Photographers Fight Over Charity Donations


When Kelly Lindsay was asked to donate to a charity auction in 2011, the seniors photographer from Boston, MA, saw no reason to refuse. Although she had been asked to contribute to charities before, this time the request came through a friend who was close to the family organizing the event. The cause, a scholarship for local seniors, was one that she identified with and there was always the chance that being part of a benefit that involved parents of seniors might just translate into new business.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Kelly donated a $250 gift voucher. She has no idea how much the winner actually paid for her services and despite some initial attention, none of the prospects that she talked to after the auction actually made a booking. In the end, her gift didn’t cost her anything; the voucher has never been used. But Kelly, a relatively new photographer with a three-year old business, was willing to give away $250-worth of work and would have received nothing in return except the warm feeling that comes from supporting a good cause.

Kelly was unusual in that as a photographer who depends on bookings, she was able to donate the offer of a service rather than a product. For art photographers, requests for charitable donations can be a much bigger dilemma, forcing them to question whether they should give, what to give and whether they can expect their good deed to deliver anything in return.

Which Images to Give?

Cole Thompson, a fine art photographer who works in black and white, receives requests for donated images around once a month, agreeing to about half of them. Each donation requires looking through his stock of printed images to find something suitable to offer.

“Because time is my most precious and scarce commodity, I donate something that I already have printed and ready to go,” he says. “Often it will be one of my previously exhibited prints, they are in excellent condition but I cannot sell them as a new print.  The harder question is; do I donate one of my top selling images or one that doesn’t move as well and has been sitting in my gallery?”

His motivation for donating is always two-fold: he gets to support a worthy cause and at the same times raises the exposure of his art to bring in new sales. It should be a win-win situation. Since reading an article sent to him by a friend last year, though, he’s been reconsidering.

The article, written by Matt Gleason in the Huffington post last August, argued that photographers shouldn’t be giving away their works, not even to charities.

“Don’t ever donate your art to a charity auction again,” Gleason warns photographers. “Half a century of charity art auctions have changed the way collectors buy art. These fundraisers have depressed prices of art across the board and kept artists in a subordinate position that has no career upside or benefits.”

Boycotting art auctions, the article claims, stops money from leaving the art world, helps artists to maintain the value of their work and lowers the chances that a photograph that might go for a large sum in a gallery sale will be seen publicly receiving no bids at an event not attended by collectors. Charity art auctions, Gleason states, depress the value of photographic art.

The counterargument, he continues, doesn’t add up. Even when a sale raises money for a good cause, much of the revenue will be eaten up in the costs of organizing and publicizing the event. The tax benefit for the photographer is minimal; the Inland Revenue only allows photographers to deduct the value of the materials — a negligible amount — not the value of the image on those materials. (A collector, on the other hand, can write off the entire retail value of an artwork they’ve bought.)

And worst of all, the publicity benefits that should translate into future sales and make the donation worthwhile rarely, if ever, pan out.

“I would love to hear the story of the artist whose career rocketed to success because he or she donated a work to a charity auction and this act alone tipped the first domino toward an avalanche of success coming his or her way,” says Gleason. “This narrative is always implied. I’ve never seen it happen.”

That was certainly Cole Thompson’s experience. He says that he has seen no evidence that any of his donations have increased his sales. In fact, auction organizers often take artists for granted, fail to tell them the amounts for which their works sold or give feedback on their choice of print. Cole received back one unsold work to find that it had not been taken care of properly and was in “terrible condition.”

Forget About the Marketing

Cole’s discussion of Gleason’s article on his blog raised something of a storm. Some commenters stuck to Cole’s original belief that donated images both help a good cause and raise a photographer’s profile. Others looked at the low amounts that donated works often raise, question how much of that actually reaches the charity and, when they compare it to the cost of the materials used to make the pieces, wonder whether they shouldn’t have simply donated cash instead.

The one consistent point that runs through all the arguments in favor of photographers supporting charity auctions though is that donating should do some good — and that’s the only reason that anyone should help a charity.

Cole began the discussion on his blog with the confession that he didn’t know where he stood on the issue. He now says that he still donates, but only to local causes, to causes for which he feels a passion, and where he believes that the sale of one of his prints will make a difference. He doesn’t expect the second win of what he used to see as a win-win proposition will materialize:

“I no longer consider how the exposure will help me, simply because I don’t think that happens very often.  Better to be realistic and donate because you want to help others and because you believe in the cause.”

What do you think? When should photographers donate their art and their services to charity auctions?

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