The Rule of 7

Early in my career, the first time I had the opportunity to interview candidates to hire a team member—a development coordinator, expanding my team—I was incredibly excited. The first candidate came to visit and talked about how her organization had figured out 7 ways to thank each of their donors. The second candidate talked about how many times they thanked their donors. The third candidate proudly reported about how they thanked all their donors 7 times. 

Thanking the donors 7 times was a mantra, a rule of thumb in the profession that we all took pretty seriously. We knew it was important and we lived by it. We recognized that it was important to show gratitude—and lots of it—to our donors. At the time also, there was a lot of awareness of about a marketing rule—now come to be seen by many as outdated—that specified that a customer had to see or hear something at least 7 times before she or he would remember it and buy your product.

Even though the Rule of 7 no longer lives on—people now disagree on the number of impressions that matter or they argue that it’s more about communicating with the right customers at the right time in the right way (which sounds a lot like the fundraising equivalent of the right person asking at the right time for the right amount)—the thing that was so great about the Rule of 7 was that we all knew this rule. We talked about it. We spent time and energy thinking creatively about how to thank a donor multiple ways. It was top-of-mind which made it habit to thank donors many, many times.

It’s great that, as a profession, we’ve been spending a lot of time the last few years talking so much about the problem of donor retention. Perhaps donor retention would not have become the problem it has become if we had not so lost track of the Rule of 7. Many of the fixes we are talking about today for the donor retention problem are similar to the thank you strategies which used to be commonplace when we were plotting our thank you tactics to ensure donors received 7 different thank you messages.  

So maybe it isn’t 7 times that someone needs to see impressions of our ads to buy our toasters, but I suspect that’s still a good rule of thumb for thank you’s. How many times do you thank your donors? (1) A thank you call, (2) a letter in the mail (3) an invitation to an event, (4) a name in an annual report… is that it? If so, we’re a little short.

Brainstorm ways to thank donors at your next staff meeting.  Start with these ideas:

  • A thank you letter
  • A postcard
  • A message from a client
  • A message from a volunteer
  • A phone call from a board member
  • A phone call from the Executive Director
  • A hand-written note from a Board member
  • An invitation to an open house
  • An invitation to a special event
  • A tour
  • A recorded call from a celebrity spokesperson

How many ways can you think of to thank you donors?  Share with us your ideas! Remember the Rule of 7. It may be defunct in marketing, but not in donor stewardship.


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