A DSA Where There are Millions: The Recommitment Drive and the Road to Building a Mass Organization
DSA’s 2022 Recommitment Drive shows how internal organizing can bolster the life force of a democratic organization.
It has been said that serious politics begin when there are not merely thousands, but millions of people involved. In order to actualize the socialist horizon we desire and need, DSA must grow at the scale necessary to engage in mass politics. The irony of living in a moment where multiple compounded crises are hurting people’s individual capacity to engage in this work is that we need increased organizational capacity more than ever. For DSA, that means being disciplined in our commitment to internal organizing. Any organization invested in the project of building power recognizes the need to recruit, activate, develop, and retain members. DSA’s 2022 Recommitment Drive offers an important case study in how intentional and systematic internal organizing can bolster the life force of a democratic organization, our members and the resources they contribute.
Intentional organizing practices are a steady necessity generally, and particularly for DSA to continue growing and maturing to meet this political moment. In the first six years of its modern iteration, DSA has shown incredible promise. In just five years, DSA mushroomed from around 6,000 to 90,000 members. As powerful as this rush of new members has been, the influx of DSA members over the last six years has been largely due to external events, like Trump’s 2016 election victory or AOC’s win in 2018. As we prepare for the decades ahead, we must adjust our recruitment strategies to be intentional and not just contingent on outside factors, and we must also make sure our members not only stay in the organization, but become engaged in lasting ways. This shift has been happening in chapters and at the national level through projects like the Growth and Development Committee’s 2020 100K Recruitment Drive and 2022 Recommitment Drive, but we must do much more, and at a much bigger scale across DSA chapters and other bodies, to ensure a successful mass organization.
In order for DSA to successfully expand into a six-figure (and beyond) membership, we must cultivate a shared and deeply held understanding of and commitment to internal organizing within our chapters and national bodies. In order to run effective campaigns contesting for power and altering the material conditions of the world, we must also be committed to the long-term and often overlooked work of retaining and (re)engaging members. People must be asked to join, must be asked to stay, and must be organized into action to develop them as organizers who can then do the same with others. Recognizing that our power comes from organized people and organized money also means centering the political nature of dues to keep our organization member-funded and keep DSA as an organization independent and accountable only to its members. It also means ensuring that we are scaling our fundraising to cover the work we want to do in order to realize the aspirations of our membership and effectively wield those resources to win material change.
One recent project, the National Growth and Development Committee’s (GDC’s) Recommitment Drive, demonstrates the potential of committing to these practices, as well as the challenges we must overcome to grow into an even larger, more effective organization realizing democratic socialism in our lifetimes. Despite being a large success and essential boost to our organization’s sustainability, recommitting nearly 6,000 members and raising almost $200,000 in dues income over ten weeks, this campaign has failed to draw the attention and fanfare that more external facing campaigns have. This is indicative of our organization’s need to more deeply root ourselves as socialist organizers in the necessity of tending to the internal development and growth of our membership. As the results of the Recommitment Drive show, even with modest engagement from chapters, internal organizing work has real effects in retaining our membership and shoring up the strength of our organization.
The What and Why of the Recommitment Drive
The Recommitment Drive was a continuation campaign to follow the GDC’s very successful 100K Recruitment Drive. The 100K Drive was a massive success, bringing in around 13,000 new members to DSA during the fall of 2020. Recruitment was largely driven by the efforts of individual activists recruiting through their already-existing social networks, often through social media. At the time of the 2021 national convention, DSA approached, but did not meet, the goal of 100,000 members. Moreover, with such a massive increase in membership in a short amount of time, we risked a serious membership cliff; the 13,000 members who joined in 2020 were approaching the point of their membership lapsing had they not renewed.
The Recommitment Drive focused on membership retention and intended to build organizational capacity at every level. Using tools provided by the national office, members phonebanked and text messaged their chapter members not in good standing. At a high level, lapsed and expired members were invited to renew their dues and plug back into their chapters’ campaigns, chapters would further strengthen and develop internal organizing practices, and leaders were developed both within chapters and through the national campaign’s training and coaching teams built by the GDC. Chapters were invited to commit to the drive and assign campaign point people to run Recommitment Drives in their chapters. Point people were matched with a GDC coach, several training sequences were held, and a robust resource guide was shared to help chapter leaders move through the work of the drive. As chapters were focused on their local memberships, the GDC also held phonebanks several times a week to reach the lapsed and expired at-large universe, which in size would be the third largest chapter in the DSA.
The main goals of the Drive were to recommit 5,000 members nationally and raise $50,000 in dues income. We easily exceeded both of those goals. Over the ten weeks of the drive, we renewed 5,906 members – nearly 1,000 above our goal – and raised $193,000 – almost quadruple our goal, in dues income.
101 chapters committed to participating in the Recommitment Drive, and 62 chapters used the Scale to Win dialer to call their members. Through the drive, we made 31,612 total calls (7,984 of them to at-large members) and 2,810 texts.
A Democratic Mandate
The Recommitment Drive was a component of Resolution 27 Beyond 100K: Building a Mass Socialist Organization, which the GDC drafted and passed at the 2021 National Convention. The initial Recommitment Drive proposal was approved by the 2021-2023 National Political Committee (NPC) in October 2021, was voted on as a priority for the organization in a February 2022 NPC meeting, and the NPC Steering Committee also approved a one month extension of the drive in May. There were multiple times this project was presented to bodies with decision making power and was approved.
Outcomes: Member Retention
In order to engage and organize as many members as possible, we must first keep them in our organization. DSA measures membership in a few ways. Members in Good Standing (MIGS) are the members who have actively paid dues within the last year and, as a rough, imperfect measure, would include the core and active members of our organization. MIGS are the members who can vote on chapter business, run as delegates to Convention, and otherwise serve in leadership roles. Constitutional Members are a category including both Members in Good Standing and DSA members who have not paid dues in 1-2 years and are no longer in good standing. This is a grace period measurement, as some of these members may not be fully engaged in the organization, or simply may have had an issue with processing a dues payment. If a member does not pay dues in two years, they are considered expired and no longer counted as a member of the organization in any way. The Recommitment Drive created two target universes (Constitutional Members not in good standing and expired members) and also encouraged chapters to do a third round of outreach to all members in good standing in their chapters.
The data on Constitutional Membership & MIGS from January 2020 to June 2022, shown in Graph 1 below, helps illustrate the importance of these categories in understanding the health of our organizations’ membership. There is always a gap between the two groups, the blue, upper line measuring constitutional members, and the red, lower line measuring Members in Good Standing, because we do not have perfect retention of membership. Looking at the Fall of 2020, September to November, we see the gap between the two sharply narrow because of our incredibly successful 100K Recruitment Drive; we recruited thousands of new members into DSA.
Graph 1. Constitutional Membership & MIGS Jan ‘20 – Jun ‘22
The importance of good retention is clear when looking a year later, to September 2021. Here the gap between members in good standing and constitutional members widens again. From this period on, we continue to lose members in good standing, as shown by the declining red MIGS line. This trend began to change in April 2022, when the Recommitment Drive launched, as the MIGS line pulled up sharply. This shows the positive impact of the Recommitment Drive in getting people back into Members in Good Standing status, reversing the downward membership trend for the first time in over a year.
This again shows why it’s not enough to recruit members, we have to do intentional work to engage and keep them in our organization. If we don’t, we risk continuing to see a downward trend in membership, effectively draining our main source of power. We also need to understand that a portion of members have always and will always lapse, in our organization and others. During the Trump administration, DSA benefitted from a very high join rate due mainly to external events such as mobilizations around Trump administration policies or electoral successes of the Squad. DSA’s membership continued to grow despite members lapsing. In recent years, our join rate has slowed significantly, and the impact of our lack of an intentional retention strategy and internal organizing is revealed. This makes clear the imperative to retain members. We cannot rely on external events bringing new members in to be the sole source of our membership strength. We must intentionally and regularly tend to the retention of our membership.
Financial asks can be the toughest, most anxiety-inducing ones for organizers to make. Many socialists don’t want to talk about money, even with comrades, but the reality is that our dues are a material source of our power, and our only source of financial power. That’s a distinction that sets DSA apart from other organizations. The Drive showed that we can and should make dues asks of members.
Graph 2. Total Recommits by Dues Type
A big takeaway from Graph 2 shown above is that members are invested in DSA’s long term success. The vast majority of recommitments (over 75%) were recurring dues commitments. Also, a majority (52%) of all recommits during the Drive were for monthly recurring dues contributions, which is the most beneficial to the long term financial sustainability of the organization. It’s important to note there were also one-time dues contributions, and about 5% of all recommitments during the Drive were with dues waivers. We should continue to offer different types of membership options so that members can choose a way to contribute that best fits their ability and to ensure we continue to include all working-class members. It’s also important to note that, when members are able to, they’re making long term commitments to our organization.
Graph 3. Total Income by Dues Type
All dues contributions have a major, positive impact on our organization, and recurring dues contributions are especially helpful in ensuring the long term financial stability of our organization. As Graph 3 demonstrates, of the nearly $200,000 raised by the Recommitment Drive, $81,000 of RD dues contributions were in one-time dues that will not automatically renew. $72,000 of what we raised was in annual recurring dues, which will renew once a year. Over one-fifth of dues contributions, about $41,000, were monthly dues. Monthly dues are huge for stabilizing our organization and also chapters, as portions of monthly dues go back to chapters through the dues share program. To demonstrate the power of monthly dues, note that in two months time, income from monthly dues commitments will outpace those one time contributions. Furthermore, members who recommit pay higher dues than new members, both in monthly and yearly dues. So when members do stay, they tend to demonstrate a higher level of commitment in that way.
Outcomes: Overall Engagement
Southern chapters and chapters with (currently) smaller memberships stood out in their Recommitment Drive success. Chapters with these characteristics frequently won weekly prizes for their gains and progress. The three grand prize winning chapters were also all Southern chapters (Birmingham, AL; Triangle, NC; and Pensacola, FL). The time and capacity it took to outreach members was immediately returned with the expanded capacity brought by bringing back in a few, or ten, or twenty five members.
Based on results and chapter feedback, drive participation had a pretty clear, positive impact on chapters. It could be a challenge to get chapters engaged in the work of the Drive, but once they did, the fruits of the work were clear to them in terms of leadership development and bringing members back into action. At the national level, we also built teams of volunteer coaches and trainers, where around thirty members gained experience in facilitating trainings, and coaching chapters.
Chapters called and phonebanked members and we also organized national phonebanks to call at-large members. National at-large phonebanks expanded upon the GDC’s monthly practice, started in 2022, of text banking members who are about to lapse. A big takeaway of all the phonebanks was how easy making these renewal asks can be. When members are textbanked and asked to renew, the most common response is an enthusiastic yes. Often members just don’t realize their dues payments are behind. We also found that phonebanking members often meant we reached a different group of people than the ones who respond to texts, emails, or social media. Also, the power of direct member-to-member connection cannot be overstated. Many at-large DSA members I spoke to felt generally isolated from DSA without a chapter near them and were very excited to talk with a fellow member.
Outcomes: Evergreen Resources
Through the Recommitment Drive, the GDC and DSA staff built a suite of lasting tools and infrastructure that can be used going forward. The Scale to Win dialer, which includes an automated voicemail drop, is still available for chapters looking to phonebank members to renew, as well as Spoke for textbanking. The GDC has expanded their monthly renewal Spokebanking practice to include quarterly phonebanks of lapsed and expired members. A Recommitment Drive guide for chapters includes resources for chapters to carry out their own retention work, including tools like a guide for calculating retention rates, how to read membership lists sent from National, and a step-by-step guide for coordinating a retention phonebank, are available for use.
Outcomes: Chapter Feedback
Quantitative metrics tell an important story, as does hearing directly from those engaged in the work. Here’s what a few chapters had to say about the work of the Drive, how it impacted their chapters, and themselves as individual organizers.
Starting the Recommitment Drive felt daunting at first, until I realized we were reaching out to people who had already made the decision to join DSA! They had just gone inactive (or never gotten active) but they had signed up for a reason and thus we already had something in common. Phonebanking for the drive has helped Las Vegas DSA reconnect with these members and update them on the work we do in the community—almost everyone we’ve spoken to has recommitted to support us, with the majority choosing to sign up for monthly dues. – Las Vegas DSA
Metro Cincinnati and NKY had their first phone bank for the Recommitment Drive last Thursday! It was very easy to use Scale to Win to call our list and we were able to get through a list of over 150 members in less than an hour with just five members making calls. It was an easy ask to get members who chose to recommit to commit to monthly dues instead of annual and we were also able to sign members up for our next event! – Metro Cincinnati and North Kentucky DSA
My time in the DSA has been one first after another: first time text banking, first time canvassing, and now, for the Recommit Drive, first time phone banking. To be honest I’d been avoiding it because I’m a bit of an anxious introvert and to be doubly honest, the experience was stressful and awkward at times, but if it weren’t for the help of the comrades from National, I don’t think I would have ever even tried. Colleen and Amy spent a long zoom call on a Sunday morning helping me set up our chapter’s call script, Walker got all our phone numbers ready to go, Emma and Jordan were patient and helpful during the phone banking zoom call itself. I don’t know the percentage of successful calls an experienced organizer would want in order to consider this worth the time, but I consider me becoming better trained as an organizer a win. I consider my stretching outside my comfortable boundaries a win. But really, when I heard a familiar voice pick up the phone on my second call and had the opportunity for both of us to say we missed each other and the work we had done in the past, it was a reminder to me of how socialism is built on these relationships between people that care about people. Solidarity. – Fresno DSA
Although the Recommitment Drive was largely successful, we still learned a number of lessons and identified pain points that future work should consider.
Member renewal/dues drives must be directly connected to a strong, clear, and powerful political vision and work. DSA is a political organization. People engage with political organizations as members when they see and understand the way their membership contributes to a broader strategy that they have a role in. Without elected political leadership communicating a clear and unified strategy and engaging in meaningful work to execute that strategy, dues drives fall flat. The Recommitment Drive aimed to integrate with national priority committees but struggled to do so effectively, which negatively impacted the Drive’s momentum.
One thing that came up a lot for coaches talking with chapters and elsewhere was the perception that the work of the Drive took away from already precious capacity to run a chapter or external facing campaigns. Again, like all internal organizing work, the intention of the drive was a way to re-engage members and plug them into ongoing work, while also building up capacity. The chapters that did the work often found this to be true, but it also appeared to be a real barrier to getting buy-in from chapters and other leaders in the org, who saw the Recommitment Drive in competition with other goals. The reality is, this work is a tool that can strengthen all the other work we want to do and should be seen as such.
Good internal organizing work takes time, and it is worth the energy and resources required. Even with starting outreach two months before the Drive officially launched at the end of April, it took a while for many chapters to decide whether to engage and then get started on the work of the Drive. The Recommitment Drive was originally set to run for six weeks, from the end of April to the start of June. After assessing our goals and metrics a few weeks into the Drive, and receiving feedback from chapters, coaches, and organizers that they needed more time, the GDC requested a one month extension that was approved by the NPC. This extension was crucial in allowing more time for chapters to coordinate their teams, gather resources, and do the core work of contacting members.
Similarly, we didn’t see the widespread engagement and buy-in we hoped for, and larger chapters in particular were less likely to participate. About half of all chapters (101) committed to the Recommitment Drive, but then only about one-third (64) used the Scale to Win phonebank tool, and even fewer used Spoke for text banking. This is a bit of a glass half empty/half full scenario: even with a minority of chapters engaged, we saw positive effects locally and nationally to our overall membership levels. But again, this really speaks to how powerful this work could be if it were more widely and regularly practiced in the org.
What sets DSA apart from other organizations is the strength of our democratic mandate: our power comes entirely from our members and the resources we contribute. To realize the unique power we hold in a democratic organization means we must recognize and relish the shared responsibility to sustain that life force. As the 2022 Recommitment Drive demonstrated, even relatively modest engagement in intentional internal organizing has the power to staunch and reverse the loss of membership and dues while providing important opportunities to engage and develop leaders across the organization. In order to build a DSA in the millions, internal organizing work must be consistent, intentional, and widely practiced.