Saturday, November 19, 2011

On non-profits...

How many of you have worked with or at non-profit agencies?

Do you find that their leadership is typically SHORT-SIGHTED?  Or they work with BLINDERS ON, like these horses from Colonial Williamsburg?

I’ve been wondering about this, partly because I used to work for non-profits in the education sector.  And, in my experience, while the delivery (or research, or policy analysis) staff were EXCELLENT and hard-working, upper management was an amazingly silly (and frequently corrupt) batch of lunatics.  Not that you could always tell that at first sight.

Anyhow, I ran into this again this week, but from the OUTSIDE this time.

Here’s how it came about.  I’ve been scheduled as the featured artist for a show early next year at a Barnes & Noble store about an hour away.  And my artist reception is scheduled at the same time as B&N is holding a bookfair for a nonprofit up there – a place that has a herd of therapy horses that they use to work with physically and emotionally-disabled people.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll call the place “Hernias and Horses.”

My being scheduled for a show at the B&N had NOTHING to do with Hernias and Horses. 

It had to do with the fact that I used to sell my children’s book up there a few years ago and when I stopped by recently to visit my friends who worked there, they remembered that I USED TO DRESS UP AS A SHEEP AND REGULARLY SHOW UP FOR SCHOOL BOOKFAIRS. Even in blizzards. 

And they liked my current paintings. 

And they think of me (somehow, despite the sheep costume) as a professional they can count on. 

So they scheduled me for February.

I’ve been looking to paint some horses for awhile now.  I’ve stopped by local riding stables and taken photos, as well as a number of shots when I travel.  And I thought, “Why not call Hernias and Horses and see if they’d like to do something TOGETHER for the bookfair?”

Why not, INDEED

I’m basically a team player.  So I worked up an idea about possibly painting a horse or two from the Hernias and Horses herd to add to my body of work, getting a print made and seeing if we could sell it at the bookfair.  And I’d donate HALF THE PROFITS (after the cost of making the print) to Hernias and Horses.

I didn’t HAVE to offer this, you know.

But it SEEMED like a win-win situation to me.  Hernias and Horses would be out NO money, and potentially could make some money.  I could get a few more horse photos to add to my collection and paint some horses to add to my body of work.  And sure, it would cost me a little bit, but I take that sort of cost on all the time when I work with pet supply stores and vets’ offices.

With the understanding, of course, that I WILL GET PAID IF THE WORK SELLS.

Because I am also a professional.

The program director at Hernias and Horses LOVED my idea.  She seemed to be on board with the whole idea, at least until I mentioned little things like charging the customer enough to PAY FOR PRODUCTION.

And she said she’d take it to the Executive Director, who apparently is the head guy with the blinders on.


So I started going through my OWN horse photos and selecting some for use in paintings for this show.  Because I already KNEW what was coming...

When the program director called back, I could tell she was kind of embarrassed.  And the message she had for me from the Executive Director was something like this:

“Typically when we work with people like professional photographers and the like, they donate 100% to Hernias and Horses.  We’re giving them EXPOSURE and it’s part of their marketing cost. It would be a lot cleaner to have a 100% donation.”

  • I didn’t laugh in her face. 
  • I didn’t ask her how long the so-called professional photographers could afford to keep doing photography and not pick up a barrista job at Starbucks because they worked with too many short-sighted non-profits like Hernias and Horses.

I just thought, “Well, a 0% donation is also a lot cleaner, and that’s the route I’m planning to take now.”

I feel sorry for the lady.  She seemed to feel really bad about it, and she personally loved my artwork. It's not her fault she's working for a dope.  She wanted to let me know that the door isn’t closed (at least not from THEIR direction) and invited me up to visit their facilities and talk with the Executive Director in person.

But I don’t think it’s a very good use of my time.  



  1. I've had similar experiences with my dealings with some (not all) NP's even from the donor side and now that I have been investigating working for one (as Executive Director) I have been surprised by the short-sighted, blinders on mentally I've encountered. Oh well - times are a changing and NP's may be last to have to change but those that don't change their models and paradigms may go the route of Borders Bookstores and dinosaurs. Stay tuned.

  2. Hi Ravay!

    As a photographer, I know exactly what you mean! In the past, I've photographed full dress rehearsals of theater productions and turned over ALL images on CD or DVD. They then made copies and sold them for the cost of materials. First of all, dumb on their part when they could be making a profit to benefit the theater department. More importantly, dumb on my part for obvious reasons! I'm rethinking the process this year. :)

  3. Thanks for your insights! Yes, I think times are changing and the odd welfare mentality that seems to govern some non-profits will have to change with it. And it was probably unfair to lump ALL non-profits together; I just got a private message from a friend who runs her OWN non-profit, and her competence gives me some hope as well!

    Sheila (that IS you, right?)--I've had so many similar experiences to yours in the past with designing T-shirts and posters, etc. People seem to understand that you need to pay for production things like ink and stencil time, but they take the creative part for granted. So somehow non-profits seem to be able to find the funds to pay a COPY shop, but they can't justify paying the ARTIST. I think we, as artists, need to be a lot smarter about protecting our rights under copyright law and write ourselves into production contracts of our work (or royalty clauses) for all our clients. There is going to be a demand out there for good work, and people need to be educated that if they don't pay for it, someone else WILL.

    And, of course, ARTISTS need to be educated about their rights, as well!