It’s amazing how unaware most people are of what’s involved in running a business that makes things, especially if that business involves the design and building of custom commissions, as opposed to mass- or even limited-production manufacture.

Start your own business and you’ll find yourself hit up regularly for donations to schools and nonprofits. “That Arts and Crafts wall shelf you did for Fine Woodworking would make a handsome contribution to our auction,” read an email several years ago from an acquaintance who was on the board of a local organization. “And if you wanted to throw in a copy of your latest book, that would add a warm personal touch.” Never mind that I had $1,200 worth of labor and materials invested in the wall shelf, or that, as author of the book, my discount was just 40 percent off the cover price, meaning that I would have to spend $18.95 plus tax and shipping to buy the copy he was inviting me to give away. “Your donation will bring you invaluable exposure to just the kind of clientele you seek,” his message continued: “people who have a household income of at least $100,000 per annum: pillars of the community who are active in civic affairs.”

“OK,” I’ve thought on occasion. “It’s a good cause. I’ll make this donation.” But do so a few times, only to learn that your work was purchased for not much more than you paid for the materials alone, and it gets old. “What? They bought that thing for just two hundred dollars?” I asked my acquaintance when he called with what he thought would be joyful news.

“Well, what did you expect?” he replied. “No one goes to an auction expecting to pay full price. Auctions are all about getting a bargain. Tom and Sylvia know your work and love it. That’s why they made sure that theirs was the highest bid. They told me they were overjoyed at the prospect of getting their own Nancy Hiller. “And such a steal!” Sylvia said. You should feel honored.”

“But I thought the whole idea was to raise money for your organization. I would have expected these pillars of the community to pay the full price for any item in the auction, maybe even more, knowing that their donation was going to such a worthy cause.”–Excerpted from Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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36 Responses to No.

  1. Wow. Why haven’t I read this book yet? I completely understand this story.


  2. Jason says:

    This is so true. It’s why we don’t make donations to local fundraisers. I’d rather sell my work then make a donation on my own.

  3. grizg says:

    Reminds me of the time I donated a sliding top keepsake box, assembled with very fine dovetails (kerf wide), only to see it go for $30 at auction. The auction winner then had the nerve to ask me if I’d make another one for $30 for her other daughter… I don’t believe I’ve donated another piece to charity since, I’d rather give the stuff away to friends who appreciate it…

  4. ctdahle says:

    I think such donations actually hurt the business. Those high rollers at the charity auction remember you. In particular, they remember that “you” sold a dining table at the charity auction for $800 bucks.They get furious when you quote a price of 2000 for a similar piece.

    • And they will never get it. Not ever. You GAVE it away. For a good cause… And then they have the audacity to lowball the bids.

      But that’s why great businessmen are exactly that, and woodworkers are happy in stead. If they don’t come across great businessmen too often, that is.

  5. Hate to say it, but woodworkers are part of this problem, too. Lost Art Press gets asked regularly to donate books, videos and apparel to woodworking clubs so they can give them away as door prizes at their events.

  6. pfollansbee says:

    Jennie Alexander used to tell me “no” is a complete sentence. I dig the title of this blog post.

    • Best lesson I ever learnt.

      My old boss, recently retired, one day a few years ago passed a little golden nugget to me. He said never to say “leave it with me”, be strong enough to say “no” and offer no explanation and don’t even dare apologise afterwards.

      It’s served me well.

  7. rdwilkins says:

    Spot on. Non business-owners seem to think that if you own a business you must be flush with lots of extra cash.

  8. mattbickford says:

    The true irony of this situation is that the “charitable” party is considered to be the one who purchased an item they already desired for 17% while the “advertiser” is the person who actually donated.

    The rolls are truly reversed.

    • nrhiller says:

      Oh, there is even more irony to such situations — not least that those of us who operate a micro-enterprise as our primary means of livelihood are classified by the IRS as “for profit,” which in our culture seems to rank about as high in moral terms as “the 1 percent,” while the non-profit sector, by virtue of being “not for profit,” is endowed with almost saintly status. The tale excerpted here goes on further about this irony, though it encompasses only a fraction of what it might have.

  9. Eric R says:

    This post just made me stop and order this book.
    I’ve seen some of my best work go for a fraction of it’s worth at charity auctions.

  10. josef1henri says:

    Yes, I have learned to say no. I have made donations only to see them sold for way too low a price and never gotten any follow on business. Demonstrating for “exposure” falls under the same category.

  11. sleuthmilanowski says:

    I never begrudge someone asking me to donate my work or my time. I also do not feel remorse if I decline.

  12. jtolpin says:

    If and when I donate its always with the caveat of “bidding starts at…..” (insert: what you would actually sell the piece for in order to make a profit.)

  13. jonfiant says:

    I’ve been part of this too. I once made an Arts and Crafts style floor standing lamp for the auction at my son’s school. It was made from quarter sawn white oak, a tapered mitered column, with ebony accents and a hand made shade covered in autumn leaves and beeswax, only to have it bought for low dollar, somewhere around $300 and then the next highest bidder came to to me and asked me to make her one for the same amount of money.
    Long story short, I was STUPID, and I did it for her, minus the shade. Never again. We took our son out of that school, (for various reasons ) and started homeschooling instead. Those were the days. Now, I laugh at people when they ask me for donations of my work. I give cash instead.

    • cams2705 says:

      I have a similar story about a school my daughter attended that we also took her out of. Everything was about charitable auctions, fundraising, donating minimum hours per family to gain more revenue. You’d swear I cursed in church when I even brought up the subject of multiple ways to cut costs instead of raising more money. What pushed me over the edge was when they raised over $24K in one school year and decided to buy Smartboards for Pre-K through 3rd grade with this funding … $24K for a glorified whiteboard with a projector attached. My wallet has become sealed and my time belongs to me. I donate or give time to charities that don’t have their hand in my wallet.

  14. Long story medium…I have a good friend who is a very successful painter and a faculty member/alumnus at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (212 year-old, big-time/fancy pants art school here in Philadelphia). Some bone head in the development office concocted a plan to ask the successful alumni to donate one piece of work to PAFA for auction.

    Let’s just say it didn’t go over well.

  15. sugardoc says:

    Been there. I’m only a hobbyist woodworker but can make some decent pieces. I once donated some nice turned vessels I made from cocobolo and ebony to a cancer fundraiser. I later found out the pieces went for about $25 each. I wanted to vomit. I had three times that much in the wood. I get asked to speak professionally on a regular basis. I’ve learned the hard way to say no to volunteer speaking. The last one I agreed to do pro bono was for a large group of nurse practitioners. I was asked to do an “update on diabetes.” I spent about 40 hours reviewing and preparing for the lecture to make sure it was CME quality. One week before I was scheduled to deliver it I was told they had to cancel my lecture due to a scheduling mix up.
    Being asked to donate time and talent by people who have no skin in the game I feel is morally questionable. In the many examples above it’s akin to theft. Here me out… The donors (the actual people who’s time and talent generated the donation) in each case felt they were donating a thing of much higher value than what was received for it. So in that sense when the item is sold for less than what the real donor’s value, part of it was stolen. The entire process is disingenuous. The fundraiser cons the donor’s into believing they are going to stimulate business through their donation (rarely happens). Part of the donor’s value is stolen by the auction (most of the time). The attendees are made to feel that by getting great deals on stuff they can afford to pay full price for they are supporting a great cause.
    I bet if the fundraiser called and said, “Hey, can you make/do something really nice so we can sell it for 1/4 of its value and keep all the money.” you would say NO! (I intentionally paraphrase here as most of the responses that come to mind have several four letter modifiers). So, if you feel any guilt about not giving in to what you may feel is a good cause just give them a counter-donation offer. Tell them how much the piece (or time) is worth and that you will GIVE them a discount on it for their auction. If you are turned down then they become the cheapskate. If they don’t accept your offer then they are saying you didn’t GIVE enough so they won’t use you.
    The exception of course is being asked to do something your really want to do. Then there is real inherent value to the donor. Giving is good. Giving should come from the heart and be 100% voluntary. When there is coercion, guilt, or misrepresentation then the giving becomes taking.

  16. bloksav says:

    I think the only thing that I have ever donated was a peg board for horse rugs that I gave to the local horse club to use as a prize for a small event.
    They liked it, and I enjoyed making it. And it didn’t take me long to do so.
    But it wasn’t auctioned of or something like that, so it was clear who had contributed with what, and all the stuff was used as prizes in a small lottery.
    A lot of people I know participated as volunteers, so I was not alone in giving “time”

    I think that if I should give something to charity, I would rather sell the piece myself and then donate money.
    To experience a piece being sold at a fraction of the cost would really upset me.

  17. SSteve says:

    I’m involved in a number of non-profits and at various points in time have been board member, employee, contributor, volunteer, and musician. One thing I’ve learned is that many of these “pillars of the community” often have pockets so deep that they can’t quite reach the money buried in them. Often, the people donating money are spending an appreciable fraction of their household budget.

  18. Steve Martin says:

    Amen! I get especially upset when an organization tells me I must pay a fee for a space in which to demonstrate my craft. I now do not attend this type of event. I have found out that these organizations often pay for portrait/landscape painters to demonstrate or speak because “they are real artists”.

  19. Mark Baker says:

    What on earth are you doing standing there in that cattle dung ? [ my first impression of you in your boots and what that might be under foot there ] . Sometimes it feels that no matter how hard we try to help , who we are helping doesn’t seem to care how much of yourselves we give , they just Want More . And that tares it . You did what you could ,you meant well , but it their cause not yours .
    As a first responder to many a victim that’s never the case ,and you just do for them until its time to release them to EMS . But in the case of to ‘charities’ , there is a breaking point where the load of the cause going to the unreasonable . If someone asks for money , I never have enough for ‘my own’ , so that come first . If their smoking there asking me for money , that decidedly makes me point out the benefits of eating over smoking and they choose poorly . But if I can , I make it a point that if they want ‘a’ free meal ,this once , I will bring them to McD’s and buy a sandwich for them today . Most refuse and walk away , and I’m happier for it ,cause they wanted money for drugs and I never smoked or did drugs. Times have certainly changed in my short span of life . I never put up with deadbeats that wouldn’t be smart enough to stop drinking or would I let them in the shop if they smelled of booze . If they choose that life style , that’s they poor choice and not to show up at work if they didn’t have the mind about them to stop. They were safe for the four years I was in control of the company work shop but no sooner than I quit than I of the guys DUI into a truck soon after . A real mess .
    But all this is because you’re standing in What?
    Aloha from Oahu.
    Mark Baker

    • nrhiller says:

      Some cases are more complex in ethical terms, but I agree with many of your points here. I illustrated the post with that particular image because I thought it connoted just what you imagined, though it was actually just the muddy ground at a local lumberyard on a wet day.

  20. Same thing, smaller scale – my wife used to be regularly asked to donate cakes to a cakes stall in aid of our local Scout group. Because she is really good at baking great cakes.

    She stopped quite soon after finding out that the cakes were priced lower than the cost of the ingredients. The most painful thing was that the people running the cake stall had a pretty good idea of the cost of the ingredients but “no-one will pay full price”. Sometimes it’s hard to realise that so many otherwise thoughtful people completely fail to think things through.

    • nrhiller says:

      Painful indeed. This is one reason why, like some of the others who have commented, I now just donate money to the nonprofit organizations I support (of which there are several, all doing important work, in case anyone should infer otherwise from my comments).

  21. bsrlee says:

    I don’t know how the US tax system works, but here in Australia you can claim on your income tax for material objects ‘donated’ to charity if you can document their value. So, if this works similarly in the USofA, just tell the grifter from a ‘Charity’ that you require a receipt for ‘$XXX’ for a charitable donation of a whatever – they can have the piece once the receipt is in your hands. They can then explain to the IRS how/why they sold a piece for 10% of its true value to one of their ‘friends’. You get the tax deduction plus a schadenfreude moment as a bonus.

    • bsrlee says:

      Ok, just remembered, they have to be a ‘registered’ charity with an appropriate registration number, not just a dodgy jumble sale on a sidewalk. So check there is a proper number on the receipt before saying goodbye.

    • pvworkshop says:

      This is how it works in the US. My wife writes these tax letters for people who make donations! They don’t deal with craftspeople (yet) Mostly restaurants donating a dinner, that kind of thing. They get a letter for the full value of the meal no matter the price it’s auctioned for, but almost always it’s over the value because they have a dedicated community.

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