At the annual NCPG Council Leaders Worship in August, we invited volunteer leaders of NCPG's planned giving councils to share the experiences in a focus group titled. "What's the status of gift planning in your nonprofit community?" Participants represented various types of charitable organizations across the U.S.
We were eager to make this reality check because the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy's Philanthropic Giving Index regularly identifies planned giving and major giving as strategies that fundraisers at all types of charitable organizations are optimistic about, and that they consistently rate as successful. In fact, fundraisers surveyed for the Index indicated that the effectiveness of planned giving solicitations of planned giving solicitations increased between June and December 2004 (the most recent figures available).
In such an optimistic climate, we would expect NCPG members to be excited about their professional prospects, but that's not necessarily the case. Gift planners in the focus group felt that their CEOs generally preferred any current gift to a deferred gift, and automatically assumed that planned gifts are deferred. Several said their managers believed that planned gifts -- especially bequests would "come in anyway," without special cultivation by gift planners. And many in the group felt that gift planners have hurt themselves by characterizing gift planning as complex and highly specialized -- perhaps placing it beyond the reach of smaller charities with limited development staff. Focus group participants agreed that gift planners have a lot of work to do to help their mangers understand their work and value it, especially when the economy takes a downturn.
We hope to have a focus group to check those perceptions from the other side of the desk, but it's difficult to gain access to a national cross-section of charity CEOs. In the meantime, we invited NCPG members and friends to work closely with that group to share their observations of CEO thought processes in hiring and managing charitable gift planners. Bob Lewis is president of Global Advancement, a firm that consults with charities on capital campaigns and other development issues. And Dick Murray is president of Paschal Murray, an executive search firm that helps charitable organizations fill positions that include gift planning responsibilities.
THJ: Our members seem to think that their CEOs don't fully understand or value their work. In your experience, are they right? What's the biggest misconception CEOs have about charitable gift planning?
DM: Planned giving is usually the last, or next to last, position filled in the development area. I'm working with a university that's been in existence for 100 years, and is just now hiring its first planned giving officer. Even that far down the road, CEOs think they can hire somebody to do it all--major gifts and planned gifts. But in reality, few people have the skills to set up a planned giving program while simultaneously cultivating major gifts (and few organizations are willing or able to pay appropriately for the enormous job descriptions they're creating).
BL: When they think about qualifications for a gift planning position, CEOs often look for people with credentials in the for-profit world, but who lack experience in philanthropy. It's hard to orient these people to development work, and hard to get them to take the pay cut required to move to the nonprofit sector.
DM: Also, CEOs think that major gifts will bring more value to the organization. They don't realize that they may get major gifts from 10 percent of their donor pool, but they could get planned gifts from 100 percent. There's hardly a person breathing who can't make a planned gift. Because of their staffing decisions, organizations are missing a lot of potential.
THJ: How should gift planners describe the return on their investment for a planned giving program when they talk with CEOs and trustees?
DM: Planned giving opens philanthropy to a population that didn't have access before, like older people on fixed incomes who have a real affinity for charitable gift annuities. These opportunities give fundraisers a chance to talk with potential donors in a way that involves information-sharing rather than a sales pitch. It strengthens the organization's relationship with all its donors and potential donors. It's true that some planned gifts come "over the transom." In a retail environment, some sales come over the transom too. But you want them to come over YOUR transom, and if you aren't talking to people, they don't know you're there.
BL: Planned giving allows donors to really be part of the solution in financing the organization and its work.
DM: That's right--planned gifts establish a continuing relationship with donors. They give donors something to add over time. Annual gifts don't provide that level of involvement or satisfaction.
THJ: How can gift planners make the case for their own skill set and professionalism?
BL: I can tell you from experience that credentials give CEOs more confidence when they hire consultants. The same is often true when they hire staff. There are some development officers at universities and other charitable organizations who say they know it all and don't need certification or continuing education, but most CEOs want someone who will be a proponent for continued development. They want the type of person in a position of leadership, to establish a culture of professional education for the rest of the staff.
DM: If very experienced gift planners say they don't need professional certification because they're already "there" in terms of skills and experience, that raises a red flag that these people are not interested in continued professional development. Even though gift planners debate the value of the CFRE, it's currently the only game in town. Fifty to 75 percent of the CEOs I work with prefer to hire people with CFRE because those credentials carry expectation of continuing education and a certain level of commitment to the profession. We also see many CEOs seeking gift planners with specialized training, like a JD or CSPG designation. I would advise gift planners--especially very experienced gift planners--to consider how their personal expertise can raise the level of professionalism of the entire field.
The conversation continues: One of NCPGs organizational goals is to serve as the voice and advocate for planned giving profession. Whether you characterize planned giving as a separate profession, or as a specialty of other professions, you probably agree that practitioners could use an organization with national scope making the case for this important philanthropic tool. NCPG uses input from surveys, focus groups and interviews to assess needs and develop programs and services that set high standards for gift planners and refine expectations of their managers.