What can the Jewish community learn from the NRA organizing model?
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
The National Rifle Association has been identified as one of America’s most successful and effective lobbying institutions. While this article seeks to unlock some of the operational principles that drive this major national organization, my research must not be seen as a statement endorsing the policy positions of the NRA. The premise for writing this piece is based on the idea that it is possible to learn from an array of institutional sources concerning core operating principles in order to perfect one’s own advocacy strategies and techniques.
The events covering Newtown, Columbine, Charleston, and most recently, Roseburg (Oregon) have certainly elevated the debate on gun control and have challenged the standing of the NRA. As a recent “New Republic” article has suggested that the “NRA’s power has been more a matter of entrenched wisdom than actual fact.” Indeed, for many years the NRA had few contenders to its political position; today this is no longer the case, with the emergence of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA.
Singularity of Focus: As with AIPAC and an array of other Jewish advocacy organizations, the NRA has created a defined agenda, namely to “protect our Second Amendment rights,” a distinctive advantage, as their message becomes their identity. In the last few years the NRA reported revenues in excess of $225 million, with a significant portion of these funds being generated from “sales, advertising and royalties” in addition to fundraising. Less than half of the organization’s income is dependent on membership dues; corporate sponsors include a broad group of sporting goods firms and firearm manufacturers.
Defend the Cause: Aligned with the above principle of being single-focused, the NRA imparts a level of passion, patriotism, and pride as a way to energize its membership base. Being for guns is identified as an American value! To advance their case, the NRA has established four subsidiaries: the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund, the NRA Foundation, the Institute for Legislative Action which serves as its lobbying arm not only in Washington but across the nation, and its PAC, the Political Victory Fund (PVF).
The NRA’s focus on never ceding their core positions or basic values may deserve further consideration by Jewish advocacy groups who at times seem to compromise their central principles of belief or practice.
Building a broad base of popular support has been a central tenet of the National Rifle Association and this objective seems to have been met, and interestingly continues to be achieved. A majority of Americans, according to some six Gallup polls (1993-2013), hold favorable opinions concerning the NRA. For example, an April 2012 poll found 82% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats viewed the NRA “in a positive light.”
Leadership: The NRA’s entire operational framework is to not only to nurture the support of political elites on behalf their cause but also to build from the bottom-up their own leadership cohort, encompassing their extensive work around the recruitment and involvement of supporters across the country, with a specific emphasis on women and young leaders.
Take the Show on the Road: Whereas many Jewish organizations continue to focus their national meetings and operational activities around New York and Washington, the NRA strategy can best be defined as a “road show,” where they take their leadership and their core messages into the heartland. Case in point: the NRA has held its annual meeting in different cities across the country each of the past fifteen years.
Honoring One’s Heroes: Patriotic institutions play to their past by acknowledging the heroism of those who carried the torch before them; yet, at the same moment, the NRA is simultaneously building support today with their Congressional allies and by investing in the emerging political and civic players across the country. “Honor-Support-Invest” is more than a mantra; it represents their action plan!
Luxury of Time: Despite its political clout and broad-based support within certain sectors of the American electorate, the National Rifle Association has also experienced numerous set backs from its perspective: the loss of friends in the Congress and the White House, the absence of support among some state legislators, and the presence of bad publicity concerning their political positions on particular types of legislative initiatives and government policies. Yet, despite experiencing loses, the NRA focus appears to be always about the future. Electoral wins and legislative success are framed in terms of goals and expectations. Their PR language is about the possibilities of tomorrow! They appear not to panic in defeat or to be excessive in their celebratory statements around victories but rather to see the broad contours of the political future, as part of an on-going struggle, which they frame as a “civil rights” battle.
“The Big Tent”: The NRA strategy is not to suggest that everyone needs to embrace the Second Amendment as their central political platform but rather to win friends whose agendas are aligned with the interests and principles of the Association. This Big Tent notion works as it welcomes in fiscal conservatives, Tea Party supporters, libertarians and other allies to their political camp.
Culture and Cause: The presence of country music stars and the involvement of other media and Hollywood personalities allowed the NRA to be seen as aligned with the broader social fabric of America. The appeal of making gun ownership as “American as apple pie” provided a powerful motif, reinforcing the centrality of their cause, as they would suggest, “we are just like you.” They have helped to make “gun culture” both a distinctive and acceptable form of personal expression within the American social orbit.
Membership as Family: An NRA supporter is invited into the organization’s vast set of resources including access to merchandise, invitations to special events and exposure to key leaders.
Take-Aways for Jewish Advocacy: So what can the Jewish community learn from the NRA organizing model?
- Mobilize broadly, creating access for millions of supporters.
- Align one’s goals with patriotic values and a particular piece of American culture.
- Move beyond the agency’s membership base in order to create a set of economic and political alliances.
- Repeat one’s essential message over and over, maintaining the focus on the basic issues, never ceding core beliefs.
- Create a sophisticated network of subsidiary organizations to carry out elements of the core agenda and to improve one’s fiscal position.
- Construct an environment where members understand that they are part of community (family) who share common values and interests.
As I have written elsewhere, the Jewish community needs to continuously draw insights into the techniques for community organizing from a broad array of institutional models. As noted above, this article was not designed to endorse the message of the NRA but rather was constructed in order that we might unpack its operational characteristics. Just as I have previously attempted to explore the organizing principles central to Chabad and other groups, the NRA represents another case study in organizational practice that may provide some insights for scaling up the work of Jewish advocacy.
Steven Windmueller is a free-lance writer, whose work can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.