History of the DSA Budget 2017-2020

The following article is adapted from posts on DSA’s National Discussion Forums.

Hundreds of members watched the National Political Committee deliberate over our budget these past few weeks. As we navigate the difficult decisions about how to move forward collectively, it’s worth reviewing the recent history of our budget process during the years of peak growth for the organization.

Revenue and expense data from 2017-2022: ProPublica. Data from 2023: DSA open budgeting documents (member-only).

2017: The Trump Bump

DSA members at the 2017 National Convention in Chicago. Photo courtesy: Chicago DSA and the Midwest Socialist.

After years as a small but stable socialist organization, DSA’s strategy to build ties with the Bernie campaign led to seismic changes. Even after Bernie’s campaign ended, Trump’s election galvanized a huge number of people to get involved in politics, and tens of thousands did so by joining DSA. As DSA’s secretary-treasurer, Theresa Alt said in the report she penned with then Operations Director Sasha Hammad on the 2017 budget, “in the past year we have taken in income and gained new members beyond all our expectations.”

At the 2017 convention in Chicago, DSA members passed Resolution #35 requiring annual budget reports to the membership, and Resolution #21, setting up a monthly dues system which included national distributing 20% of monthly dues income to chapters.

However, the implementation of approved spending was often delayed. As Alt and Hammad note in their report:

Spending has lagged behind income, partly because dues sharing with chapters began in August so is not yet reflected, and more so because it takes time to hire staff and some new staff are still in the future.

Chart summarizing DSA's revenue in 2017

Chart summarizing DSA's expenses in 2017


2017 Actuals

Total Revenue 2,071,631
Staff 536,436
Consultants 187,144
Overhead 82,511
Supplies, Printing, and Shipping 170,156
Organizing and Education 475,444
Misc. 69,519
Total Expenses 1,521,208
Surplus (Deficit) 550,423


2018: The Surge Continues

San Francisco DSA at the 2018 Women's March

San Francisco DSA members at the 2018 Women’s March in San Francisco. Photo courtesy: DSA SF.

As membership growth continued, budgeting was conservative and uncontroversial. In 2018, Budget and Finance projected a moderate membership decrease and recommended that the organization continue to build reserves. Instead, membership increased by 33%.

After the first quarter of 2018, Budget and Finance brought a proposal to the NPC to increase spending by $150,000, which passed unanimously. Although the 2018 budget projected a substantial deficit, the organization actually took in a million more than it spent.

Two issues that became apparent during this time: 1) the difficulty of projecting income and 2) the long lead time between authorizing expenses and actually spending funds. In October 2018, Secretary-Treasurer Alt said DSA had $1.8 million in assets but also substantial pending expenses, including hiring several field organizers and the national convention in 2019.

2018 Budget vs Actuals

  2018 Budget 2018 Actuals
Total Revenue 1,045,934 2,623,523
Staff 770,600 681,118
Consultants 107,500 238,116
Rent, Equipment, & Other Overhead 102,600 104,642
Supplies, Printing, and Shipping 143,400 111,426
Organizing and Education 339,100 230,432
Dues Shares to Locals 78,720 73,858
Priority Projects 42,310 35,036
Misc 79,150 114,628
Total Expenses 1,663,380 1,589,256
Surplus (Deficit) (617,446) 1,034,267


2019: Calm Before the Storm

Sara Nelson giving the keynote address at the 2019 national convention

Sara Nelson giving the keynote speech at the 2019 DSA National Convention. See the full remarks here.

After it became clear that DSA had permanently changed and was now a national force, DSA’s leadership looked to build capacity. The budget brought by National Director Maria Svart and the Budget and Finance Committee in January 2019 more than doubled DSA’s annual spending.

As Svart states in her director’s report:

DSA is “maturing” after a couple of years of struggling to manage explosive growth. We have accumulated resources that we now have to decide how to allocate… Maria advocates spending some on operations capacity at the national office to support the entire staff and membership, in addition to field staff to support chapters.

This was the first year that the NPC engaged in sustained debate over budgeting. NPC Members such as Natalie Midori and Jeremy Gong pressed for more information about the budget. They were particularly concerned about the lack of a long term plan for staffing increases. DSA’s lack of infrastructure started to show. During the
director’s report Svart gave to the NPC during the July 2019 meeting, she stated, “we continue to struggle in our search for a Finance Coordinator and financial work is accumulating.”

Despite the uncertainty, 2019 saw DSA incur several new recurring expenses. We joined the Movement Cooperative (giving chapters access to tech tools like Action Network) and moved to a bigger office. 2019 also saw the launch of DSA’s biggest campaign: Bernie 2020.

DSA also revised its reserves policy to require six months of operating expenses even as we also substantially expanded staff. As Svart reported to the 2019 convention, “This spring we finally felt we could afford to expand staff, so we began hiring. Our staffing now stands at 16 full-time and one part-time, with five more positions projected and in the hiring process. Once that hiring is complete we will have 23 full-time and one part-time staff — still small for an organization of our size, but almost double what we were a year ago. For comparison, during the 2017 national convention we had a staff of seven full-time and one part time workers.”

The increased spending did not pay off right away. Membership declined in 2019 and income was far below projections. The year also saw several increases to the budget despite income coming in below projections, including the 2019 convention going way over its initial budget.

As the minutes of the May 2019 NPC reports:

Discussion of budget changes. Original budget was too low on a number of items. New total convention budget about $100K more at $900K. Discussion of price per person being too high, existing fundraising plans and ideas of ways to cut cost.

At the convention in Atlanta, Chapter Dues Share was expanded by
Resolution 55 which increased the rate of dues share for small chapters and expanded dues share to unincorporated chapters. Convention resolutions also began to direct the NPC to hire specific organizer positions, with Resolution 3, mandating a labor organizer, and Resolution 57, a housing organizer. In addition, many resolutions expressly called for staff time without mandating a new position. The new NPC extensively discussed how to reconcile the different calls for new staffing but did not make a firm decision in 2019.

At the end of the year, we had spent about a quarter of our reserves and looked to be set for another deficit if 2020 resembled 2019. With more staff coming on board at the end of 2019, DSA’s income was being entirely taken up by payroll, overhead, and dues share. Intense conflict and negative publicity from the convention gave plenty of evidence to pessimists who saw DSA’s steam running out. However, 2020 was anything but a continuation.

2019 Budget vs Actuals

  2019 Budget 2019 Actuals
Total Revenue 4,376,620 2,976,946
Staff 1,856,000 1,247,267
Consultants 320,000 314,410
Overhead 690,203 462,783
Supplies, Printing, and Shipping 182,478 263,120
Organizing and Education 364,000 176,289
Dues Shares to Locals 180,000 195,535
DSA/YDSA Conventions 728,722 670,366
Conferences 380,875 242,094
Priority Committees 41,580 14,606
Total Expenses 4,743,859 3,586,470
Surplus (Deficit) (367,239) (609,524)


2020: The Storm

DSA members march in support of NYC-DSA’s #DEFUNDNYPD campaign

DSA members march in support of NYC-DSA’s #DEFUNDNYPD campaign. Photo courtesy: NYC-DSA

Despite a flat 2019 in terms of membership growth (total members decreased from Dec. 2018 to Jan. 2020), DSA continued to spend down its reserves, rolling out Chapter Dues Share to newer unincorporated chapters (as approved by the 2019 convention), launching a digital campaign, and spending on the Bernie Sanders independent expenditure campaign.

In March, however, the Bernie campaign’s discouraging results were upstaged by the beginnings of the COVID 19 pandemic. On March 13, the NPC had an emergency meeting which allocated $25,000 to an emergency fund devoted to supporting new organizing efforts. Around the same time, the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee (EWOC) was launched as a joint project between DSA and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). This increased spending would be more than offset by DSA halting all travel in response to the pandemic.

Then, on May 25, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, triggering protests against police violence across the country. Members around the country participated in the uprisings and played leading roles in the struggle in chapters such as Twin Cities DSA, drawing more new people to DSA. This surge in activity was not, however, met with significantly increased spending, which was often limited by the restrictions of the pandemic.

Although staff continued to be hired, with the total number increasing from 20 to 32, the pandemic limited the ability of DSA to spend funds and the year closed with over a million dollar surplus. Projected expenses were very close to the budget, but dues revenue increased by 75% as we finished out the year with the DSA 100K Recruitment Drive. 

As 2020 closed, DSA had over $3 million in its bank account, and a political debate brewed over how to best use that collective resource.The decisions were made all the harder by the difficulty of projecting income and the inability to predict when in-person organizing could safely resume. After several years of building capacity to handle the influx of new members, DSA also was committed to a much higher level of recurring expenses. This reality, in combination with DSA’s nature as a mass membership organization, continues to make budgeting a recurring challenge for our democratic decision making process.

2020 Budget vs Actuals

  2020 Budget 2020 Actuals
Total Revenue 3,494,823 5,312,077
Staff 1,855,653 1,822,508
Consultants 490,400 457,806
Overhead 754,312 196,447
Supplies, Printing, and Shipping 359,600 964,240
Organizing and Education [not separated out] 275,405
Dues Shares to Locals 324,444 400,251
DSA/YDSA Conventions 192,300 9,453
Priority Committees 15,000 0
Misc. [not separated out] 5000
Total Expenses 4,143,569 4,131,110
Surplus (Deficit) (648,746) 1,180,967

Additional, member-only sources are available on Quinn’s
original post. To see the post and discuss this article with other members, check out the National Discussion Forums. If you don’t have an account, sign up here.