How DSA Can Activate an Under-tapped Resource: Retirees

Retirees can be a major resource for DSA chapters - activating them will require a distinct approach and targeted outreach.

We really need to cherish our movement elders … (whom) we are lucky enough to have with us today … like … (the) many local movement veterans across places and spaces. There are so many legends in our backyards.

A lot of people say that youth give them hope, but I also find that our elders give me hope and comfort too. They are living testimony to the fact that no matter who you are, we can all be part of a lineage of people who choose to struggle together.

– Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, October 16, 2021

Right now, DSA has many members who are not active members of their chapters. In my mind, this group of inactive members is the greatest opportunity for DSA to dramatically increase our influence. If even one third of these inactive members could be turned into active members, many chapters would double their number of active members. Of course, the question is how to do this.

Some of what follows is based on my personal experiences and some is based on my reading of Jane McAlevey’s book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. McAlevey’s book is focused on union organization, but I think some of her concepts also apply to activating DSA members. My key takeaways from her book are:

  • diverse leadership brings a range of experiences, knowledge, and varied networks to an organization
  • the chief way to get people to go from passive to active is to involve them as actors in the process of developing our campaigns
  • a prerequisite for success of the socialist project is the continual expansion of the chapters with people who have not previously been involved
  • individual campaigns matter but campaigns are also a mechanism for bringing new people into the organization and keeping them involved

This proposal will focus on one segment of our inactive members – retirees. But many of the points that I will make can apply to many different types of inactive members. Of course, each membership segment needs to be approached with a distinct method appropriate to that segment, but there are common approaches which can be applied to all segments.


My focus is retirees, who I think are ripe for activation. There are many DSA members who are retired and are not active members in their chapters. These retired members have a number of attractive attributes for DSA. They have time to devote to chapter activities because they are not working. Many of them have funds which they could use to support their chapter. Many will have special skills (computer savvy, statistics, legal training, accounting, etc.). Many of them have years of political experience. Many have had extensive socialist education. Many of these folks have connections to community and political organizations and leaders in their area. Finally, many of them have held leadership positions in political, community, and work situations. Therefore, the systematic integration of seniors into a chapter benefits younger members, not just senior members.

Activating these members would be a great boon for DSA. As most of you know, most of DSA’s active members are young people who are working full time, may have family responsibilities, have limited funds, often only a few years of political experience, and might have only rudimentary socialist education. If DSA could activate the retired members, particularly those with many years of experience in socialist and progressive politics, they could have a significant multiplier effect on most chapters’ influence and effectiveness.

The question is how to identify these comrades and how to activate them. Following are my thoughts on the key elements of a recruitment campaign aimed at inactive senior members.

Seniors and Targeted Recruitment

First, we must admit that ageism is an issue in our organization. Ageism judges people based on their physical attributes and assumes they have no value because they are “old.” Too often, senior members are ignored even when they reach out to volunteer their time and skills to contribute to their chapter. At best, they are asked to attend marches or phone banks. Very few chapters have seniors in leadership positions.

To overcome this stereotyping, senior recruitment requires a carefully planned approach geared toward this group. Each chapter needs to determine what it needs to enhance its influence, what kind of persons can provide it, how the chapter can reach them, and how the chapter can motivate them to become active. There is a major advantage to activating DSA seniors: these people are already in direct or indirect contact with our organization and therefore we should have a much higher chance of activation.

The first problem of this recruitment drive is to identify who our inactive senior members are. We will need to search through our membership lists for members who do not attend meetings or other chapter events and who we can identify as seniors by asking around about them from other comrades and looking them up in our database and possibly social media.

Senior Recruitment Message

The desire to feel valued and useful and the desire to feel vital and physically active are the two most cited reasons by seniors for volunteering. In addition, loneliness is a serious problem among elderly people. In our messaging, we should make clear that these comrades can make vital contributions to the DSA and its work.

On the other hand, many seniors are already involved with much volunteer work. We need to explain why DSA is worthy of this person’s time rather than other activities that they may already be doing. We need a message that is short, simple, and direct, communicating the need for the volunteer’s service and the good they can do. We need to stress the needs of DSA for their service. Seniors are not going to be enticed by opportunities just to stay busy. We need to provide work that captures people’s imaginations and really uses their skills. Further, the volunteer rallying call we send out cannot be vague about the time and tasks we need volunteers for.

Personal Recruitment of Seniors

To engage these folks, we need to tout the flexibility and challenges of the chapter’s volunteer opportunities. The key in recruiting seniors is to provide a variety of opportunities (type, skills, frequency, etc.) that can appeal to them. Once contact has been made with potential volunteers, the best way to get their attention is to recruit a current senior volunteer to be their buddy for their first volunteer activity. When recruiting volunteers, we need to show prospective volunteers what we have done and bring in current volunteers to talk to them. Most new volunteers will come in this way rather than through advertising via email or other social media. The personal touch is the most effective method in recruiting new volunteers. Therefore, active senior members contacting their inactive DSA friends would get our foot in the door with these folks.

I would suggest delegating recruitment duties to committed seniors who already are active in the chapter and have experience with recruitment and administration. There is no one better than a satisfied volunteer to be the best spokesperson for an organization. Directly asking for retired volunteers, and acknowledging their commitment, experience, and willingness to serve, are key elements to successful recruitment. In almost all volunteer organizations, personal recruiting has been a key for successful recruitment. Volunteers sign up because they have heard of the organization’s activities through friends and acquaintances.

Activating Members 

While this essay is focused on the retirees, there is no reason why the methods suggested here can’t be used to reactivate different segments of our vast membership. The key is giving people specific avenues in which they can be active, creating a culture that welcomes them and making sure they are treasured and valued as comrades in our long fight for socialism. As our membership approaches 100,000, making it into an active force is key to our future.