Early in my career with a large national health organization, I was taught that in some types of fund raising, the more volunteers you have, the more money you could ultimately generate. That was certainly true in certain instances, for example organizing community solicitations to ask for small gifts or conducting elaborate special events. However, I found that utilizing a large number of volunteers proved challenging when I set about to launch a comprehensive gift planning program.
Can volunteers impede your efforts?
Using volunteers to encourage current gifts from their friends, business associates, and other peers has been a part of general fund-raising activities for years. However, when you want to reach the people most likely to remember your organization in their will or other gift planning instrument, the approach above not only does not generally work very well, but it can often cause problems.
Most people consider a planned gift to be a very personal decision. When you think of the kind of information that is often discussed by gift planning professionals with planned gift prospects (long-range personal and financial objectives, types of assets owned, people and institutions in their lives they wish to provide for, etc.), you can see that this information may well be too personal to share with one’s peers.
Assume you have a business associate whom you know and respect, and this person requests that you give a generous gift to a charity you both care about. Are you likely to make that gift? Most people would answer yes to this question because they know the person who is asking them to make a gift, and they trust the organization the funds will ultimately support.
Now, consider that you have given contributions to this same organization for many years. One day you respond to a mailing seeking additional information regarding naming this particular organization in your will. Would you want to talk with your business associate, understanding that you may need to disclose your income, your relationship with loved ones, and the assets that you hold? Or would you rather talk to a staff person whom you may not know well but who represents an organization you trust?
Unlike those who make current gifts, most prospective planned givers are not likely to share highly confidential information with friends, neighbors, business partners, etc. This process works best when trained staff members coordinate with the donor and his or her professional advisors.
Commit to an “advisory committee”
What, then, is the appropriate role for volunteers? In many cases, it has been very effective to name an advisory committee to the gift planning effort made up of key volunteers. These individuals can offer a great deal of expertise when it comes to marketing, planning budgets, building institutional support, and helping integrate gift planning with other fund-raising activities.
Any gift planning advisory committee should include individuals who fit your target market for bequests and other planned gifts, who are knowledgeable about your organization’s mission, and who have been involved for many years and have contacts with previous staff and volunteers. Other members you should consider are investment advisors, real estate agents, accountants, bank trust officers, and estate planning attorneys.
At The University of Alabama, we have a planned giving advisory council made up of 25 leading attorneys, trust officers, and CPAs from every region in the state. Their efforts are very helpful in many cases. For example, the University was named as a charitable beneficiary of a large estate recently, and the executor proposed an unusual method of liquidating the estate’s real property. I referred the executor to the UA advisory council member in his town who knew the executor very well. Then, professional to professional, they worked out a way to handle the property that better suited everyone’s needs. This phone conversation may have taken only a few minutes, but it was worth many thousands of dollars to the University.
Development staff primarily drive the gift planning efforts for most organizations. Effective utilization of volunteers can help provide continuity in your program in the event of staff turnover and can also help keep gift planning an integral part of your overall fundraising activities.