4 Ironies About Volunteering

Reality to art fundraisers: Stop asking for volunteers from the constituency you are raising money for. Just pay them. We've all seen this request. Many of us have given our time to help out and are more than happy to do it. But while we admit there is a real need for volunteers at these fundraisers, why are we looking at emerging, young or undergraduate artists - the very artists we are fundraising to support - to fill this need? Here's an excerpt from an email I received today. The request was for me to hit up some young artists and give them a "networking opportunity".

"Hi Lucas... we need 2-4 students/volunteers who can help with selling raffle tix, greeting guests, etc.  The event is our major fundraiser for the year. Do you have any friends who would be suitable?  Cheerful & friendly."

I'm not going to name names here. I donate and volunteer for dozens of fundraisers and I go to them as well. Every one of them was absolutely a good cause, but I feel like this particular person on the board is not seeing the forest for the trees. There is so much irony in these requests that I need a few paragraphs to articulate.

Irony #1

Many of the charitable causes that seek out free labor from young artists are raising funds for programs to help young artists. Sometimes it's raising money for scholarships for art students and the unpaid student labor is just unpalatable. Free student labor for your schmoozy, professionally decorated, catered and plated donor event to support the emerging art community is just sarcastic and woefully missing the point. It's great that you want to have a swanky party to support the arts, but don't forget to pay the artists who are helping you too. It's ummm... a very direct and efficient way of helping your constituency.

Irony #2

And even if the food and decor was donated as well, do you really think art students are in a position to donate their time as much as professional companies are able to? Right now, there's increasing pressure on young artists to be more professional earlier on and start thinking of themselves as their own independent business. I think this pressure is good - I preach it - but meanwhile we are asking them to donate their time and telling them the reward is a "networking opportunity" before they've even established in income in their career path. I wonder if these same fundraising organizations actually make sure that networking is a possibility during the event between raffles and ushering, or tracking if it successfully happened and bettered an emerging artist's career. If great networking opportunities were truly an actual goal of these events, then these orgs had better be notifying the other end of the connection (patrons, collectors, potential employers, etc.) to show up for that reason too.

Irony #3

Those of us who have been in the art auction circuit know that the biggest irony is that emerging artists are also asked to donate their product (read: artwork) as well as volunteer their time. Are we really going to hit the poor emerging artist for their time as well as their artwork? Some (not all) of these auctions are little more than fire sales of artwork that we hope will trickle back down to the emerging artists. The best auctions give a percentage of works sold and still clear their fundraising goals. But let's go even further, are these fundraisers making sure donated artists know they can deduct materials and transportation for their art donation? Wouldn't teaching them the tax benefits for their future be a great cause? I think fundraising orgs are missing out on crucial side goals during these fundraisers.

** Side irony: If artists can only deduct the material value of their work (canvas, paint, brushes, etc) why is it that a collector can buy the same artwork and donate it years later and deduct the fair market value? I know there are strict appraisal rules on the fair market value, but there seems to be a lapse of taxation sense here.

Irony #4

I'd love to see the same age and income brackets that are welcomed as VIPs showing up as greeters, bussers, rafflers and "friendly faces". Wouldn't the ultimate art fundraiser be where artists are kicking back at the table and the moneyed established patrons greeted them at the door and served them? Now we're talking about truly "giving" to the arts.