Ellen Luckett Baker helped organize student-created projects for three years of school auctions.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Luckett Baker

In the spring of 2007, I had two daughters in nursery school. I’d been sewing stuffed animals for a few years and the moms at the school knew that I was crafty. When one of them approached me to see if I might donate one of my handmade horses to the school fundraising auction, I agreed right away. The money raised would be used to buy supplemental materials for the classrooms and pay for special programming. I was happy to help out and I also hoped that getting my work in front of lots of local families would lead to new business.

I sewed a white linen horse with a colorful mane and tail and dropped it off, along with my business card, a few weeks later. I was selling similar horses in my Etsy shop for $60 and figured this one would bring in even higher bids, which would mean a nice donation to the school.

The day after the auction, the woman who got the winning bid came up to me with much excitement. “I got your horse!” she said. “And I got it for a song!” She’d paid just $18.

This experience was disappointing for me in several respects. First, the school got such a tiny amount of money from my contribution. And second, after the auction was over I didn’t hear from anyone. Not a single new order came in.

Art quilter Carol Ann Waugh has had similar experience with fundraisers. “Over the years I have been asked many times to donate a piece of my artwork for a silent auction to support a good cause,” she says. “When I was a newbie, I would gladly do this, thinking it would be good exposure for me and my art since most of these fundraisers included a ‘gala’ and were filled with rather wealthy people. But soon, I had a different view. Not only did my art auction off at far below its value, but I never saw any benefit from my donation.”

One common misconception among auction organizers is that artists can take a tax deduction on the fair market value of the item they donate, but this is incorrect. Accountant Allison Rosen explains: “Items donated for charity auctions can be used as a tax deduction up to the amount of the materials used to make the item. If you donate a quilt for auction, the cost of the items used to make the quilt itself (and not your labor) is the amount of your donation according to the IRS.”

With such a small tax deduction it’s important for artists to carefully consider how they might make the most impact with their donation, both for the organization and for their own careers.

“Not only did my art auction off at far below its value, but I never saw any benefit from my donation.”
Here are 10 tips to help you and the charitable organization you’re hoping to support get the maximum impact from your donation:

1. Consider donating an experience instead of a finished piece

Consider donating a group lesson or art party or offer a guided tour of a local museum or shopping district. These kinds of experiences allow you to interact directly with the winning bidders and help to build word-of-mouth referrals for your business.

When the auction committee approached me again the following year I decided to offer a one-hour, in-home sewing lesson, a service for which I typically charge $60. A mom in my neighborhood got the winning bid at $120 and after the lesson she told several of her friends and I was able to book three more clients from her referrals.

A few snapshots show the work involved with creating the Kaleidoscope quilt.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Luckett Baker

2. Create a basket or bundle and include your handmade item

Knitwear designer Allyson Dykhuizen had a great experience with a fundraiser in which she donated her handmade work to a basket containing other related items. “I knit a baby sweater. It was included in a baby basket with other baby things,” Dykhuizen says. “It bid up to $1,500 all together, which was way over double what the basket was worth.”

3. Have a collector buy a piece and donate it

Although you can only deduct the cost of materials for a piece of art you make and donate, a collector can deduct the fair market value for a piece they donate. Ask a donor to the organization that is holding the fundraiser to buy a piece from you and donate it to the auction.

4. Organize a group-made project.

When multiple people are involved in a project you can generate buzz and the item is likely to bid higher than something made by a single artist. Quilter Melanie McNeil contributed a block to a group quilt and was impressed with how well it did at the auction where it was sold.

“A number of people made and donated blocks. I assembled the top and back, and a very talented woman quilted it. It was auctioned and ultimately sold for more than $10,000. It was then donated to the organization to display,” McNeil says, adding that many quilts — even beautiful, high-quality bed quilts — often bring in just a couple hundred dollars at these types of auctions.

5. Get to know the audience and create something they would appreciate

Quilter Ellen Luckett Baker learned this the hard way.

“We had an all-school quilt that the kids would help create, but after I worked on it for two years with low selling prices we realized that perhaps people just weren’t interested in quilts,” Baker says. “This appeared to be the right move because the next year, our houses art project sold for over $5,000.”

To target your donation to the intended audience, Baker recommends considering the size and functionality of your artwork.

“Ask yourself, ‘Where will they hang it? What’s their style?’” she advises.

The houses art project.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Luckett Baker

6. Set a minimum bid

Waugh, the art quilter, has a method for coming up with an appropriate minimum bid for her work.

“My work is currently priced at $3.50 per square inch. If I sell to an art consultant or gallery, I give them a 50 percent commission, so I would make $1.75 per square inch. Because this is a donation, I will set a minimum price of $1 per square inch. If no one bids on it, the artwork is returned to me,” she explains.

For Waugh, setting a minimum bid is a must.

“My rationale is that this is a fundraiser. Not a garage sale,” she says. “I think people’s expectation on bidding in a silent auction is that they get a ‘deal.’ That’s what makes the price lower. It’s not about raising money for the cause, it’s about getting that meal or massage at 50 percent off retail!”

7. Be sure you have an opportunity to display your marketing materials

Fundraisers are often run by volunteer staff and sometimes that staff changes year to year. You can politely educate the organizers about what you need and request that your marketing materials be included in email blasts, auction pamphlets and on the actual table next to your work. If there’s an online component to the auction, ask that your item description include a direct link to your website.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Luckett Baker

8. Require that you get the contact information of the final bidder

Many times, artists are frustrated when auction organizers don’t share the name or contact information of the winning bidders.

“The nonprofits I donated to refused to send me an acknowledgement of how much my piece sold for or who the buyer was so I was unable to … follow up with a potential buyer of another piece of my work,” Waugh says.

Before donating, make it clear to the auction organizers that you’ll need this information after the fundraiser ends.

One way to ensure that you’re able to get in touch with the winning bidder is to auction a certificate toward a piece rather than the piece itself. The winning bidder then needs to visit your studio to choose the piece they want.

9. Instead of donating an auction item, donate your services to the auction committee

Consider lending your artistic skills or marketing know-how to the fundraising committee in lieu of donating a piece of your work. Creating a compelling logo or graphic or helping to promote the event effectively can be just as valuable as donating your handmade goods.

10. Set a charitable-giving budget for yourself and stick to it

Set an allotment of how much of your work you can donate to charity in a given year. Once the allotment is used up, it’s OK to say no to requests for donations. Explain that the organization should get in touch with you early next year when you’ll have more to give.

With some careful consideration, artists who want to donate their work to causes they care about can do so in a way that generates the most impact to their business as well as to the charity fundraiser.

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