Making the Most of Your Board and Volunteers | Sharpe Group
Posted October 1st, 1998

Making the Most of Your Board and Volunteers

Effectively utilizing volunteers and board members in your gift planning program can be critical to the success of your efforts. However, the differing roles of volunteers and staff should be clearly stated to avoid confusion and to protect your organization’s relationship with key contributors.

Early in my previous 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 a community effort to “knock on every door” asking 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 hinder gift planning?

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.

As many of you know, most people consider a planned gift to be a very personal expression. When you think of the kind of information that is often discussed by gift planning officers 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.

Consider this analogy

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 work is best handled by gift planning staff working confidentially in concert with the donor’s professional advisors.

Consider 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. For some organizations, a volunteer committee may not be necessary. For others, it may be important as some volunteers 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 someone who fits your target market for bequests and other planned gifts, a person knowledgeable about your organization’s mission, and someone who has been involved for many years and has contacts with previous staff and volunteers. Other members you should consider among others are an investment advisor, a real estate agent, an accountant, a bank trust officer, and an estate planning attorney.


Development staff primarily drive the gift planning efforts for most organizations. Effective utilization of volunteers, however, 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 fund-raising activities.

Functions of a Gift Planning Advisory Committee

  • Oversight of the gift planning program. The committee needs to be aware of the marketing and follow-up activities of your program and should work on the program’s behalf to get budget approval, communicate with board members, etc.
  • Identifying prospective donors. The committee should consider former contributors (not already on your lists), current and former volunteers, people who have received benefits from your organization in the past, etc.
  • Ad hoc gift acceptance review. The advisory committee will assist when unusual gifts such as real estate, personal property, and other gifts are offered. The committee will ensure that internal policies are followed and, ultimately, make recommendations to the board for acceptance or rejection of certain gifts.
  • Act as a source of speakers at estate planning clinics and other marketing activities such as board presentations, in-house presentations to staff, etc.
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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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