Politely Passing on Pass the Hat

By David Duhalde, (DC Chapter and soon-to-be B/UM)

The “Pass the Hat” proposal, while incredibly well-meaning, could create as many problems as it would hope to solve. 

Recently, I chatted with Nick Bunce, former Co-Chair of Houston DSA. When Hurricane Harvey hit two years ago, DSA members in Houston rose to the occasion to show how socialists take care of our neighbors in crisis. Inspired by this, DSAers around the country donated nearly $125,000 to Houston’s effort. He explained, however, lacking the proper bank account and our national staff being overwhelmed, a significant portion of Houston DSA’s volunteer time ended up being dedicated to overhead and paperwork instead of direct service. 

Nick told me that if he could do it again, he’d want national to have more resources to help set up a bank account and administrative work. He also noted direct relief actions were delayed because of misunderstandings about IRS rules to allow chapters to use uniform bylaws to incorporate with national’s legal tax status. For me, it exemplifies two points: 1) for our local chapters to continue to amplify our message, we need a strong national body 2) for National to even exist, it needs to build trust and understanding about critical but often obtuse bureaucratic rules. In the case of Harvey relief, distrust and a small staff just exacerbated burdens and multiplied work that wasn’t directly serving the needy. 

None of us want to make this harder than it has to be. The vast majority of DSA comrades want to grow and strengthen DSA, and by extension, our respective communities, and yet serious problems can arise in the implementation and execution of the means we choose to do this. Therefore, we need to seriously consider unintended consequences of every proposal.

Pass the Hat sets out a clear plan: providing $100 a month to all chapters with an appropriate bank account. It is a standard method that would redistribute national dues back to DSA groups in addition to an existing dues-sharing program of monthly dues. In theory, a simple and fair process to give smaller chapters extra funding and alleviate burdens on DSA employees to determine how much to send and where.

Its proponents argue that in addition to easing financial constraints for smaller chapters, this would help demonstrate to chapters a clear way that national direct helps them, which would build trust that has been lost. Speaking from personal experience as a former national staffer and member, there are many legitimate reasons membership’s faith in National has been hurt. Still, I remain unconvinced a uniform distribution system can ease financial burdens or heal the lack of trust. Simply rechanneling money back to the chapters in a faceless way doesn’t actually do the emotional work needed for genuine respect and trust. 

The plan to equally distribute funding has several other potential snags. First is equity: equally sharing the money ignores the principle “to each according to their needs.” Why should we give large chapters with big bank accounts the same as small chapters with no money? Furthermore, mirroring structural issues in capitalism of the unbanked vs. those with access to financial institutions, chapters currently without bank accounts wouldn’t benefit at all. Only roughly 50 of nearly 200 chapters have bank accounts. Second, a bylaw would make this program incredibly hard to change. Even DSA faces a revenue drop due to an economic recession, the estimated $180,000 (which may go up as chapters get accounts) could mean cuts to staffing and programming well beyond the value at the local level. It’s not strategic to put such an untested program into our constitution. The 2017 dues sharing program has been an experiment worth trying that can be reserved easily by the membership at any time.

With such unpredictability, it is easy to see how one economic downturn could bring about the aforementioned unforeseen consequences. An economic crisis is not the only potential financial problem. The potential of a 50/50 dues split could provide tremendous unfunded mandates. If we want National to do more for us, including less expensive conferences, more legal resources to combat fascists, and trainings then we have to give ourselves the resources for such possibilities. Otherwise, we would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. Defunding our major collective body will reduce options as we become a more visible force across the country and world.

The choice is also not binary as there is no singular pool of money for DSA. I fear we are drifting away from the hard, in-person asks in search of easy, bureaucratic solutions. We’re becoming too reliant on shifting dues money around instead of engaging our members and friends about DSA. 

And direct asks work! Chicago DSA solicits my donations more than my own chapter. For the past two years, I have bought ads on our Windy City’s annual dinner book. In that time I have never been asked to donate to my chapter. Therefore, I often forget to give except when it is for a specific campaign such as our convention delegation.

The Grassroots Fundraising proposal that will be considered at the convention offers a better approach, based in an organizing model. The resolution calls for a DSA dues drive to increase the number of monthly donors to DSA, improving the financial stability of both the national organization and locals. It offers financial support to newer, smaller locals by doubling their rate of dues sharing from those monthly donors. Most importantly, it directs the national organization to provide materials to locals to support this drive, to restart the chapter mentorship program between smaller and larger chapters, and to support locals with the necessary logistics. Instead of a proposal that embeds an inflexible and costly outlay into our constitution, the Grassroots Fundraising proposal seeks to orient the entire organization towards a fundraising model that is consistent with our principles and will put us on sound financial footing to weather whatever may come, with special attention, support, and resources directed to our newest and smallest locals.