect, within 30 days, either (1) the return of the painting or (2) a check for $1000.

You really don’t want to do this, but you would also have every right to contact the press or other board members if your request isn’t honored. It’s not nice to issue threats and they usually don’t help your case, but it’s something you could do in the future if they get nasty. A charitable organization is a public trust and they have a responsibility to their donors. Any breech of that responsibility puts the prospect of future donations in jeopardy.

In short: They really, really screwed up. They need to be held accountable and they need to make things right for the good of their organization.

This should also serve as a lesson to get everything in writing, regardless of how well you know them. Putting things in writing assures that all parties are on the same page. Don’t ever "give" your art to anyone without this. You’re in charge of your career. Don’t give away your power.

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16 comments to Donation schmomation

  • I donate a few pieces a year and everything has always been on te up and up, but if I ever ran across a situation such as this, I would be furious, but probably let it go. I would fear that any real confrontation would do more harm than good. Of course, they would then become number one on my “Do Not Donate To” list.

  • I agree with you Alyson: what they did was not legal. They either need to return the photograph, or the chairman needs to pay for it. The charity is not their to provide him with free goods.

  • Most people who work for charities are volunteers, generous and make an effort to do what is right. I would doubt that any offense was meant. An aggressive response to thier error in judgment is unlikely to result in a civil response. Threats of any kind would be very unwise and create ill will, justified or not. That ill will can spread very quickly through the non-profit community since the same people tend to volunteer for multiple charities. My advice is to approach the organization explaining how he was both surprised and flattered at what they had done and what a great opportunity to get some additional press coverage. Then ask them to write a letter to their members along with a press release announcing the generous gift the artist gave to the organization to be used as a gift of great honor and value to the chairperson. A good photograph of the artist, the chairperson in front of the work should be part of the message. This could turn the situation into a win/win where the artist would get individual attention and good will would be fostered throughout the community.

  • Lauren

    I’m sorry but the chairman is stealing from his own charity. That money should have gone to whoever they are raising money for! If an item is donated to charity, then it is expected that the charity would benefit from the donation. I agree that this is highly illegal and I would be demanding the painting be returned or legal action be taken. I wouldn’t let the chairman pay for the painting either, I’d made him return it as a lesson not to steal from his own charity!

  • I agree with Lauren that it is theft – however it is likely a loss of perspective on the part of the volunteers rather than a deliberate theft. The committee needs to be informed of the truth of their actions – and a resolution found. It will likely put some noses out of joint but they will not be likely to repeat the error. I was in a situation years ago, as a new member of an non-profit society, where an artist created a portrait of a volunteer, in expectation that it would be given to him in appreciation for his years of service. However, the board of the society liked the sketch so much that they decided to keep it. I was too new and unsure to speak up on behalf of the artist, but the whole incident never sat well with me – you’ve just explained why!

  • Very informative post. Unfortunately there are many charity scams going around. Not just by email. You can seem them posted on a lot of social networking sites as well.

  • I don’t think that I would refer to this as a “charity scam”, more like an error in judgment.

  • Michael: It’s not true that most people who work for nonprofits are volunteers. They are paid staff. I was one of them. Yes, there are volunteers, but it doesn’t excuse the Chairman (with a capital C) from accepting a gift that wasn’t intended for him. That is unethical. I do like this, though–very much! ” Then ask them to write a letter to their members along with a press release announcing the generous gift the artist gave to the organization to be used as a gift of great honor and value to the chairperson.” Excellent idea. Scott: I agree. I don’t think it was a deliberate scam, but an enormous error in judgment. The whole thing could have been avoided by going back to the artist and asking if it would be okay to give the painting to the Chairman. Again, we don’t know all of the details here. But I did just find out it happened last April. It’s always best to act on these things quickly. Otherwise, they fester.

  • The way we were … The correct method used to be 1) charity buys painting from artist 2)artist donates that money back to the charity 3)charity issues a tax receipt in that amount to the artist … the end … at least that is how it was spelled out in an older legal document I found about artists & charities , the Canadian version of course … the idea was that the asset’s value needs to be established , otherwise it is a barter situation , which causes misunderstandings… ahem … the next time around , just sell your painting in the normal manner & earmark that money for your favorite charity , or sell directly to the chairman & re-donate the money back … ( you can tell charities this when they solicit you , the artist , & give them the opportunity to buy the painting if they want it so bad , & you will re-give the charity the money …once the painting is owned by the charity , like any other collector , the dissemination of the property is sort of their own business , unless you specify a person rather than an organisation in the transfer of ownership during the sale … p.s. just an opinion btw , the ball is in the artist’s court here , so you have many choices actually …

  • Unfortunately this kind of stuff happens quite often. I have experienced it & know other people who have, as well. Michael’s solution is excellent. Resolving such a situation can be tricky–many people in the “Chairman” positions are big collectors or on boards of museums, or other art nonprofits that can affect your position as an artist.(If you are trying to get grants, etc) I would like to think otherwise, but I am afraid the politics of the art world take prescedence over ethics and morality.

  • This has touched a nerve in me. Everyone who made comments is being so understanding about this. I just want to say very loudly, this is OUTRAGEOUS! Sadly it is just another example of how artists are too often taken advantage of. When are we going to stop letting people walk all over us? It is degrading to Artists, degrading to Art, degrading to any working person. Can you imagine if this was a car that had been donated? Can you imagine the outrage and outcry? This is WRONG! As artists, our time, effort and skill deserve a whole lot better. If we believe that creating and selling art is a valid livelihood we will fight for our rights. Perhaps we still buy the lie that we are not doing a “real” job. Otherwise why are we not fighting back against this kind of fiasco. Artists, you deserve better.

  • I agree with you Carol, the Chairman’s action was an outrage. My suggestion was to make something positive from a bad situation, since the other alternatives could harm the artist even more. However, the TAX LAWS ARE THE REAL OUTRAGE. They put artist at such a terrible disadvantage and discourage artists from being even more generous than they already are. We need to change the law. Write your Congress person to support H.R. 1524 – The Artist-Museum Partnership Act. It is easy to do through Americans for the Arts Web site. It might be a good idea to wait until after the elections. I think congress has other thing on their mind a the moment.

  • Carol McArdle you are right (& love the spirit) , except that what Christine DeCamp was beating around was the main point about all of this , which is the word ” charity ” … kicking & screaming at charities doesn’t look so good … again , sorry for the border , but here (in Canada) the government is shutting down charities who are guilty of taking in more than they are giving out … the corruption here got to be too much & in 2008 a policy was instituted about funds going in not getting stuck in the wallets of the employees or volunteer workers … ( an inquiry into how much did that event cost including goods & services compared to how much money did you raise is not an impertinent question …) & an evaluation of how much did a work of art sell last year compared to the gallery pricepoint last year is very helpful …( after a low selling point year at a silent auction I prefer not to re-give the next …)

  • Sari, I like that idea. I wonder how may non-profits would dig into their coffers and do that?

  • Lauren

    Why are artists willing to put up with this kind of thing in the name of “keeping the peace” with the right kind of people? This is why artists get taken advantage of in the first place, because we let people get away with stealing our work! And yes, I said stealing.