DSA Leaders Look for Paths Through “Boom and Bust” Budget Cycle

DSA’s budget and deficit have been front and center in conversations around the organization this year, especially at the 2023 YDSA and DSA conventions. The author spoke with Y/DSA leaders from across the country to discuss the issue.

DSA, the largest socialist organization in the United States, has a money problem. Prior to the YDSA and DSA conventions in August, the expected deficit was $1.6 million. After the events, that number grew to $2.1 million. As that financial burden grows, leadership across the organization must still enact policies and campaigns approved by membership, including the reproductive rights and trans liberation campaign, and stipends for YDSA co-chairs. Each project requires funding, and as the deficit increases and revenue diminishes,  what projects to fund—and cut—has become more of a consideration. DSA’s Budget & Finance Committee echoed that sentiment in their memo from March 24, writing “we only have a couple of years of deficit spending left, unless we either rein in spending or increase income.”

On September 17, DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC) reviewed a resolution by East Bay DSA’s Renee Paradis, asking that “in drafting and enacting a proposed 2024 budget, the NPC directs the Budget and Finance Committee to make its highest priority avoiding laying off existing staff members as much as possible.” The NPC voted 9-6.5 against, and a wave of discussion ensued.  

Some implied a political motive in the resolution submission, since Paradis and many of the document’s supporters are members of the Socialist Majority Caucus. Las Vegas DSA’s Kara Hall called the motion a “bad faith resolution being used to score factional points at the expense of our entire staff,” in a Tweet from September 17. 

Others dismissed the situation as a non-issue, like former Boston DSA co-chair Eve Seitchik, who wrote “I’ll believe the NPC majority has suddenly lost their minds and their principles and decided to lay off our beloved organizing and support staff before cutting other expenses if an actual proposal for staff layoffs is considered,” in a tweet from September 18. 

Others still, like Metro DC DSA’s Saoirse Gowan, felt the vote indicated layoffs were forthcoming, tweeting on September 17, “We want leadership to tighten their belts. They won’t say what they support exactly but they’re indicating they are considering layoffs instead.”

So concerned were staff members by the possibility of layoffs that a statement by DSA Union  was published on September 19. “If the NPC and/or management attempt to lay off staff members before exploring every other avenue to maintain our organization,” the statement read, “we will defend our union jobs with any and all tools provided to us by our democratically-negotiated collective bargaining agreement.” The statement also referenced proposals passed at the DSA Convention, which “added 2.1 million dollars to DSA’s budget, which was already projected to have a 1.6 million dollar deficit,” stating “We are concerned that delegates did not fully realize or debate the trade-offs that will have to be made to implement all of the proposals passed at the 2023 Convention.”

John Lewis is a member of New Orleans DSA, and the NPC’s new Treasurer. Lewis didn’t mince words about the organization’s current predicament, saying that DSA must have a balanced budget in 2024. “If we can’t keep members, or we don’t balance our budget, the org becomes insolvent, and we know what happens then.” Lewis also shared quarterly budget expense summaries with The Activist, showing that in Quarter 3 alone, DSA had a total income of $1.022 million, but expenses amounting to $1.4 million, with convention expenses alone costing $247,059. 

Worse still, DSA has seen “dues income being significantly lower than anticipated,” explained Lewis, as membership decreases.   According to Lewis, DSA has 74,000 constitutional members, with 55,000 members in good standing, and “every month this year we’ve posted a loss of membership.” When asked what options were available to increase revenue and membership, Lewis immediately said “solidarity dues drives,” which is giving 1% of your income to DSA, allowing that amount to grow and shift as your income does the same. “Solidarity dues drives can rapidly change our fiscal position,” Lewis noted, adding that phone banking was also an option being discussed. 

As for whether there would be layoffs or cuts, Lewis didn’t go into specifics. Instead, Lewis said DSA would begin using “public and non-profit evaluative methods,” when accessing campaigns, keeping in mind questions like “will we onboard members?” and “are we considering what the outcome might be?” Commenting on the attitude that DSA and YDSA members have toward campaigns, and lack of consideration for fiduciary matters, Lewis said “I don’t think our current organizing culture is extremely healthy right now,” adding, if we want to be financially viable, DSA must begin “depersonalizing,” rhetoric around projects and campaigns. 

“Future conventions should be designed in a way that makes us think about our budget,” said Geniveve Rand,  a 26 year old member of Ithaca New York DSA. Rand attended DSA convention. Speaking with some of DSA’s older members, Rand said they “really emphasized with us that being careful about the budget was a really high priority.” A sentiment Rand didn’t see expressed during the convention’s proceedings. Rand suggested having data showing how much each campaign or proposal would cost, and broadcasting that on a board during DSA convention, among other recommendations for making the budget more real to DSA members. Rand believes we have to create “a culture of how to talk openly about the budget as DSA.”

Although focused on DSA’s recovery, Rand noted that the organization’s current financial situation was shared by many leftist groups. During Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs in 2016 and 2020, “a lot of our organizing got a ton of funding and membership after,” Rand said, and many people ‘assumed that was the new normal. 

Likewise, Rand pointed out how “economic instability in our economy, and a massive inflation spin in  our economy,” has impacted Americans, DSA members included. “If they have to choose between buying groceries and paying dues, they absolutely are prioritizing groceries.” 

Jason R. co-chair of Conneticut DSA, is also an advocate for participatory budgeting., Jason recommended having a set of green blocks at convention, with attendees placing them in the areas they’d like to spend the most money, for example. However, Jason also said “people catastrophize the budget situation in a way that if they don’t get their way, the organization will die tomorrow.” Jason believed the DSA staff proposal was misunderstood and misrepresented on social media. “The immediate response on social media was not good,” Jason said, As for the question of possible layoffs, Jason acknowledged eventual culling of staffers was commonplace in many activist and nonprofit groups, but “that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case in a socialist organization.” Rather than looking for things to cut, Jason felt we should “support organizing projects that pull more people into the org.” 

Vivan Dai is a member of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee after getting elected at YDSA’s convention in August. “I’m already seeing the constraints of the budget as a NCC member,” Dai said, adding that “I assumed we’ll have to do a joint conference again,”—though the DSA NPC voted to pursue an independent YDSA conference—and “for winter con, we’re limited in our choices for venues,” among other things. Dai is also a member of Constellation caucus, which proposed a stipend reduction for NCC co-chairs. “We’ve always viewed stipends as not the most efficient way to allocate resources,” Dai said about her caucuses’ position, adding it prefers “investments in places where we think it’ll bring more people in.”  The suggestion was voted down, and YDSA’s resolution was passed at DSA’s convention. “If they’re going to propose major spending, they should be advocating plans to recoup that funding,” Dai said. 

Asked why financial concerns were largely unmentioned at YDSA convention, Dai noted that because of the organization’s high turnover, and youth of participants, “there’s always going to be a sense of political immaturity in YDSA.” Dai also spoke about dues paying in YDSA chapters, emphasizing “it’s important that chapters have a clear goal when it comes to their messaging,” during dues drives. “Don’t bankrupt yourself to give money to DSA,” Dai stressed, adding that many college students are in financially precarious situations themselves. Nonetheless, “all of us should be doing our part,” Dai said, concluding “monthly dues allows DSA to have a better level of stability for the organization as a whole.”