December 30, 2011; Source: Bloomberg Businessweek | Some nonprofits really know how to market and advocate. Not since Charlton Heston raised an antique Sharps rifle over his head at the organization’s 2000 convention, and intoned in his best “Planet of the Apes”–outraged voice that Al Gore’s Second Amendment position would pry his gun from his “cold dead hands,” has the National Rifle Association had a promotional ploy this distinctive.
The NRA is marketing NRA-themed merchandise to its supporters, keeping the circulation of money in-house. The piece that grabbed the lion’s share of attention? A toaster that scorches the NRA logo on your morning toast (it is unclear from the Bloomberg story whether the specific logo to char the whole wheat is this one:
or this one:
though it probably wasn’t the logo with the famous electoral exhortation seen on many a car bumper:
In any case, a toaster with that capability is a neat branding gizmo. Selling toasters is only part of the fundraising, merchandising, and marketing that the NRA uses to pull in more than $200 million a year. Although the NRA has a ton of members (somewhere between 2 million and 4.3 million, depending where you look on the NRA website), its non-dues revenues grew twice as fast as its dues revenues between 2004 and 2010.
Some of this fundraising is clearly focused on ousting President Obama in 2012. Although Obama and the Democrats have done next to nothing on gun control, remembering how gun-Dems opposed Gore’s candidacy, NRA Executive VP Wayne LaPierre believes that the President harbors a secret plan to undo the Second Amendment and must be stopped.
It takes money to undo a national political candidate—funding that the NRA raises and dispenses generously. For example, the NRA Foundation gave out $21.2 million in grants—$12.6 million to the NRA and $5.5 million to local groups, including 4-H organizations. To maximize the possibility of these NRA funds staying with the organization, in 2010 the foundation started requiring grantees to spend their grant dollars at the NRA’s online “merchandise center.”
Of course, the NRA doesn’t make the merchandise marketed to its grantees but rather cuts deals with vendors. The potential tax problem here is the notion of a nonprofit—the NRA Foundation—telling grant recipients where they must spend their grant dollars (and where they can’t), resulting in an “arrangement [that] might confer a private benefit on vendors who supply goods for the merchandise center,” according to tax attorneys David Miller and Marcus Owens. Owens actually indicated that this practice could jeopardize the foundation’s tax-exempt status.
That doesn’t seem to be stopping the NRA. At one of the hundreds of “Friends of NRA” events held recently (this one in Hawaii), the NRA toaster captured a ton of attention. The scuttlebutt was that the next new product on tap is an NRA waffle iron.
We can only imagine a resurrected Charlton Heston with his Sharps rifle standing guard over the toaster and waffle iron, heroically telling the marauding “Revenuers” from the federal government, “Get your hands off me you damn dirty ape(s)!”—Rick Cohen