DSA is closing in on the once seemingly impossible goal of reaching 100,000 members — maybe an embarrassment of riches, since many chapters struggle to turn those new members into actively engaged volunteers. As DSA continues to grow, we continue to see a familiar pattern: chapters receive an influx of new people but fail to consistently secure long-term engagement.
Many chapters are accustomed to operating (effectively) as small activist organizations reliant on in-person meetings, personal connections and word of mouth. These tight-knit operations allow chapters to win trust and notoriety, facilitating further growth and bending local political currents, however slightly, away from capitalism. However these methods become less effective as chapters grow, leaving many — already strapped for energy and resources — in a complicated situation.
If DSA is truly to become a mass organization of the working-class, we need to figure out how to mobilize the thousands of card-carrying Democratic Socialists who are un-mobilized by their chapters.
What stops DSA's "paper members" (card-carrying Democratic Socialists who otherwise don't engage in chapter or national-level organizing activities) from really engaging? Of course, there is no one reason; but having talked with many paper-only members across the country, we've picked up on a recurring story. It’s not a lack of time or interest that has kept many of DSA's paper members from getting involved, but a negative or confusing experience at their first DSA meeting, which has historically been DSA's go-to approach to folding new members into ongoing action. Although some are certainly drawn into these meetings, many find them too large, difficult to understand, or unnecessary.
We've also found that many tend to be confused by the sheer number of campaigns and chapter operations presented to them at meetings as overwhelming or disorienting. If a new member and prospective volunteer tries to engage with a chapter and it’s not sufficiently clear how the chapter functions — and, more importantly, how they can contribute materially to the organization — they risk becoming anxious and disengaged. This anxiety is often compounded by a feeling that even if the organization is expressing a need for volunteers, the new member might still feel like they individually aren’t needed because there are other, more experienced people who might step in. Put another way, if it isn’t clear how to get involved, new members have to take the time and personal initiative to get invested and familiar with the chapter before they will contribute. Many members do not, will not or cannot take that time. Generally speaking, we have two or three chances to initiate positive contact and plug a member into operations. After that, a chapter risks losing attention to one of the other political organizations they get an email from on a weekly basis — or we risk demoralizing members from engaging in political activity altogether.
When chapters have long meetings with unclear goals or follow-up items, or lack a strong onboarding process, they prevent themselves from making those positive connections with members. This becomes a major obstacle to mobilization which only becomes more burdensome as chapters grow. Overcoming this is essential if DSA is to fulfill its objective of mobilizing the working class.
In the summer of 2020, we in the Metro DC chapter (MDC DSA) faced this issue. Although we have historically been one of the larger chapters in the country, the dissolution of the Bernie campaign, and the summer's uprisings against both Trump and the police state prompted a wave of new attention to our chapter and activities, creating a huge boom in membership. In organizing these new members to embark on a bunch of new and ongoing campaigns, our Administrative Committee (AdCom) became quickly overwhelmed by administrative tasks which needed to be completed in order for the chapter to operate. (Although undoubtedly worsened by it, these problems somewhat predated the pandemic.)
Our solution was to expand AdCom with teams of dedicated volunteers trained to complete task-based administrative work for the chapter. Over five months, we placed more than 50 non-activated members into dedicated ongoing roles with the Administrative Committee (in a process partially outlined here). Since their onboarding, these members have become the backbone of the chapter’s operations. Every day, they set up mass texts and Zoom meetings. They have made sure our chapter’s information is secure and operational, and they have built out technology systems that are ahead of almost any other member based political organization in the country.
We are especially proud of how many have stuck around, as we have seen remarkably low turnover. In November 2020, we had 48 volunteers on teams within the Administrative Committee. Of those, 35 are still active as volunteers within their AdCom teams. Four are estimated to have moved on to volunteer with other formations within the chapter, such as branches or working groups. And we've estimated that only nine have stopped volunteering for the chapter, making a near 81% retention rate. In the meantime, we have added more than 20 additional volunteers.
This mobilization model was developed in AdCom and is being expanded throughout the chapter. While this will be one of many prongs in our mobilization program, we believe the lessons learned from this exercise, outlined below, can be useful for turning "paper" members into politically engaged socialists.
The concept of “meeting people where they are'' is long-standing within DSA. While different from labor organizing, our approach to addressing capacity issues by learning about members’ lives and finding relatively immediate steps they can take to begin working toward organizational goals in some ways resembles a mass movement labor strategy. In our case, we engaged new members by identifying their skills and plugged them into existing operations based on that. Doing something they understood, were interested in and felt confident doing helped them feel more comfortable engaging with the organization — making the initial hurdle over that anxiety bar a little easier. Members are far more likely to engage and stay engaged if they understand how they specifically are able to contribute.
This process was facilitated by our Interest and Skills Survey, which we debuted in June 2020. This survey not only asks people what topics or issues they are interested in but what their skills are and how much time they have to volunteer. We’ve used the survey results to specifically target members as individuals with specific contributions to make. We very quickly found that if a person took the time to fill out a survey and list a skill that they have, they were more likely to want to use that skill. And the people who took the time to write text into the “other skills” section were very likely to respond to an email or text ask about the skill they wrote in.
We began reaching out to members who filled out the survey to fill specific roles we developed within AdCom departments, and utilized our chapter's communication channels (such as our weekly update) to make sure we reached as broad an audience as possible.
AdCom mobilizers engaged new members based on the skills they brought with them, and new members were able to perform substantive work very quickly. Instead of coming into a long meeting about a topic they might find overwhelming, members cleared any initial anxieties over engaging in chapter activities by quickly applying their skills to chapter operations.
AdCom leadership tried different methods for bringing people in to volunteer once they had completed the survey. Like many chapters, we tried mass texting everyone with specific skills and bringing them in for a big joint meeting to get teams set up. This strategy had mixed success. After these meetings, we found that we had trouble identifying specific members and getting people to respond to follow-up emails. Some people fell away. And though people would list multiple skills, in reality, there was only one or two that they would actually enjoy contributing on a weekly basis. In changing tactics, we found that figuring out what individuals want to do, not just what they could do, has been key in getting people to stick around.
We succeeded with a systematized one-on-one onboarding program, which we began by setting up direct calls between a member “mobilizer” and a potential AdCom volunteer. In practice, these calls were a hybrid of a traditional DSA one-on-one and a sort of job interview. We did not want to go into calls with preconceptions of where this person might fit; it did not serve us to put a person into a role that didn’t excite them just because we needed the role filled. So each mobilizer had to go into calls with a firm understanding of what the role's needs were and where in the chapter that volunteer could be realistically plugged in.
In each call, the mobilizer had the following goals and hit the following points:
These short, targeted calls were immediately successful. As one mobilized volunteer recounted, the model moved volunteering for DSA from the “I could do it” column into the “I have to do it” column. The verbal ask for a time commitment during the onboarding call, and the subsequent responsibility to fellow comrades to complete the tasks required by the role, are crucial in this process. It gives the new volunteer a concrete sense that they are needed and are being depended on.
We also made it an internal policy in AdCom to underline the cruciality of the role by having each volunteer complete an assigned task within about two weeks of the mobilization call; we did not want to lose volunteers because they did not hear anything from us for multiple weeks or months. Giving people discrete tasks — and aiding them in completing work — makes sure no one falls through the cracks or that the initial fire that drove someone to sign up in the first place isn’t lost.
In one example, we targeted one person because they said they had meeting facilitation and Zoom video conference administrative experience, and we desperately needed someone to help with the events team. However, within five minutes of talking to that person, it was clear that, while they had experience creating and hosting events for their job, they were worn out from having to be on meetings every day for work. They wanted a way to engage with socialism without having to talk to a lot of people. So we were able to send that person to our database management team, where they clean membership data, provide database exports and set up email campaigns. This person may never attend a campaign meeting or participate in a direct action, but they are a key link holding the organization together. Through this one-on-one process, this member is now engaged where they may have otherwise fallen away.
We had to adjust and amend our departments’ onboarding processes multiple times as we were developing the model. We found that tasks that are clear and easy for an experienced DSA organizer can be confusing and anxiety-inducing for a new member. To address this, we created a process for getting new volunteers comfortable working within the chapter and on their AdCom teams. This process centers on facilitating direct communication with the member and providing new members with direct contact to someone who can support, assist and help acclimate them.
At the same time, as we developed our mobilization program in Metro DC DSA, we were in the middle of bylaws reform and a larger internal debate over how our chapter would function. We had to slow down and establish a shared understanding of how the chapter worked before we could do the same for others, so we created resource documentation such as a department resources list, help desk FAQ, and a visual diagram of our chapter's operations. We also revamped our new member orientations so that they were held consistently by the same team and had a set follow-up procedure.
These measures helped ensure the chapter at large, as well as our team of AdCom mobilizers themselves, understood how the chapter functioned and clarified how volunteers could participate. We revised our onboarding process for clarity and functionality. We also recognized that the mobilizers themselves must have a strong understanding and be trained on every major formation, resource and process within the chapter. Mobilizers must be prepared to guide new members and ensure they remain comfortable advising and onboarding new members.
The Administrative Committee set up some rules for how to onboard people for specific tasks. We decided that no member should be mobilized to volunteer for AdCom without the following in place:
Implementing these requisites led to some important discoveries. First, verbal instructions to a volunteer were much less effective than written instructions. We would often think that something was clear on a call, only to find out later that the volunteer felt completely lost or misunderstood what was said. Putting something in writing that they could reference made a world of difference, and it had the side effect of making sure that everyone within AdCom developed the same understanding of how a process works.
Second, we severely underestimated the level of detail we needed to put into instructions. Our mobilizers were much more effective when they had more to work with than a basic instruction to contact potential candidates via text or email. We had to write out exactly which systems to use and how to access them, and we provided call script language.
And finally, we found that as volunteers grow more comfortable within the chapter, their need for specific instruction diminishes, and they may go on to create their own processes. But creating a clear on-ramp is key to clearing the anxiety bar and getting volunteers comfortably integrated while they grow familiar with the chapter and our work.
Members who have been through AdCom onboarding and done work on the "digital commune" have learned to understand the value of the chapter and of capacity-building outside of an issue-based campaign. They have learned to work together as a single disciplined body. As volunteers are integrated into a team, we found they needed less guidance. As we developed a corps, we found that volunteers started meeting people and working with formations outside of AdCom. Many have grown into leadership positions within the chapter and have helped spread the culture of discipline, cooperation and accountability.
AdCom itself has grown into a strong and valuable community. Through socials, meetings and regular check-ins, we have cultivated a group of people who will jump in at a moment’s notice to help out another group within the chapter. The people who have been through AdCom mobilization are not only prepared to complete administrative tasks, but also to apply those skills toward organizational and issue-based work throughout the chapter.
The organizing models we used in Metro DC to build and grow our chapter represent a sharp departure from how other DSA formations tend to handle member engagement. When answering the question “how do we empower members to decide how they want to engage in our shared work,” many chapters tend to simply lay out as many options as possible, hoping something will grab them. This at first seems intuitive — the more options an individual member has, the more likely they will be to engage. But in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The overwhelming majority of people who join DSA have no organizing or activist experience. In broader society, people are three times more likely to be a member of Costco than they are to be union members, so most people have limited knowledge on how to really engage with a membership based political organization in the first place. Generally speaking, a member will not have an intuitive understanding of what roles they can fill or how they can best contribute by simply having a laundry list of committees presented to them. This “salad bar” approach is only really effective at two specific things: 1. Giving already committed activists joining DSA the widest range of motion possible to set the agenda for the organization overall; and 2. Maintaining low overhead for already committed DSA members so they don’t have to spend a great deal of time on the infrastructure of the organization writ large, and can instead focus on their own projects and campaigns.
While letting members “vote with their feet” might seem like a participatory model, it mostly just caters to the already committed members instead of empowering the rank and file. It is more suited to creating a cheap volunteer pool than it is for building a serious vehicle for worker power.
Member development, on the other hand, is time-consuming, but worthwhile. The model, processes and community we have created have benefited the whole chapter in many ways: strengthening relations between working groups and the chapter’s center, making us quicker and more efficient, and improving our ability to engage members in active volunteer positions.
To be clear, this model doesn't solve all problems associated with coordinating mass anti-capitalist formations. This model also might be difficult to kickstart in smaller chapters who may not have the time or energy to initiate the mobilizing processes detailed here. (Though, maybe this is where DSA national would be able to help set these systems up within newer, smaller, or struggling chapters.) However, there are takeaways from our activities that any chapter (or, really, any dedicated socialist organization) can use: