LNC debates declining national dues paying membership numbers

The July 2017 membership report has sparked some discussion on the LNC list.

Patrick McKnight writes:

All,

I don’t understand why our declining membership isn’t our number one priority as an organization. These reports come out showing we have a real problem and no one seems to notice. Too often the LNC is too busy having pointless philosophical debates amongst ourselves while people are voting
with their feet and leaving the party.

I would like us to do an email survey of our membership to determine what people like and don’t like about the party. I don’t accept this culture of failure that since our numbers went up last year they have to go down this year.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this problem. But I think a good place to start is simply asking our membership. It would be free and we might learn something.

Interest in liberty is exploding, if our numbers don’t reflect that we are doing something wrong.

Thanks,
Patrick McKnight
LNC Region 8 Rep
Chair, New Jersey Libertarian Party

Caryn Ann Harlos replied:

How many LNC members took me up on my challenge to call lapsed members?

It’s easy to say what others or “we” should do.

The last time you said this Patrick I took it to heart and *I* did something.

I call lapsed members nearly every day.

It’s hard to get people on the phone, but when I do (do we want the truth?) this is what I hear in order of frequency:

1. Economy is bad and they lost their job
2. They’ve been a member and they felt we’re no longer representing what we claim to (i.e. the last election was a missed opportunity, the candidates did not represent a different enough liberty message)
3. Waxing and waning interest in politics concurrent with the election seasons

That is what I hear. The stories of number 1 are heartbreaking. I’ve gotten my rear chewed out with stories of 2 and managed to retain some of them by being nice and letting them yell.

My effort alone is obviously a drop in a sea. But I decided to be part of the solution.

-Caryn Ann

There were several other rounds of responses between Patrick and Caryn Ann, which can be seen along with other comments in the thread by doing a search for “Jul Membership Report” here.

Joshua Katz added:

I would like to add a suggestion here in a different direction. Do we care? This term, we have not adopted goals, but we did last term – and increasing or maintaining memberships wasn’t on the list. I’m not being sarcastic here, I’m being serious – maybe memberships is not a metric we find all that illuminating. Sure, we need funds, and paid memberships are one way of obtaining funds, but only one way. They’re a way that non-profits, seemingly across the board, have found to be declining in importance and value. Maybe that’s part (I think most things that happen are over-determined and we should look for patterns, not 1-1 relationships) of what this declining number is telling us.

I agree we should not simply expect a drop in support following the Presidential year. A drop in paid memberships? Maybe. People have many reasons to become members, and if those are temporary reasons (attending convention, considering running for LNC) they might not renew when those
reasons no longer apply.

It’s become a trope that “millennials don’t join things.” If that’s true, then we should start now to plan what our organization can look like in 10 years with a different model. Personally, I think that regardless of what millennials do, we should be making those plans, because a membership model is a temporary solution, not one that will always be best once we’ve attained a certain size and level of success.

I don’t know that membership is a useful thing to watch while driving, so to speak. I’m much more interested in races won, registered voters in places where that can happen, contested nominations, and similar markers. Those too are long-range indicators, though, and I suspect that the sorts of solutions we are likely to come up with regarding membership, will drive those as well.

Joshua A. Katz

Wes Benedict replied:

Patrick, I share your concern regarding our dues-paying membership decline and think a survey would be worthwhile.

I have done some surveys in the past by snail mail, but it’s been a while. I think it’s time to do another set.

See attached survey mailings.

See some survey results on page 7 of LP News:
http://www.lp.org/wp-content/uploads/2011-4_LP_News.pdf

I found the two responses regarding the Tea Party questions to be especially illustrative.

I will plan to do another survey this Fall.

I’ll also be asking for a budget increase at this LNC meeting to pay for prospecting for new donors/members to lists that have routinely been our best performers.

Wes Benedict, Executive Director
Libertarian National Committee, Inc.

A screenshot of that 2011 LP News article referenced (click on image to enlarge for easier readability):

Replied continue to be added to the LNC discussion thread. I have also sent in a response myself, which does not appear on the LNC list as I am not a current member, although I did say that if any of the recipients want to forward it to the rest of the list they can. I’ll also post it as a comment here since it could be a violation of IPR rules on self-publishing editorials for me to put it in the article.

39 thoughts on “LNC debates declining national dues paying membership numbers

  1. Kevin S Bjornson

    The purity police, like Caryn, are part of the problem. Those who want to go moderate, like those who supported Gary Johnson, are also part of the problem.

    What makes both of these problems worse, is that there is great confusion over what “libertarian” means. Rothbard deliberately conflated “intervention” and “aggression” even though he had to have known, intervention cannot initiate aggression (because intervention cannot be a first strike, since the conflict already exists) nor does intervention always side with the force-initiator.

    Firsts we need to be clear, liberty requires that force-initiation by government be stopped, and that taxes be abolished. Pragmatism requires a source of revenue to replace taxation, and also that centers of aggression, whether abroad or foreign, be attacked.

  2. paulie Post author

    travellingcircus@gmail.com
    11:54 AM (1 hour ago)

    to Patrick, caryn.ann.harl., Daniel, Wes, Aaron, Joshua
    I’m replying to the people who have posted in this thread. Feel free to share with the rest of the committee if you think it’s worthwhile.

    1) If you don’t ask you don’t get. The biggest problem with lasing/declining membership is that you have to constantly ask new people to join, and lapsed members to renew – multiple times – or they won’t.

    2) Capture more info through things like web issue petitions; these may be good lists to hit up for new members/contributors.

    3) I’m fully aware of why staff doesn’t often like this idea, but give people more options of specific projects to target their donations to. Joshua mentioned that younger people are not as apt to follow the membership model which has traditionally worked for organizations in the past. People today increasingly want to be able to customize everything to their own individual tastes rather than follow the herd and get the same helping of slop as everyone else in line. From craft beer to gastropubs to … you name it … people want more individual choice and control over their money than in the past. Give it to them!

    4) The monthly donor model should be pushed much more often than it has been. It’s opt-out for a longer period of time – typically 3-5 years on the average bank or credit card – and the same $120 is psychologically easier in 12 monthly chunks of $10 than in one fell swoop. I know that it does get mentioned, but it hasn’t been emphasized to the degree that – for example- I have seen some state parties push their monthly donations at various times in the past. CA and NV in past years come to mind.

    5) It would take a lot of work to capture and make good use of the info, but we need to start cataloging people’s skill sets and various non-monetary ways they can help the party. If we can find ways to get people actively involved in some kind of volunteer capacity they will be not only saving the party money but it will make them more likely to contribute financially as well.

    6) I agree with Nick’s goal of having lots of candidates up and down the ballot. But what practical steps have been taken to get us to that 2,000 candidate goal? The last time national set a candidate goal that high was iirc around year 2000 or 2002 and Ron Crickenberger was very active in trying to get people signed up as candidates all over the country. I think we ended up with around 1,400 or so if memory serves. If there has been an effort of that scale this year above and beyond stating the much higher than usual goal I honestly have not seen it.

    7) The survey idea could be useful. There should be some effort put into getting a good representative sample.

    That’s it off the top of my head, but I’ve posted similar lists of suggestions in the past, particularly when I was an LNC alternate in 2012-2014.

    Paul Frankel
    205-534-1622.

  3. Kevin S Bjornson

    Of course, practical business tactics should be followed. Often Libertarians are concerned about theory but aren’t good managers.

    The over-all vision is most important. Advocating the extension of marriage license requirement is not libertarian. Forcing people to associate or do business with people, against their will, is not libertarian.

    On the other hand, demanding purity in areas not even required by the liberty principle, is also counter-productive. There is simply nothing in the non-initiation of force principle that prohibits intervention or allies (in foreign policy).

    Taxes should not just be minimized, they should be abolished. Instead of libertarian-lite, we should be strong on this; and at the same time, propose alternate methods of financing rightful government. Like user fees, and sale of government assets. Once we adopt this position, what quickly becomes apparent is that allies are potential customers and enable the US military to be a profit center.

  4. Tony From Long Island

    2. They’ve been a member and they felt we’re no longer representing what we claim to (i.e. the last election was a missed opportunity, the candidates did not represent a different enough liberty message)

    This is great if you wish to remain a 0.5% of the vote party. These are not the people you should be concentrating on . . . unless that 0.5% look mighty tasty.

  5. Chris Powell

    Howsabout some historical context? I’d be very surprised if there isn’t a routine drop in membership at the conclusion of every presidential election cycle.

  6. paulie Post author

    Howsabout some historical context? I’d be very surprised if there isn’t a routine drop in membership at the conclusion of every presidential election cycle.

    Not always, but usually. You can see the 20-year trend in the membership report by clicking on that link and reading the rest of the report.

    BTW my comment above has now made it to the LNC list thanks to Caryn Ann. Replies there continue to be posted. I think the article is long enough but I may post some of the newer responses as comments later.

  7. Anthony Dlugos

    Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

    If we got every one of them back, it wouldn’t make a difference.

  8. Anthony Dlugos

    “Interest in liberty is exploding, if our numbers don’t reflect that we are doing something wrong.”

    Now, THAT is 100% correct.

  9. Thomas L. Knapp

    One helpful first step would be to quit pretending that paying $25 a year for a newspaper subscription constitutes “membership” in any meaningful way and start considering what real “membership” would look like.

  10. dL

    Interest in liberty is exploding

    I’ve heard that same BS going back to the days of AOL and dial-up internet…

  11. NewFederalist

    “One helpful first step would be to quit pretending that paying $25 a year for a newspaper subscription constitutes “membership” in any meaningful way and start considering what real “membership” would look like.” – Thomas L. Knapp

    I completely agree!

  12. Thomas L. Knapp

    Maurice Kane,

    There are lots of ways to quantify “membership,” and while I have opinions on what ways might be best, I’m more interested in seeing such a discussion than on pre-empting one with those opinions.

    But minimal symbolic “dues” does not, to me, seem to be a very good way of measuring it — nor, especially, a good way at all of determining national convention delegate apportionment.

  13. Just Some Random Guy

    Well, at least in my case, it was that I didn’t think I was a member to begin with. I gave $25 to the LP last year in a one-time donation and didn’t think I was a member as a result–I never received any copies of LP News. Then I got some letters asking me to renew the membership I didn’t think I even had. I wonder how many other people made a single donation of $25 or more, then suddenly were asked to renew the membership they didn’t try to sign up for.

  14. Thomas L. Knapp

    Caryn,

    For delegate apportionment, I’d like to see the LP use the formula that the Democratic Party used for its 1832 convention …

    When the first Democratic National Convention was held to choose the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates for the 1832 Election, the delegate apportionment among the States was very simple: it was equal to the number of Electoral Votes each State would have in the upcoming General Election.

    … or the original Republican convention delegate apportionment rules:

    When the Republicans held their first National Convention in 1856, each State was allocated six delegates at-large and three for each Congressional District (in essence, the Republican delegations would be three times the size of the Electoral Vote for each State); in 1860, this was reduced to four at-large delegates and two district delegates from each State (twice the number of Electoral Votes for each State).

    Both quotes from an excellent Green Papers piece by Richard E. Berg-Andersson.

    The idea that a party with more than half a million registered voters and more than 100,000 formal members, with candidates receiving millions of votes each year, should apportion its national delegate slots on the basis of the distribution by state distribution of low five figures newsletter subscription numbers is fucking stupid.

  15. Chuck Moulton

    Great points by Paulie.

    I tend to agree that membership is a means, not an end. However, right now it’s one of the best proxies for success that is actually directly affected by what LP staff and volunteers do. Other things like vote totals are mostly outside our control.

    I was particularly alarmed by Brett Bittner’s LNC message about wanting to ditch the membership model.

    http://hq.lp.org/pipermail/lnc-business_hq.lp.org/2017/010093.html

    It’s not surprising he is the one polishing that turd, as he currently resides in Indiana. For a long time the midwest states — particularly Indiana — have been suggesting ditching membership for a donation model. Former LNC chair candidate Mark Rutherford was the biggest proponent a decade ago. When his ally Mark Nelson was treasurer the proposed to the LNC and then implemented a zero dues model — actually first the LNC doubled dues, then dues were eliminated. Revenue plumetted.

    Nelson pitched this to the LNC by showing charts claiming most of pur revenue comes from donations and membership is a money loser because the membership revenue doesn’t cover the costs of servicing a member (LP News, renewal letters, etc.). The problem was he cooked the books: he claimed when people sent an extra $75 over their $25 membership on the membership form that was $25 in membership revenue and $75 in donation revenue, which makes it appear as though there are a lot of donations and membership loses money. In reality, without being asked to be a member that person never would have donated $75 extra, so that $75 should not be booked as a donation obfuscating that it came as a result of a membership pitch. The results bore out what honest accoubting showed: without a membership model, people didn’t donate nearly as much beyond memberships.

    Brett Bittner and others seem to be polishing that turd again looking to jetison the membership model. Unfortunately, few are left on the LNC that remember that mistake. I would urge LNC members who like to take lessons from history and do their homework to contact former LNC chair and former LNC treasurer Geoff Neale to ask him about zero dues, the membership model, and cooking the books.

    Luckily the delegates put membership in the bylaws, outlawed zero dues, and have largely prevented the LNC from doing something so boneheaded in the future.

  16. Andy

    I agree with Chuck here. Zero Dues was a terrible idea back when it was tried, and it is still a terrible idea today.

  17. Caryn Ann Harlos

    I’m newer and don’t know about those days – Chuck are you going to be in KC? I forgot….

  18. Thomas L. Knapp

    Dues for membership in the Libertarian Party are, and always have been, $0. If you sign the pledge, you’re a member.

    The $25 newsletter subscription program is not and never has been any kind of “proxy for success.” Precisely the opposite, in fact — it’s just a way of keeping things exactly the way they are, by rewarding the states that sell the most newsletter subscriptions with the most national convention delegates.

    If we want to have membership be a function of dues, let’s have it ACTUALLY be a function of dues.

    In most organizations, dues are treated as a way to cover the operational costs of the organization. The LNC sells newsletter subscriptions, pretends they’re “dues” — then comes whining to the membership for donations (or idiotic bullshit like delegate floor fees) to cover the basic operational costs of the organization because the newsletter subscription fees don’t even cover the fucking newsletter.

    So if we’re going to have dues, instead of a no-dues membership plus a newsletter subscription program fraudulently advertised as a higher level of membership, charge dues, period, end of story, and make those dues high enough to cover the reasonably predictable costs of running the organization (like putting on the biennial business meeting).

    How much would such dues be? I don’t know, that’s a matter of budgeting, but I expect they’d be closer to $100 a year than $25, especially if they included the newsletter subscription that masquerades as dues now.

    But realistically, a mass participation political party doesn’t have “membership dues. Their membership consists of their activists and their voters.

  19. Andy

    Thomas Knapp said: “In most organizations, dues are treated as a way to cover the operational costs of the organization. The LNC sells newsletter subscriptions, pretends they’re “dues” — then comes whining to the membership for donations (or idiotic bullshit like delegate floor fees) to cover the basic operational costs of the organization because the newsletter subscription fees don’t even cover the fucking newsletter.”

    It has been a long time since LP News was a monthly publication. How often does LP News even come out now? Maybe 3 or 4 times per year? I used to look forward to getting LP News every month, and I would read them cover to cover. I’m not sure how long it has been since I’ve even read anything in an issue of LP News, but it has been quite awhile.

    I find it hard to believe that the cost of this newsletter eats up that much in dues, particularly when it has not been a monthly publication in a long time. I seem to recall that they used to sell advertising space in it, so this would have helped defray the cost.

  20. Caryn Ann Harlos

    Oh that’s disappointing Chuck. I always love hearing your thoughts in breaks. Kim and I look forward to seeing you next month.

  21. George Phillies

    We tried zero dues before. The outcome was quite bad. Readers can find details in Let Freedom Ring! and Liberty for America magazines. We also tried $50 dues. The outcome was quite bad. After a while, the membership concluded that trusting the LNC to set dues was sort of like trusting ten year olds with live hand grenades.

    I gather that LPNews costs about $20,000 an issue to produce, meaning $1 a head or a bit more, some of which is a fixed cost, but some of the costs may be hidden someplace else.

  22. Andy

    “George Phillies
    August 12, 2017 at 00:01
    We tried zero dues before. The outcome was quite bad. Readers can find details in Let Freedom Ring! and Liberty for America magazines. We also tried $50 dues. The outcome was quite bad. After a while, the membership concluded that trusting the LNC to set dues was sort of like trusting ten year olds with live hand grenades.”

    $25 dues were set in the 1980’s or early 1990’s. Inflation eaten away at the value of $25, so that rate should probably be adjusted for inflation.

    “I gather that LPNews costs about $20,000 an issue to produce, meaning $1 a head or a bit more, some of which is a fixed cost, but some of the costs may be hidden someplace else.”

    Hard to believe that it costs $20,000 an issue for LP News, but since they only come out with it like 3 or 4 times a year now, that’s a lot less than when it was monthly.

    Like I said above, I have not read an issue of LP News in a long time, but I recall that they used to sell advertising. It would seem to me that the advertisements would lower the cost to the members.

  23. dL

    ACLU memberships and donations are soaring. The ACLU has expanded their individual membership rolls by 50% since the election of Trump.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/us/aclu-fund-raising-trump-travel-ban.html

    I personally donated more to the ACLU this year than the LP. And if i were going to donate again, I would opt for the ACLU over the LP. Why? because I think the ACLU will use it for issues I care about, whereas the LNC, with the likes of Patrick McKnight, are more concerned w/ purging radical libertarians like Arvin Vohra in the name of placating a socially conservative donor base.

  24. Thomas L. Knapp

    George,

    We’ve had “zero dues” for the entire history of the party. If you sign the pledge, you’re a member of the party, period, done, end of story.

    What we’ve never had — at least since I joined in 1996 — is ACTUAL dues. The newsletter subscription program is not “dues” because membership is not predicated upon participating in it (you can be a Libertarian candidate or national convention delegate without ever paying a dime).

    The newsletter subscription program is used to game delegate allocation, but other than that is pretty much the equivalent of those direct mail bundles you used to get full of cards advertising the Tiny Tim Commemorative Silver Dollar, Sans-A-Belt Pants, the Sham-Wow and other “AS SEEN ON TV!” crap — a way to pry a little bit of money (it may even be a loss leader) out of the rubes so as to get their addresses and later try to sell them the Barry Goldwater Commemorative Dinner Plate, Snuggies, Flex Seal, etc.

    If we’re going to have dues, let’s have ACTUAL dues — non-optional payments set at rates intended to cover the costs of LNC’s basic operations. That would be stupid too, but at least it would be honest.

  25. Root's Teeth Are Awesome

    Does the LNC do too much?

    Someone once suggested — it might have been George Phillies — that the LNC’s sole legitimate purpose is to organize the national convention.

    Instead, the LNC has become a bureaucracy — forming busywork committees, and interfering in state LP affairs, and basically just trying to expand its own power, budget, and personnel.

  26. Thane Eichenauer

    > mail bundles you used to get full of cards advertising the Tiny Tim Commemorative Silver Dollar

    Really? Where can I order? If it ends with the words Silver Dollar I want 20 pronto. Where do I send the cashier’s check to?

  27. Rev. James W. Clifton

    What’s wrong with the Party? They keep nominating nut jobs for President. The Party hasn’t had a decent candidate since the days of Ed Clark, and Harry Browne.

  28. Root's Teeth Are Awesome

    I thought Michael Badnarik was a pretty good candidate. He knew his stuff.

    Actually, 2004 was a good year. Nolan and Russo would also have been good choices.

  29. George Phillies

    I said the sole specific duty of the LNC was to organize the next national convention.

    “The Party is organized to implement and give voice to the principles embodied in the Statement of Principles by: functioning as a libertarian political entity separate and distinct from all other political parties or movements; moving public policy in a libertarian direction by building a political party that elects Libertarians to public office; chartering affiliate parties throughout the United States and promoting their growth and activities; nominating candidates for President and Vice-President of the United States, and supporting Party and affiliate party candidates for political office; and, entering into public information activities. ”

    That’s the Bylaws, right near the top. They have largely gotten lost in ‘nominate and put the Presidential candidate on the ballot’ somewhat to the exclusion of other activities. For the success of Presidential campaigns, read my books “Funding Liberty” and “Surely We Can Do Better?”.

  30. George Phillies

    I would have to go back and look, but I believe ‘sole’ is imprecise. My point at the time was that the LNC is charged with running the national convention, and therefore the national convention’s costs should be covered with party income, not by trying to soak the delegates.

  31. Thomas L. Knapp

    Exactly. Running the national convention is a CORE DUTY of the LNC. It’s one of the few things the LNC absolutely must do, and it’s a thing that the rough specs are not a mystery on (it has to be a business meeting for up to X people, held every two years).

    So the LNC:

    1) Collects its normal income;

    2)

    3) Comes back to the membership with the attitude that its complete abandonment of fiscal responsibility and fiduciary duty is OUR fault, and starts hard-selling us circus acts, trying to mulct floor fees out of us, etc.

  32. Michael H Wilson

    The specific duties of the LNC should be divided by bullet points so that people get a better understanding of what they are. This last one, ” entering into public information activities, ” seems to get lost.

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