Give back, give art: Make it a philanthropic holiday with local nonprofits

Service Dogs of Virginia sells its dogs’ unique artwork to raise funds for the canines’ training to assist people with special needs. Photo: Courtesy service dogs of virginia Service Dogs of Virginia sells its dogs’ unique artwork to raise funds for the canines’ training to assist people with special needs. Photo: Courtesy service dogs of virginia

We know people are looking for creative ways to give. What we hear repeatedly is, ‘I don’t need anything, I don’t want anything,’” says Sally Day. As director of development for Service Dogs of Virginia, Day knows plenty about the importance of end-of-year philanthropy for local nonprofits. In response to this, the organization’s founder and executive director, Peggy Law, launched a campaign five years ago to raise support through artwork made by the service dogs themselves.

“It’s built on the same commands that the dogs learn anyway,” explains Day. The touch or mark command gets the dog to dab a paw in the paint and then onto the canvas. Repeated with a range of colors, an abstract artwork begins to emerge.

“It’s funny to watch because some dogs are not really that into it,” says Day. “Then we have other dogs…one in particular loved to paint. She really seemed quite contemplative about it. She had big paws so she could really make a statement on the canvas. But who knows what was going through her mind.”

Now a holiday tradition, these paintings are sold as a way to raise funds for the dogs and the clients with whom they are eventually matched. The costs associated with each service dog are higher than you might expect. At approximately $20,000 per dog each year, they include day-to-day care at the training center and in each puppy’s foster home where it lives on nights and weekends when it’s not at “school,” as the Service Dogs of Virginia training center is known. Add together food, supplements, equipment, toys, transportation, veterinary bills and the wages for professional trainers who work with the dogs, and the high price begins to make sense.

“It’s a real challenge, but we are committed to not charging the clients for the dogs since most of them already have significant costs associated with their disabilities,” says Day.

Paintings can be purchased as individual gifts or as part of a dog sponsorship in honor of a friend or family member. The sponsorships are also a critical component of the nonprofit’s operations. “We’re an organization that helps people with disabilities, but many people get drawn in because of their love of dogs,” says Day. “And it makes it personal when you can choose the dog who really appeals to you and really follow how the dog is doing in training.”

Sponsoring a specific dog is an opportunity to learn about dog training and disability services, but also about the importance of philanthropy and the impact it has on local nonprofits. Sponsors (or those who receive the gift of a sponsorship in their honor) receive periodic updates on the dog’s training progress and interests, and can even meet “their” dog in person by making an appointment at the training center.

Original paintings are available for sponsorships of $65 or more, and range from 5″ x 7″ to 11″ x 17″ canvases. Packs of note cards featuring the dogs’ artwork or portraits of the dogs themselves are also available for donations of $12. All proceeds go directly to support the ongoing work by Service Dogs of Virginia to train dogs to assist people with a variety of special needs.

Making this kind of a financial contribution to an area nonprofit has a direct effect on the local community, unlike incentive programs such as Amazon Smile, which donates a scant 0.5 percent of your purchases to your nonprofit of choice. Plus, quirky gift items like those from Service Dogs of Virginia and other organizations provide something for everyone on your holiday shopping list.

Center for Nonprofit Excellence Executive Director Cristine Nardi refers to the same phenomenon as the “rising trend to give rather than get” and explains that this type of philanthropy can be a meaningful way to exchange gifts with friends and family.

“The holiday season is an important time of year for many nonprofits who rely on end-of-year gifts to help fund their community work, whether it’s food security, youth development, legal aid or protecting our local environment,” says Nardi. With hundreds of nonprofits in the area, there are plenty of options to match the interests of everyone on your gift list.

Hospice of the Piedmont is once again offering its annual Dining Around the Area book full of coupons to a variety of local restaurants and wineries, with a total estimated value of $1,200. It also includes deals for performing arts venues, such as Ash Lawn Opera Festival, Blackfriars Playhouse, Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia, Four County Players, Live Arts, The Oratorio Society, The Virginia Consort and Wintergreen Performing Arts. All the proceeds go to support hospice programs, and the offers are valid through November 2016.

Another option is to give books in honor of your friends and family. Both the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and Books on Bikes have wish lists—you can essentially give to the entire community while honoring a specific loved one. Titles range from Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey to Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl.

What other gifts are available to support local nonprofits?

Tell us in the comments below.