Each year, when we come asking for art for our art auction, we end up having the same conversation with a few artists. It can be summed up as “Too many organizations ask me for art and I can’t deduct the value of my art so you don’t appreciate it.” Yes and Yes. Wait.  Yes and No.  Yes and sort of? That second part is confusing.

On the first charge of too many places asking artists for art, that is, hands down, true. There are a bazillion charities out there asking artists for art for their various auctions. They also ask everyone else for money, so the artists aren’t any different from any one else in that regard. The only difference is the currency being requested of us.

Yeah, I've got an artistic streak, too.

Yeah, I’ve got an artistic streak, too.  That’s right, that’s a guitar made out of noodles.

In my case, since I’m not an artist, a charity might ask me for $500. If I choose to give it, that comes out of the proceeds of my work. If an artist is asked for a $500 painting, that is also coming out of the proceeds- at least potential proceeds- of their work. A donation is a donation and $500 is ultimately $500 whether it is cash, a painting, or gold.

The question then becomes whether it is a $500 donation well invested. Poorly run charities, or poorly run auctions, don’t deserve the donation whether it is cash or art. If the value of my donation is going out the window, I’ll give elsewhere. In the case of Humane Pennsylvania our Art for Arf’s Sake Auction, we have a well-run and effective organization and auction. Humane Pennsylvania is a leader in its field, helping animals far and wide, and is widely emulated. With confidence I say we think we make the best use of your hard earned donation. Arf’s Art is equally high performing. In fact, it raises on average $100,000 each year, most art sells for market value or vastly higher, and it beats the returns of art auctions held by actual arts organizations in the region. With equal confidence I say we think we make the best use of your hard created artwork.

So, if too many people are asking for donations, just decide whose mission you wish to support. If it’s us and the work we do for animals and people, wonderful. If it’s some other mission, that’s fantastic, too. No more hard feelings  for the cash donors who have to choose between the myriad of deserving charities and we’re just glad you give to someone.

They second part of the argument above, that the art is not “valued” because it can’t be deducted, is a little more complicated. That’s thanks to, shocker, the government and the IRS, not us. According to IRS regulations*, an artist, or lawyer or architect, can only deduct the cost of materials, not their time or the value of the “product” they supply. They are considered “volunteers” in the same way as a dog walker at our shelters is, even if that dog walker is a professional dog walker who charges the public for the same service. If it was up to me, I’d give all y’all a big ‘ol tax credit for your time and “product” because it does a world of good for us. But I can’t. Because the IRS won’t let me.

Here’s the crazy thing: If the artist gives their painting to their best friend and their friend donates the painting to us, the friend can most likely deduct the market value of the painting, not the materials cost. I know, crazy, right? But them’s the rules. So Picasso paints a masterpiece and he can deduct $12 for the paint. He gives it to friend who donates it to us or a museum, and the friend deducts $1 million because that’s the market value. Go figure.

That’s not saying the art isn’t valued. It’s not saying we don’t value the donor just as much. It’s just how the IRS works and if the tax deduction is the incentive for the donation of art, because all your artists are all so rolling in dough you need the deduction, right?, then giving your art might not be the best tax move. But we aren’t your tax advisor, we’re a charity who needs help doing good work in the community.

Your donation or your art to our art auction does make a difference to our success and our mission because it helps us with our financial bottom line in a way that no one donation could on its own. Can you write us a check for $100,000? Nope, me either. But by donating one piece or art to join 99 other artists who created one piece of art to be joined by 350 non-artists who write a check to attend the auction and bid on the art, we combine to generate $100,000 for our mission. All those pieces of art and all those donors come together to create one of those mosaic images that spells out: “Hey! We just raised $100,000 for the animals!” (Yes, I paint my pictures with words and that masterpiece of a sentence is yours for free.)

Not only do we appreciate and value the art, we arguably actually appreciate and value the artist a little more than other donors. All the donors have to buy a ticket to the auction and the preview reception with cold hard cash they earned doing their job, whether it’s a creative one or not. If one of them gives us a painting they bought, we gladly accept it and, yes, they can maybe deduct the full market value, but we don’t give them tickets. They still need to buy tickets. Originating artists get comp tickets. That’s because we recognize that our artists are what makes our art auctions unique and special and not just some Holiday Inn starving artist art sale.

Our artists are our patrons, not the other way around, and that’s why we welcome them with an invitation to join us at both the auction and the patron preview, along with the big dollar donors. They have both chosen to support our mission. With different currency, yes. In different ways, yes. But we value and appreciate their support equally, and we are glad that from among the many, too many, charities out there, they chose to support ours.

Even if the IRS has stupid rules about deductions. Blame Uncle Sam (and Richard Nixon), don’t blame us and the animals. Please support us in any way you can, whether it’s time, art, or loot. And if you don’t support us, support some other great organization.

But I’d rather you support us.


*I am so not a tax professional and you’d have to be an idiot to do your taxes based on whatever I say or something you read on some animal shelter blog. Do yourself a favor and Google your way to a real tax pro when it comes to filing your taxes.


Assuming the Best of People

March 18th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (9 Comments)

The other day on the radio I heard a Philadelphia Councilwoman describe her inspiration for offering an ordinance which would require more trashcans. She used a well-known facilities management chestnut about Disney World having trashcans every 30 feet because Disney figured out that’s how close they needed to be to “keep people from throwing their trash on the ground”

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

That’s not exactly how I recall hearing the trashcan story. The version I heard was that Walk Disney got a hotdog from one of his stands at the new park, walked while eating it, and when he was done eating it and was left with the empty paper tray in hand he said, “This is how far a trashcan needs to be from where ever a park goer gets food or drink.” It’s basically the same thing except the difference between Walt and the Councilwoman is that he assumed the best in people and she assumed the worst.

In her world, the absence of a trashcan meant a person would simply throw their trash on the ground because we are innately uncaring pigs. Without the can to cajole us into doing the right thing, we’d do the easier, wrong thing. In Disney’s world, he knew that a person wants to do the right thing, wants to throw trash in a can. By having one close at hand, he was helping us to do what comes naturally, and what comes naturally is to look for a trashcan.

This is a glass half full or empty world view with a real impact and one which we engage in all the time. Do we think teachers don’t want to teach and need to be forced to do their jobs or do we think they need the training and support to do what they want to do well? Or kids learning? Or criminals recidivating? Or politicians governing?

Or, in our world, pet owners properly caring for their pets?

For 100 years the animal welfare world has proceeded from the point of view that people default to bad. They will be bad caretakers, they will surrender pets, they will not claim strays, they will not provide veterinary care, and they will breed their animals unless we are there to steer them into going against their nature and actually doing the right thing. We, at every turn, insulted anyone with an animal, even those who did us the favor of coming to our doors to support us and adopt the pets in our shelters, by presuming the worst of them.

For the past decade Humane Pennsylvania shelters have been proceeding from exactly the opposite point of view. We’ve believed that people want to do the right thing by their animals- and ours- and simply need to have that natural instinct facilitated. We stopped proceeding from a starting point of, “You are bad and the answer in no unless you can prove to us you are not.” This difference in approach was expressed through specific changes in our programs and policies.

We recognized that people didn’t not get (grammar police, hush!) their animals sterilized after adoption because they wanted litters, they didn’t do it because it was inconvenient and sometimes even a small inconvenience can derail best intentions. So we simply starting sterilizing everything before adoption. If spay/neuter is SOOOOOOO important, why weren’t we doing it? Instead of thinking people wanted to discard their pets at the drop of a hat we looked at why animals were relinquished. If someone’s granny was sick in the hospital for a month, maybe they couldn’t keep her nasty little poodle and maybe surrender wasn’t the easy thing, it was the only thing. What if we provided them with emergency foster programs? If we had an animal with a health problem which wasn’t being adopted, what if we helped people make the decision to adopt by providing them with free or reduced vet care for the pet so they wouldn’t need to worry about the cost? If we were out of space, what if we incentivized adoptions by literally giving them away so people knew how important adoption right now was? What if we gave them access to affordable, high quality veterinary care for their own pets at home? What if we assumed that people in disasters might be able to care for their own animals if we just asked them what they need rather than essentially forcing them to give up their pets to emergency shelters? Or maybe if we just smiled at them and treated them like they weren’t secret sociopaths?

The list goes on and on. All of our approaches fundamentally come down to assuming people want to do the right thing and will, if we can just make it easy for them to do it, not easier for them do not do it, or do it someplace else, like a pet store or a puppy mill.

Increasingly, we are seeing others joining this fun new party where everyone is viewed first as friend, not foe. Some of the programs which we pioneered, or at least pioneered in methodology and implementation as many were secretly offering these pro-people programs on the sly like they needed to be a secret, are being emulated by organizations across the country. HSUS has Pets for Life. Shelters are routinely offering no cost adoption promotions. There is a whole organization which does nothing but emergency and military foster services, which is super cool (I did note with a chuckle that they claim to be “the ONLY”- why do we all feel the need to be the only? – organization offering these programs. We were recognized by the Harvard School of Government in 2006 for our PetNet program which was expanded from a domestic violence foster program to a full disaster/emergency/medical/military foster program in 2004, so maybe they aren’t “the ONLY”…).

But the one which warms my heart today is PETsMART Charities’ announcement yesterday that it was reprioritizing its grant programs away from just being sterilization centric and beginning to focus on community veterinary access. This is the cornerstone of Humane Pennsylvania’s approach to our animal welfare programs and we are the ONLY- just kidding, couldn’t help myself- we are one of the organizations which have been on the cutting edge of this new approach. OK, to be fair, we are the only animal welfare organization in Pennsylvania with a nationally accredited, public, community veterinary hospital, with our second hospital expected to be accredited later this year. That’s just too cool not to brag a little. And I hope that soon, accredited Pennsylvania non-profit vet hospitals will be nothing to brag about because they will be commonplace.

What is so awesome about this new approach is that it makes our work fun and exciting, not a total bummer because we view our work as essentially hopeless in the face of all these Philistines we are forced to deal with. Instead, it’s a party that everyone is invited to join in on: pet owners, government, other organizations, everyone. Welcome to the party, PETsMART! Grab a drink and let’s help people do what they want to do- take good care of their pets! Woohoo!

Walt Disney knew this. He knew that when you assume everyone wants to have a great time and do the right thing, you were half way there. Just a few well-placed trashcans and a smile could make it a magical day. He knew that every boy and girl wanted to be a Prince and Princess and they’d act like it if we led with, “Hello, Princess!” instead of, “You better behave, little girl.”

Finally, we in animal welfare are doing the same. This is going to be so much fun! And, please, have a magical day!