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Tuesday Thought Leadership Teardown: Not Just Whys, But the Why

What’s going on at the NRA?

Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State who studies the finances of nonprofits and has been looking at the NRA’s tax filings, says he knows. His new piece in The Conversation, “Financial woes are at the heart of the NRA’s tumult,” argues the organization’s current internal conflict — marked by high-level resignations, accusations of extortion, looming insolvency and now a criminal investigation — is “the culmination of years of financial problems”:

  • Routine deficit spending;
  • Borrowing from its own foundation; offering discounted, multiyear memberships; and underfunding its pension plan — all tactics designed to boost short-term revenue at the expense of the long-term;
  • Having an enormous board of directors (76 people!); and
  • Signing sweetheart deals with an ad agency and a telemarketing fundraiser — the latter which kept 50 percent of all the money it raised for the organization in 2017.

All these “whys” are interesting, lined up like this. NRA leadership was clearly taking a lot of risks to raise and spend money immediately.

But why?

Organizations don’t engage in these patterns without an underlying motivation or strategy, however dumb it might look in retrospect.

So what was the NRA leadership’s larger goal? Why were they doing all this?

And if we can’t tell that larger goal from the NRA’s public statements, what have similar patterns of behavior by other nonprofits told us about their goals and strategies that might help us interpret what the NRA has done? And whether it might survive?

Because, in 1995, The New York Times ran a story about the NRA very much like the one we’re hearing today…with predictions that deficits, sloppy bookkeeping and depletion of financial reserves had endangered the organization’s future.

And we know how that turned out.

To be clear: No one in the press is answering these questions. They’re treating the story like a dirty little secret that’s finally being aired because of a personality conflict, not a failed strategy. They’re treating the financial improprieties as reflective of…venality, perhaps. It’s hard to tell.

But Mittendorf’s piece is also silent on these questions, and that’s why it falls short as researcher thought leadership. It’s a backgrounder. A well-written and interesting backgrounder — but a backgrounder nevertheless.

One alternative strategy: Team Mittendorf up with a historian who’s written about the NRA or a historian of advocacy non-profits, to write a piece that put the NRA’s behavior in context and pulls out lessons for trustees and donors everywhere.

The current piece has value for journalists, and it could land Mittendorf some media interviews right now, as an expert on the NRA’s finances.

But doing research thought leadership isn’t just to get you media interviews. It isn’t simply applying the lens of your expertise to a current issue of interest to produce a bit more context for media.

It’s getting past the interesting “whys” to the really useful “why.”

Takeaway: If you write for The Conversation or another outlet (or your organization’s website) and your editors aren’t pushing you to that second “why,” find an editor who will.

Until you learn how to do it yourself, getting someone else who can push you there is one of the biggest steps you can take to move from media resource to having your own voice. To authority.