collage of a black kitten and two drawings
Working from owner-submitted photos of pets, like this black kitten, shelter staffers and volunteers gamely attempted to capture the essence of each animal. Photo and drawings courtesy of BARCS

It was a throwaway idea: The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter’s biggest fundraising event of the year, BARCStoberfest, was the next weekend. After weeks of event promotions and requests for donations, social media metrics indicated that the shelter’s online audience was experiencing fundraising fatigue. Director of community engagement Bailey Deacon needed a fresh way to keep the 15th annual BARCStoberfest—and donating— on people’s minds.

So Deacon suggested a Facebook post offering doodles of people’s pets in exchange for a $15 donation. The post explained that when donors commented on the post with a photo of their pet, staffers—ranging from “former fine arts majors” to “a team member who was really against this idea”—would respond with a “poorly drawn animal portrait.”

“I think I’m going to regret this,” Deacon recalls staffer Melissa McComas saying; Deacon reassured her that the weekday post probably wouldn’t generate much engagement. Almost 800 shares, 2,400 comments, 900 drawings and $13,000 later, Deacon had to remove the post’s donate button so the over 20 staffers and volunteers drawing, snapshotting and posting portraits could keep up with demand.

She admits she underestimated the feel-good power of bad art.

“The worse they were, the more people enjoyed them,” she says. McComas worried that her drawings were so bad that people would be insulted—in fact, her portraits “were everyone’s favorites because they were just so ridiculous,” says Deacon. A donor sent in a picture of her pitty mix wearing a huge smile. “Melissa was actually trying to capture it in this cute way, and it turned out to be this horrifying drawing. [The drawing] got over 1,000 likes, and the owner said this was not what she was expecting, but it made her laugh so hard.”

collage of a dog and drawing
Some of the “worst” pet portraits were the most popular on social media. Photo and drawing courtesy of BARCS

Other crowd favorites included Deacon’s “potato angel” homage to a deceased pet with a spud-shaped physique, which ended up being featured in a follow-up post on Instagram. For a $5 donation, followers were invited to vote on one of nine bad portraits that staffer Matt McDermott would tattoo on “a visible part of his body” if donations reached more than $5,000.

Although the goal wasn’t fully met—“I think that was fine by him,” says Deacon with a laugh—Deacon isn’t counting out the possibility of other bad-portrait tattoos. At the shelter’s popular Tats for Tails annual event, people donate $100 to BARCS to receive a tattoo, chosen from a limited book of designs, from local artists working pro bono.

“There has been some talk about whether some of the bad portraits are going to show up in the tattoo book,” she says. “The people have been calling for it!”

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