Is a Full-Time Gift Planner Necessary for Success? | Sharpe Group
Posted December 1st, 1999

Is a Full-Time Gift Planner Necessary for Success?

Editor’s note: This month we continue our series on the myths and realities of planned giving with a look at the proposition that in order to be successful a full-time gift planning officer is always essential.

Once upon a time, the standard advice given by consultants and others to charitable organizations and institutions interested in starting a planned giving program was to either be “totally committed” or do nothing at all. This was true particularly in the 1970s and 80s in the years after the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and other major tax acts.

The 1969 Act brought increased complexity into play by placing more stringent requirements in order for charitable remainder trusts, pooled income funds, charitable lead trusts, and other gift planning vehicles to qualify for income, gift, and estate tax benefits. As a result many planned giving offices were increasingly staffed with attorneys or other highly skilled, technically oriented people. Under this model, staff members almost always worked on a full-time basis and the perceived necessity for such persons created a “barrier to entry” into planned giving that for many years tended to constrict the supply of this service in the marketplace.

Even as the dust settled from the 1969 Act and the basic workings of many plans became common knowledge among many experienced development officers, some argued that a full-time staff person was still necessary if the stewardship of donor relationships was to be handled well and professionally.

At the outset, let’s be clear that where a sufficient base of appropriate donors exists, the more time and dedicated staff that can be devoted to cultivating gift planning donors and their advisors, the better. In smaller and younger organizations where there may be smaller numbers of persons who meet the profile of typical planned gift donors or where budgets may not allow for full-time staff, however, it is still possible to accomplish a great deal. In short, the lack of a full-time planned giving officer should not prevent organizations from actively encouraging planned gifts to a certain extent.

What’s a part-timer to do?

The reality in the charitable market place is that the majority of planned giving programs are managed by people who have other roles to play in their organizations. In our experience, many of those who count among their responsibilities the role of encouraging planned gifts are directors of development, major gifts officers, and others with diverse duties. In the case of many smaller agencies, the planned giving work may actually be handled by the executive director.

The key to success when planned giving is not all you do is to start with gift planning tools you understand, avoid committing to expensive infrastructure at the outset, and realize that help is available when you need it. In terms of gift plans to feature in a part-time program, most choose at the outset to highlight wills and bequests, gifts of publicly traded appreciated securities, and simple remainders from retirement plans, living trusts, and life insurance policies.

The part-time gift planning manager may also feel comfortable raising awareness of more complex arrangements such as charitable remainder trusts and charitable lead trusts with the understanding that interested parties will be directed to their own advisors for trust creation and management. The key to deciding whether to promote such plans will be the part-time planned giving person’s ability to become somewhat familiar with the workings of the plans—familiar enough to spot opportunities and converse on a basic level with interested donors and help point advisors in the right direction. This conversational knowledge of gift planning concepts requires a commitment of time but is much easier to obtain than full-blown, technical expertise.

Easy to manage marketing in seven steps

Suppose you have just 25 percent of your time to devote to the process of encouraging planned gifts. Here are a few simple marketing steps you can take:

1. Be sure to place a simple reminder to “Remember [organization] in your will or trust” in your existing publications, at the bottom of letterhead pages, postage meter messages, etc.

2. Create a recognition society such as a “Legacy Society” in order to facilitate institutional memory and recognize those people who have already provided for, or are planning to leave gifts to, your organization in their will, trust, or by other similar means. Make sure these individuals are listed along with lists of other donors at least annually. (Note: Be sure to secure permission of the donor or surviving family members before listing.)

3. Include information on the benefits of giving appreciated securities along with your regular year-end appeal letters. Most larger gifts have always come in the form of non-cash property and encouraging such gifts does not require a great deal of technical expertise beyond procedures for expeditiously receiving and liquidating
donated assets.

4. Commit to thanking one major donor regardless of age and calling one older, long-term donor regardless of size of their gifts each day (or maybe three a week) just to say thank you for all they have done. These calls will help build relationships that will lead to planned gifts and increased current funding. In some organizations, simply thanking donors in a more personal way will quickly lead to increased funding sufficient to hire a full-time planned giving officer!

5. Consider starting a regular direct mail marketing program designed to convey general gift and estate planning information to older, long-term donors or members. These materials need not be highly personalized and are ready to have your logo and other information affixed.

6. Do the best job you possibly can of thanking surviving loved ones of persons who leave you bequests and other planned gifts that arrive “over the transom.” You will meet wonderful people, acquire new current gift donors, and gain confidence needed to work with other persons who are in the process of planning their “gifts of a lifetime.”

7. Keep track of your activities, including lunches, visits, calls, letters, inquiries, etc. Remember that in the early stages of any gift planning marketing effort, there is inevitably more activity to measure than cash. But the former does lead to the latter over what may be a surprisingly short period of time! Be prepared to show that your limited activities have produced results and use that fact as an argument for increasing the capabilities of your organization in this area.

Save the best for last

There are a number of gift planning vehicles and marketing activities that the part-time planned giving program should in most cases avoid. Generally, it would not be advisable to launch a charitable gift annuity program unless you have sufficient market and resources to manage such a program over time. Likewise, establishing a pooled income fund or agreeing to have the charity serve as trustee of charitable trusts would be ill-advised unless the infrastructure exists to manage the complexities of such gifts over time.

A person responsible for encouraging planned gifts with limited time and budget may wish to avoid producing numerous planned giving or estate planning workshops—at least at the outset. These events can take a good deal of time to plan and implement, and many of those attracted may be more interested in free planning information than in giving.

When is more staff time warranted?

Suppose you start with some of the simple steps mentioned above and you avoid the major consumers of time, energy, and talent. Eventually, perhaps three to five years down the road if all goes well, you will find yourself unable to handle all of the calls, visits, and activities. This may be your best sign of success, but, still, how do you cope with the need for more staff time?

Rather than immediately hiring a full-time, technically oriented planned giving officer and “starting over” with donor relationships, you may instead want to hire additional support staff or administrative assistance in order to free more of your time to spend visiting donors and implementing marketing efforts. The same is true for full-time planned giving officers. Before hiring an additional professional staff person, remember that it may be possible to hire two support staff for the same budget requirements as one full-time professional in today’s tight employment market.

When it becomes cost effective to hire a full-time staff person, carefully consider your requirements before beginning your job search. If the age and wealth demographics of your constituency warrant it, you may want to hire a more technically competent person to supplement the ongoing stewardship efforts of others. In other cases, you may wish to continue to rely on outside sources for technical support and hire a person who is highly skilled in managing relationships with the types of persons who typically make planned gifts, namely older, long-term, committed donors.


By no means does “one size fit all” when staffing a planned gift development effort. We have worked with programs that range from one person spending a few hours a week to efforts employing scores of people dispersed nationwide. Equal levels of success can be achieved when compared to the size of the resource base available. For many organizations, beginning a planned giving program is simply an exercise in time and resource management. The key is to institutionalize a level of discipline that results in avoiding much of the “urgent” in favor of activities that will prove to be most “important” over the life of the organization or institution.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Sharpe Insights may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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