Saturday, May 09, 2009

On membership requirements

In the midst of the Lingenfelter membership controversy, there's been plenty of discussion about what the Saskatchewan NDP can do to address how membership fees are collected - with suggestions ranging from regulating the mode of payment, to barring third parties from paying for membership. But the controversy may also raise a more fundamental question for the party which I'd think deserves some discussion as the NDP reviews how it can build a stronger party for the longer term.

Namely, why charge a membership fee at all?

The rationale for charging a fee seems to be based on two premises. First, there's the money which comes to the party as a result - which serves at least to defray the cost of processing an individual membership even if doesn't go far beyond that. And second, there's the theory that a fee might serve as a dividing line to ensure that anybody joining the party is substantially devoted to the cause, rather than joining for no particular reason (or worse yet to cause a nuisance). But I'm not sure either of those explanations holds up to scrutiny.

When it comes to the income to the party from a membership fee, it's worth noting first that membership fees already make for a fairly small part of the NDP's donation base. In 2008, the NDP's membership consisted of 6,000-9,000 people, which translates into a maximum of $90,000 in membership fees (and less taking into account youth members who pay a reduced rate), compared to $940,000 in total raised by the party.

As a result, even if the NDP simply abandoned any fee collection in signing up members and didn't recoup anything in increased involvement, the effect on fund-raising would be at most 10% of the party's annual donations.

But that doesn't tell the whole story, as the current fee is actually set at a distinctly awkward level for both the party and the individual. Taking into account the provincial tax credit which kicks in only for donations $25 and up, it's possible to donate $25 to the party for less net cost than a $10 membership - or to turn the same $10 net cost into a $40 donation. Yet the NDP's membership structure makes the less efficient result into the norm, with any additional contributions mentioned only as an afterthought.

Of course, at least some current members already take advantage of the better deal for themselves and the party by donating more on signup. But it would only take a relatively small number of additional current members making use of the tax credit system to make up financially for the elimination of mandatory membership fees. And indeed it wouldn't seem out of the question that the NDP could actually make more just from its current members by establishing a "suggested donation" level at the tax credit amount of $25 while doing away with mandatory fees.

So if the financial result of eliminating the membership fee could just as easily be positive as negative, is there any other reason to keep the fee requirement in place? Again, the one other argument available is to the effect that $10 is an entirely reasonable cost which anybody who's serious about the party should have no problem paying up front. Which suggests implicitly that it's a plus to set up a cost barrier (however minimal) as a means of filtering out one's members.

But there are two serious problems with that view.

First off, there's the question of individuals facing genuine financial hardship. I've already argued that if the NDP is going to prohibit third-party payment for memberships, it should put a waiver process in place to account for would-be members whose personal financial situation actually does make a $10 expense into a significant problem.

On further reflection, though, it's hard to see how the extra work required from both the party and the individual to verify that status can be seen as time well spent if there's a realistic way to avoid the problem entirely. And indeed, requiring that type of process may only serve to make impoverished members feel stigmatized within the NDP - which may be especially harmful for a party which prides itself on its concern with issues of poverty and inequality.

That leaves us with the effect of a fee on those who can afford to pay the $10 without question. But I have to wonder if a membership fee does more harm than good there as well.

It's easy enough for those of us with strong connections to the party and interests in politics in general to say that since we don't have a problem paying fees, nobody else should either. But for somebody who isn't at all involved - yet who might have some theoretical interest in seeing what the NDP has to offer - the fee represents a real cost for what may seem to be purely theoretical benefits. Which figures to make it far more likely for such a person to decline to get involved when asked to join the party...even if the cost is never mentioned as the reason why.

In contrast, if the NDP can make the case that one doesn't have to spend anything other than time to experience full membership, then it stands a far better chance of getting skeptical potential members out to a meeting or an event. And the opportunity to make connections with current members figures to make it far more likely for those individuals to see real benefits in being involved - which may not only help to recruit more volunteers and spread a better public impression of the NDP, but can also prove a financial boon in the long run once any additional members become well enough integrated into the party to make donations of their own.

Meanwhile, anybody who's sufficiently devoted to causing problems within the party would be unlikely to be dissuaded by a $10 fee. So the perceived benefit of putting the financial hurdle in place to dissuade troublemakers or outside agitators strikes me as entirely illusory.

In closing, I'll note that it could be that somebody within the party has already studied the above possibilities and determined either that the financial math doesn't add up, or that there's some other psychological effect of making membership free that the party is best off avoiding. But with the question of party fees now in the public eye, there may never be a better time to raise the question. And my sense at least is that a party dedicated to inclusion and public involvement should be eager to promote those values by removing the financial barrier to membership.

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