Compete with the NRA? You'll need the right business plan

Can a new organization compete with the NRA? It would need a great business plan.

At a time when the United States leads the world in the number of mass shootings and gun ownership per capita, presidential candidates' approaches to gun control take on vital importance. Hillary Clinton recently suggested that she would like to see "gun owners, responsible gun owners, hunters, form a different organization and take back the Second Amendment from these extremists [in the National Rifle Association]". While this is a fine idea, how realistic is it?

Established in 1871, the NRA is one of the most powerful non-profit organizations in America. In fiscal year 2014, the NRA earned a total revenue of $310,491,277, 41 percent of which came from membership dues. In contrast, NRA's "competitors"— the National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Association for Gun Rights, the Second Amendment Foundation and Gun Owners of America — only earned a fraction of the NRA's total revenue in their last reported fiscal years, 11 percent, 5 percent, 1 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

The NRA's success can be largely attributed to the organization's strong business strategy. As identified by Peter Murray in a 2013 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, the NRA utilizes "functional organizing." Unlike an issue-oriented organization that members primarily join to show support for a cause, a functional organization draws in members because of the clear and tangible benefits it offers to the members' lives. The NRA executes this idea better than most organizations today.

For example, several tangible benefits are made abundantly clear when potential members seek to join the NRA through its website. They are enticed with an official NRA membership ID card, member-only benefits like discounts and services, a free NRA-branded rosewood knife or heavy-duty duffel bag, their choice of subscription to one of three NRA magazines, invitation to "Friends of NRA" dinners and special events, and — perhaps most importantly — insurance for them and their guns. The cost? Only $25 a year! The obvious benefits of joining the NRA in exchange for a relatively negligible fee easily explain the NRA's resounding financial success. But wait, there's more: members also receive additional affiliated discounts on everything from rental cars to hearing aids to identity protection services.

The NRA offers a well thought-out armamentarium of programs that are relevant to almost any gun owner. These programs cater to use-specific groups like competitive shooters, hunters and law enforcement as well as to demographic-specific groups like women and children through programs like the NRA Women's Network and Eddie Eagle. This ability to relate to a large variety of consumers simultaneously broadens its member base while strengthening member loyalty.

Through its careful programming, the NRA is able to maintain its strong presence in a network of over 15,000 NRA-affiliated businesses, associations and clubs. This generates the NRA significant additional revenue through means like advertising and royalties. But more importantly, this on-the-ground network — in combination with the other benefits and programming described — enables the NRA to invoke the power of its (self-claimed) membership base of over five million people to lobby against gun control.

The degree to which the NRA insinuates itself into the lives of its members eases the transformation from NRA member to politically engaged gun supporter in a way that its opposition has yet to match. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that only 6 percent of gun control supporters contributed money to an organization that supports their cause as opposed to 25 percent of gun rights supporters.

Public health evidence unequivocally supports gun control. However, the political power of organizations like the NRA has often blocked the advancement of data-driven policy decisions. Ms. Clinton's suggestion for responsible gun owners to form a separate and alternative organization is one way to stop the cycle. However, the idea is likely to remain an idealist's dream unless such an organization is created with a commitment to business strategy on par with the NRA's.

Sonia G. Pandit graduated from Yale University, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and MIT Sloan School of Management. She currently serves as the CEO of The Pandit Group (thepanditgroup.com), a consulting firm that provides strategy consulting for social impact projects, and United Against Inequities in Disease (www.uaid.org), a volunteer organization that empowers students and communities to eliminate health inequities. Twitter: @SoniaGPandit

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