The Case for Monthly Dues

By Sean Monahan, Rhode Island DSA

I’ve just submitted an amendment to DSA’s constitution and bylaws that would switch our dues system from yearly to monthly. The DSA constitution and bylaws are the rules that govern how the organization works, and every two years, the members elect delegates who have the opportunity to vote to amend the constitution and bylaws. At these biennial conventions the delegates also elect a National Political Committee (NPC), which represents our membership and makes decisions for the organization between conventions. My amendment would switch DSA to a monthly dues system and lay out some general principles by which the incoming NPC can develop and implement a specific plan. At the upcoming convention in Chicago on August 3–6, the delegates will have the opportunity to approve, modify, or reject that amendment (read the text here). I’m writing to explain to my fellow DSA members what I have in mind and ask you for your support for the proposal, or for your ideas to improve it ahead of the convention.

I first joined DSA 10 years ago when David Duhalde—in those days the national organizer of the Young Democratic Socialists—convinced my socialist student club at the College of Wooster to affiliate. For most of my ten years, DSA was a fragment of what it is today. We had two and a half national staff: a national director, a YDS organizer, and a part-time administrative worker. It hovered at around five or six thousand members tops, with only two strong and active local chapters (Detroit and Atlanta), and basically no members between the ages of 21 and 55. There were two very different organizations: one comprising college-based YDS chapters, the other “adult” DSA city-based chapters. Almost nobody younger than baby-boomers were part of the latter. When I graduated college and decided to continue into “adult” DSA and help reboot the defunct Philly local in 2009, there were only a handful of others like me.

In those early days I read a book of Eugene V. Debs speeches and had visions of DSA growing as rapidly as the Socialist Party of America did in the first decade of the 20th century. I dreamed of having not just a national organization based in NYC, but offices and socialist organizers covering the map, with a strong chapter in every city and groups sprinkling the countryside. But they were just dreams. Luckily, beginning around Occupy Wall Street in 2011, DSA began to develop some momentum, with fresh blood coming in from recent retirees and with far more YDSers deciding to “graduate” into DSA chapters.

Of course the real explosion came because of our work around Bernie Sanders and then the widespread horror about Trump’s election. DSA has grown tremendously in the past year, more than tripling in size to currently over 22,000 members. And the number of DSA chapters and organizing committees has about tripled as well. In the blink of an eye DSA has transformed into something quite different than what I’d known from the nine previous years. I had been elected to serve a two-year term on the NPC at the national convention of 2015, and so I got a bird’s-eye view of the organization’s takeoff over the past year.

Our budget, too, has increased dramatically—thanks mainly to the growth in dues money—adding some sinews to our still-skeletal staff. Instead of just two and a half workers in one NYC office, we now have around 10, split between the main office in NYC and a second one in Washington D.C. The new staff have been primarily sent into essential administrative functions, which for years were done poorly if at all and only at the cost of hyper-exploiting our very few workers. In the winter, we were able to hire for the first time in recent history a full-time organizer, Hannah, which was a great step forward for us. But despite extensive trips, teaching crucial organizing skills to new members, she’s been able to see only a fraction of our chapters so far. Even with all the new staff, the previous overburdens remain, because the amount of work has increased just as sharply as the workers’ numbers. For much of the membership surge in the winter, a huge backlog of new-member packets meant a lot of them didn’t get sent out for two months!

Almost overnight, the country has become full of DSA groups, from sea to shining sea. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Most chapters haven’t had very much contact with the national organization or with other chapters. Their activists are mostly new to organizing: they’re sorely in need of thoughtful and persistent guidance on how to grow and how to undertake effective political work, as well as training on the essential skills to do it. The larger and now more established chapters, like East Bay in California, or New York City, or Washington D.C., have been working as more or less fully independent organizations, pulled up by their own bootstraps, and, like the libertarian, “owing nothing to nobody.” Some of them are implementing monthly pledge systems which mean that local members pay far more to their chapter than they do to the national in membership dues.

This is an unsustainable situation for DSA: there’s a real danger that the larger chapters will become truly independent, or that their strength will mean the rest of the organization’s weakness, as the many small and fledgling chapters and organizing committees stagnate or even disappear. This is one of what the Spring Platform describes as the problems of growth.

A major challenge is coming up quick for DSA. Our yearly dues have to be renewed every twelve months. In the past, about a third of the membership would routinely drop off simply from failure to renew (and that was despite extensive efforts to encourage renewal). We can expect that rate to remain just as high or higher now after the huge influx. The greatest surge in new members began on election night, and it’s a real possibility that we’ll start losing about a third of our membership from nonrenewal starting this November. Realistically, our numbers could drop from 22,000 to 18,000 or even lower by New Year’s and keep declining afterwards.

This shouldn’t surprise us if we take note of the fact that many of the new members are currently “paper members”: they joined DSA online after the Trump election but never actually made it to a meeting, or made it to one but never came back. It’s possible this is due to organizing shortcomings of their local chapters, to the absence of a chapter in the first place, or to the not-uncommon short attention span of the joiner. (Life happens!)

If a lot of the membership indeed doesn’t renew and we do nothing else to compensate, the budgetary windfall of the past year will disappear. DSA’s money comes almost entirely from member dues and contributions. That’s how it should be—to rely on grants and big donors would be to sacrifice our independence and compromise ourselves politically. But that independence has a cost: it makes collecting membership dues imperative. If we lose a third or a half of our current members, our already overstretched staff will need to be axed, the D.C. office probably closed, and we can certainly say goodbye to our national organizer.

That kind of contraction is exactly the opposite of what we need at a time when we should instead be gathering momentum, expanding our operations, and deepening our organizing across the country.

We need a way to unite the various chapters together, large and small, and to drastically increase the support that the national provides chapters, both in amount and in quality. Instead of a single national organizer, we should have a team of 15 or more regional organizers, people who are in constant contact with the chapters and organizing committees in their areas, providing essential skills training to rank-and-file members and assisting them with campaign planning, internal organizing, and everything else demanded of activists in a democratic, volunteer-based organization. Instead of an office in New York and an office in D.C., we should have offices all around the country, including storefronts in working-class neighborhoods to make our presence more deeply felt. Instead of just one national conference every two years, we should have multiple regional conferences across the country every year, where our organizers can trade ideas, debate strategies, and build relationships. With a national staff of 30 to 40 instead of 10, and offices and conferences in every region, we could have a much more cohesive and powerful political organization both at the national and chapter levels, and ramp up our momentum rather than let it disintegrate.

It’s clear to me that this is the kind of expansion we need. But how could it be possible at a time when we’re facing an impending drop off in membership?

 

Towards monthly dues

I’ve been toying around with the idea of monthly dues for a while. DSA’s always had an optional monthly “sustainer” program, which has contributed a good chunk of revenue despite relatively few members enrolling in it. A lot of other socialist organizations have only monthly dues. The ISO, for instance, requires that its members (without children) pay roughly 4-5% of their income each month, and an even higher rate (around 7-8%) for wealthier members. I never thought rates that high would be a good idea for DSA; membership can’t be too onerous if we want a mass organization, which we do. But it seemed to me that even if we had a much more modest monthly system, we could raise a lot more money from our members in a way that wasn’t too burdensome.

Now I think is a crucial time to try out a switch to a monthly dues system. The language of the amendment I submitted is very general, as the text of a constitution and bylaws should be. The idea is that we’d approve the amendment at the convention, and the new National Political Committee, or NPC, (elected at the August Convention) would hammer out the details and have the new system ready to begin rolling out by November, when the wave of renewals begins. (For reference, the current DSA constitution calls for yearly dues, to be set at a rate decided upon by the NPC.)

We’re not voting on the specific plan at the convention, only the principles put forward in the actual text of the amendment. But just to give you an idea, the plan I have in mind goes something like this (read a more detailed version here).

The basic outline: if the constitutional amendment is adopted by a three-fifths vote of delegates at the convention (as they need to be), then the standard dues option will switch from yearly to monthly; the new NPC would set the suggested monthly rate to be 1% of the member’s average monthly income. The rate would actually be a range, say, 50% above or below the target, so that members can take into account their own necessary expenses. The principle is to make DSA monthly dues proportionate to the member’s ability to pay (as the classic slogan goes, “from each according to their ability…”).

So, since I make about $2,500 a month on average, my suggested dues amount would be $25 a month. Since I don’t have any kids and my living expenses are pretty low, I might decide to set my dues at $35 per month instead.

Over the course of the year, I’d be contributing $420 to DSA at that rate, substantially higher than the current “regular” yearly dues rate of $60. I’d be paying more, but I’d be doing it in a way that was manageable for me. Signing up for $35 a month is somehow a lot more appealing (and, for many, more financially feasible) than writing a check for $420 all at once.

Now, my proposed 1% plan won’t work for everybody. The costs associated with automatic cash transfers mean that it’s not worth it for DSA to accept monthly donations less than $10. So I propose that we have a separate category of dues for people with no or very low income, similar or identical to the low-income yearly option we currently have. Currently, members can opt for the low-income option and pay only $27 per year.

Also, someone might think, like a good socialist, “Wait, a flat percentage of income isn’t a good indicator of ability to pay—rich people can afford much more. Shouldn’t we have a progressive dues structure?”

The idea’s tempting, but I think there are two reasons to avoid it. The first is that it might deter a lot of people from joining if their suggested dues amounts are really high (even if they actually can afford it). For example, how many DSA supporters who make $200,000/year, with a 4% rate at their higher bracket, would really agree to pay $700 each month in dues? I’m guessing all but the most hardcore would balk at that number.

The second is that even if we had members happy to give that much, the huge size of their contributions would undoubtedly lead to some kind of informal sway within the organization, even if it were just that NPC members and other leaders would be concerned about keeping these rich members content and change certain decisions based on the worry of scaring them off. Obviously this would seriously compromise DSA’s internal democracy and political integrity. We want an organization of and for the working class, responsible to all its members on an equal basis. That goal would be in serious jeopardy if our funding streams became too reliant on richer people.

Overall, I think a flat dues system of 1%, incorporating room for the member to choose a rate at 50% above or below that based on individual needs, strikes the right balance between considerations of a member’s ability to pay and these other concerns.

Also, because only the most enthusiastic of new recruits will probably be ready to sign up for a monthly contribution right off the bat, the monthly dues amendment also calls for a category of an introductory rate, though leaves this to be determined by the NPC. I propose that this rate be the same as the member’s suggested monthly amount but for an introductory period of six months. The idea is that in those first six months the member has the chance to be brought onboard and get comfortable with membership in the national and in their local chapter, and when the period is over, they’re asked to begin on the monthly plan like the rest of their new comrades.

 

The benefits of dues reform

Among many other benefits, the increased dues money could go towards hiring a system of regional organizers. They’d be the primary national staff contact for the local chapters and organizing committees in their area, staying in regular contact with their leaders and making regular visits to provide much needed skills training and campaign planning—basically providing local groups with the kind of support they wish they had already. The regional organizers would be overseen jointly by the NPC and by a council of the local chapters in their region, to provide democratic accountability and ensure that the organizers’ time is being used in ways appropriate for the specific needs of their chapters.

If the monthly dues system works and works well, we could hire a lot of these organizers and assign them pretty small regions that they can work very closely with. If we get even 3,500 members to switch over (the number that filled out the national straw poll last month), I estimate we could raise $1,680,000 from those dues—more than three times our dues and member contributions in 2016 and roughly twice our total income. If we get 10,000 to switch, a little less than half our current membership, our dues income would be in the $4 to 5 million  range. Setting up 25 regional organizers and DSA field offices around the country would be a real possibility, and it would be a tremendous upgrade for DSA.

Imagine having not just one organizer for the whole country, like we have now, or even one organizer for the West Coast, but two or three organizers for the different parts of California alone. Imagine four regional organizers dedicated to organizing in the South: one for the Atlantic states, one for those around the Mississippi River, and one each for the super-states of Texas and Florida. With a system like that in place across the country, the amount of training, guidance, and resources that organizing committees and chapters get from the national would be entirely transformed.

But there’s another dimension to my proposal: that there should be a system in place for qualified local chapters to get a portion of the dues money from the members in their jurisdictions. This is also known as dues “kickbacks.” It would provide chapters with a steady source of funding and would give them an important incentive to recruit members.

I propose a rate of 20% dues kickbacks to the local chapters. I’m in a relatively small chapter, Providence DSA, with about a hundred members. If we got that many onto the 1% monthly dues scheme (and if had roughly the national median income), I estimate that our chapter’s members would collectively pay about $48,000 in dues. And so at 20% we’d be bringing in about $9,600 in dues kickbacks a year.

That would do wonders for our chapter’s budgetary situation. We’d never have to worry about printing banners or flyers again, or providing food for our meetings—we could even rent a small office space. Other chapters are more than 10 times our size, and needless to say, they’d have a lot more kickback money to work with. A chapter with 1,000 members on the new system, like New York City could potentially have, would get about $96,000 a year in dues kickbacks—a pretty substantial figure!

Some people I’ve talked to (from larger locals) have suggested a rate of 50/50 for kickbacks. I think that would be a big mistake, for a few reasons. The first is that the switch to a monthly system is experimental—we’ve never tried it before and we can’t be sure it would be a success. If it turns out we can only get a relatively small portion people to switch, our total income will not increase by much, or it may, with the drop in renewals, decline. If at the same time we’re now locked in to sending 50% of dues money to chapters, the national budget could be absolutely decimated. We could be back to the days of two and a half staff, and at a time when our needs are much greater.

There’s a real risk that scenario could happen. But even if it doesn’t and the switch is relatively successful, we should nonetheless pool most of our dues money together in the national. A full-time staff member who’s a regional organizer is more useful than a full-time local staff member. Particularly if the region is small enough, the regional organizer can do many tasks for the local chapters in their area, while also cutting down on the duplication of efforts across different chapters. It would be a huge waste if 50 chapters hired 50 local part-time staff and each of them had to work out a lot of the same tasks separately—with 20 full-time regional organizers part of the same system, there can be a planned division of labor and the time spent on logistics and administrative work can be minimized, opening up the way for the important stuff: organizing and training.

Further, regional organizers directly help along other organizing committees in ways that nearby chapter staff would not. Organizing committees and brand-new chapters would suffer under a 50/50 system, while established, large chapters “did their own thing.” We can’t look at our chapters like libertarians look at states’ rights. My chapter is Providence DSA, but DSA is my organization. Providence DSA is what it is because of the national movement around DSA that’s happened over the past year. We have an interest not only in what we do and achieve here in Providence, but also what our comrades do in Boston and New York, and rural Ohio, and all across the country. Although our chapter’s immediate goals are local, our medium-term goals—like Medicare for All and an end to the wars—are national in scale. Socialism is about solidarity and building a common project—that’s how I hope well-established chapters see things.

Besides, a successful monthly dues system with an 80/20 split would benefit established chapters immensely. On the one hand, they’d have a pretty substantial flow of cash coming from the national in the form of their kickbacks without having to do anything except to recruit and maintain members. And if they had more ambitious plans, they could use this as just the basis for more extensive fundraising efforts. On the other hand, they’d have significantly more support coming from the national organization and regional structures. The metro area around New York City, for instance, has so many people in it that it should have its own regional organizer devoted to it. The NYC chapter would benefit substantially from having the help of that organizer, as well as from the cultivation of other nearby chapters—chapters they could team up with for major events and projects.

 

The plan

Now, how would the new system be implemented? My thinking is that we have a period of one year in which members can still renew on the old yearly system. In the meanwhile, we push the switch hard, both by promoting it via email and social media, and more importantly, by having chapters call through their lists of members to encourage them to renew on the new system. The initial campaign could begin in late October or so, tied to a broader presentation of a rejuvenated DSA: introducing the new NPC with a bold vision, the exciting priorities resolution adopted at the national convention, a graphic design overhaul, etc.

In October we could have a national conference call for DSA chapter leaders on how to organize their local phone-banks. The ask to switch to monthly dues should take the form of: “we’re doing X exciting thing, but we need your help to do it!” The great benefits that will come from the increased dues money raised should be made very clear to the member: we’re covering the country in organizers, doubling down on building the democratic socialist movement, going on the offensive for Single Payer, and so forth.

 

The goal would be for us not only to retain as many current members as possible and get them to switch to the monthly system, but also to recruit new members. The implementation scheme itself will be a healthy exercise, both to test the capacity of local chapters and, in the process, to build up that capacity. Most chapters probably have not yet phone-banked their list of members at all, but they need to, and it’s something national could train chapter activists on in the process of running these dues drives. The conversations would hopefully produce not only new monthly-dues-payers, but also build stronger relationships between core chapter organizers and their paper members. Ideally, many of these paper members would be brought into the actual organizing of the local chapter. And chapters, now with the support of increased national capacity and a growing flow of dues kickback money, could expand their efforts at new member recruitment and continue the growth of DSA.

Switching to a very different dues system is something we haven’t tried before. The year-long rollout would also be a trial period, and the language of the proposed amendment is general enough that if things aren’t working out, we can adjust the system and open up more options for yearly dues. Flexibility is just as important as determination. It will be a challenge for us to implement a new system of monthly dues, requiring the efforts and cooperation from DSA members all across the country, but if we succeed the payoffs will be enormous.

I’ve been happy to serve on the NPC for the two most exciting years of DSA’s history, but I’ll be glad to step down after this convention. I have to write a dissertation, and I’ve realized I can’t do both at the same time… not if I want to do them well. I’m also not planning on becoming DSA staff anytime soon, so I hope readers don’t misunderstand my intentions. As a 10-year member of DSA and a participant in five different chapters in my time, building DSA has become one of the most important projects of my life. More than that, I think DSA has the potential to change the politics of this country and even the world in a big way. And I think that time could potentially be not too far off.

I expect a lot of exciting changes to come out of the national convention next month. I hope an amendment allowing for a dues reform along the lines of what I’ve described is part of those changes. Now is the time for bold action. DSA’s at a critical moment: we could see our growth turn into sharp decline, or we can regroup our forces in ways that allow us to press forward. That’s why I hope you’ll support my proposed amendment at the convention, and help develop and implement the new dues system in the fall. Monthly dues will ensure DSA has the resources it needs to grow our movement and rise to the challenges ahead.