Charitable giving is not just for the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world. In fact, it could well be an important part of your clients’ or potential clients’ financial lives: Last year, Americans gave $295 billion directly to charitable causes, according to Glenview, Ill.-based Giving USA's Annual Report on Philanthropy.

The thing is, some financial advisors feel they don’t know enough about charitable giving to provide expert advice, and a few even say they feel “awkward” or “inappropriate” doing so, according to a white paper released yesterday by Schwab Charitable and Registered Rep.. Many of the study’s survey respondents said they feel it is too personal a topic, and bringing it up might offend a client.

Indeed, the survey of select Registered Rep. readers showed that while 79 percent of advisors discuss charitable giving with their clients, some 37 percent of advisors have doubts about their expertise in the area. Advisors were mixed over whether clients wanted their help or not: Some twenty-two percent of respondents said clients didn't expect to receive advice on charitable giving from advisors, and that "it would feel presumptuous to initiate the conversation."

About 47 percent of the survey's respondents said they would have more discussions about charitable giving with their clients if they received more education and training.

"Charitable planning and giving is integral to wealth management, but it requires a specific base of knowledge," says Kim Wright-Violich, president of Schwab Charitable. "Advisors increasingly need to have a bench of experts upon which to draw to meet their clients' needs. It is unrealistic, given the demands on their time, to be subject matter experts on all issues important to their clients' financial lives. They may not have the answers to all of the questions, but they do need to know where to get them."

Advisors who claim to specialize in charitable planning say, in fact, it’s not that hard to find information and specialists in the topic, and that clients are often very receptive to questions about their charitable intentions. Raymond F. Rivas, a financial advisor with Atherton Wealth Planning in Atherton, Calif. says, in fact, that he takes a rather blunt approach. “I usually say, ‘Look, you have a lot of money here. What are you going to do for others? You have two choices when you pass away. Are you going to give your social capital to the IRS, so they can decide how to distribute it, or are you going to take your social capital and decide yourself how to distribute it among your fellow Americans.’”

Basically, Rivas frames questions about whether to give to charity in terms of control: either you decide how to allocate your resources according to what you think is important, or the government will do it for you. It helps that he contributes to charity himself: His family has a foundation to which he contributes $30,000 a year.

The wealthier his clients are, the more receptive they are to the topic, says Rivas. “For these people, the underlying question is, why am I on this earth? How can I leave a legacy, or stamp, for all time?”

Elaine E. Bedel, a fee-only financial advisor with Bedel Financial Consulting in Indianapolis, says her background working in the trust department of a bank gave her the knowledge to speak confidently with clients about charitable giving. It’s usually a discussion that takes place in her initial meeting with a client, she says. She also has taken continuing education courses in charitable giving to keep her up to date.

“I think there is an awful lot of education and training and reading out there,” she says. In the end though, she doesn’t need to know too much about the technical side of things, because she uses experts in the field, mostly attorneys and consultants, to take care of that part.

How do advisors who offer charitable planning advice get paid? Bedel says for clients who want the help, she makes it part of their financial plan, and she gets paid a fee for the financial planning service. She doesn’t share fees with the outside attorneys and consultants. But getting paid for charitable planning services doesn’t seem to be a major concern for advisors. A very small number—just 3 percent of those surveyed—said they didn't get paid enough to discuss charitable giving with their clients, while 8 percent said that having a way to charge for such a discussion would motivate them to increase the frequency of those conversations.