Amid renewed calls for gun control, a lot is being written about the National Rifle Association’s political clout in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Many nonprofit groups who oppose the NRA’s mission and tactics are still envious of their organizational prowess.
As someone who has studied the NRA carefully, it is clear that the NRA is punching above its weight. While its membership numbers range anywhere from 3 – 4.5 million people, which is nothing to sneeze at, it is its members’ fierce loyalty to the NRA’s agenda that is critical to its success. Not all its members stand with the organization on all its positions, but it is clear that a critical mass will respond when called.
It is clear that the organization built this loyalty by creating a culture of multi-level engagement that makes it part and parcel of the unique “gun culture” of the United States. Think about that frontier spirit that “tamed the west,” that fierce dedication to personal freedom and liberty, and it is hard to imagine that happening without guns.
The NRA acculturation starts through the cultivation of young people through various gun education and shooting sports programs and a series of family-oriented engagement opportunities. There are local meetings, weekend outings, product discounts, corporate relationships, and plenty of media to tie people to the NRA’s program. The political apparatus is formidable. The NRA membership can be called on as citizen lobbyists, as voters and campaign donors. They make their endorsements count by backing them up with ballot box success.
Donald Trump admonished congressional leaders not to fear the NRA. But, they have plenty to fear. Not only does the NRA turn out at the polls (and the impression is that the gun control lobby does not), but they get up close and personal with candidates for public office. How likely would a candidate be to be anything but conciliatory towards a confrontational constituent wearing a side arm to a meeting.
Obviously, most nonprofits cannot compete with that. But they can draw lessons from the multi-level engagement that has nurtured the NRA’s constituency. Can you move beyond social media into other engagement strategies? Are there events you can organize locally and regionally? Do you have tools to educate the young about your work? How about tools for members to publicly declare their loyalty, like hats and bumper stickers? Can members get the “inside scoop” by joining tele-town hall meetings or hearing your leaders speak?
We are all impatient for change, but the NRA has been at this game for a long time—stretching back to the 19th Century. I am not suggesting it would take that long today, but that it doesn’t happen overnight. Perseverance and multi-level engagement will pay handsome dividents.