The ASA: Where Do Your Dues Go? (Part I)

February 28, 2011 § 7 Comments

Does the ASA spend your money wisely?

It’s of course hard to tell. We don’t know what a world without the ASA would look like. And we may disagree about what the ASA’s priorities should be.

But while we might not agree exactly about what things should look like, we might agree about things that seem out of whack.

Let’s go to the numbers.

What we’re going to do here is use data from the ASA tax returns, since these provide a breakdown of revenues and expenditures in different categories. Mostly, we will compare 2003 to 2008, although since 2008 may have been a somewhat unusual year due to the financial crisis, some comparisons will be to 2007.

We will start with the ASA’s revenue and costs over the period, in constant dollars.

This picture seems rather unremarkable. Both revenues and costs are more or less flat in real terms through 2006. In 2007, revenues jump appreciably, only to fall even more in 2008. Costs increase substantially between 2007 and 2008.

It is very hard for The Disgruntled Sociologist to tell from the tax returns exactly what happened. But it is clear that the ASA went from reporting a modest operating surplus from 2003-2005 (on average about $200,000 a year in 2003 dollars), to a substantially larger surplus in 2006 ($475,233 in 2003 dollars) and an even larger surplus in 2007 ($825,897). But 2008 was a bad year; costs exceeded revenue by over $700,000 (in 2003 dollars).

Things look worse in terms of the ASA’s net assets. As discussed in an earlier post, 2008 was a very bad year for the ASA.

As noted in the other post, the drop in net assets between 2007 and 2008 appears to be due in part to a drop in the value of the ASA’s investments in securities, and in part due to unanticipated costs in the financing of the purchase of the new ASA headquarters.

What about the headquarters property, or, as it is described in the tax returns, the “headquarters condominium”? This appears to be the biggest financial event in the ASA’s recent history. According to the 2008 Form 990, the costs basis for “Buildings” owned by the ASA was $9,947,205.

Yes, that’s right: The ASA spent $10M on a “condo.”

Granted, the location is swell. Two blocks from the White House! On K Street, with all the other lobbyists! In a “12-story building with a glass facade“! The impact of these amenities has surely already been felt in the pages of ASR, not to mention the halls of Congress. Or not.

Turning now to other changes over the period (all dollars are constant 2003 dollars):

What do we see?
  • Over this period, while total revenue has been flat, revenue from dues has increased substantially — almost 17%. In part this is because membership has increased by almost 8%. But it is also because members are paying more: dues paid per member has increased almost 9%.
    • Remember, these calculations are in constant dollars. It may of course be, since ASA dues levels depend on income, that the increase from an average of $86 to $93 is because sociologists have gotten richer. But the ASA’s own data suggest that that is not the case.
    • As noted above, revenues in 2008 were rather flat, while they were quite high in 2007. If we average those years, the increase in revenue relative to 2003 was 6.8%.
  • The ASA spends a lot more money on salaries and wages in 2008 compared to 2003: the headquarters has gotten bigger.
    • The Disgruntled Sociologist was particularly surprised by the growth in the number of employees, but now suspects that this is an error on the Form 990. The 2007 Form 990 lists 29 employees, and approximately the same spending on salaries and wages. That is still a 26% increase in the staff of the ASA – in five years.

The Disgruntled Sociologist is a puzzled sociologist. What, oh what, could the ASA have started doing in the years between 2003 and 2008 that would justify such an increase in staff and expenses? Are the additional 1,000 members really, really high maintenance?

It certainly does not seem to us that the ASA is a phenomenally better organization than it was in 2003. More importantly, it does not seem that sociological research has gotten better or had more of an impact.

[Most data are from the ASA’s Form 990 for the relevant years, available here. Data on membership are approximate but have been confirmed as appropriate by a kindly person who has served on the ASA Council.]


§ 7 Responses to The ASA: Where Do Your Dues Go? (Part I)

  • […] spending and financial activities that should concern most of the organization’s members ( Part 1, Part 2, and ASA, Wizards of High Finance).  Here are some of the highlights, which in some cases […]

  • student says:

    ASA does not have a staff 39. You need to check your source on that.

  • @student: The source for the 39 employees in 2008 is the 2008 Form 990, as explained. It says 39. But TDS agrees that this sounds unreasonable, given that the number listed in 2007 is 29. Which is also what TDS points out quite clearly in the post.

  • student says:

    I’ll post the same comment I posted on orgtheory:
    It is very easy for people to complain about how the ASA handles money and how “the ASA has increased spending substantially without any apparent improvement in member services”. Yet very few members do anything about it. Very few members go to the business meetings at the annual meeting. very few members formally complain about costumer service (which most members consider quite good, actually). and more importantly, very few people contact the ASA president, vice president, secretary, or even the executive officer, with these concerns.

  • There’s a certain elegance to this argument; it mimics the arguments made by people defending executive compensation. And contempt for the membership is a perfect expression of the Iron Law of Oligarchy – TDS can just imagine the leadership sitting around talking about how the members suck because they don’t go to business meetings.

    Perhaps the ASA takes the lack of engagement as a sign of contentment. But that hypothesis should be tested — a lack of member engagement may in fact reflect alienation. And the truth is, members have very little to work with. Disclosure about the ASA’s finances and practices is atrocious. Going to business meetings should not be required in a day when things can be posted online. TDS’s theory is that if members knew more, they would be more engaged — but perhaps not in the ways the leadership would like.

  • student says:

    I think you make a very good point when you say that “Going to business meetings should not be required in a day when things can be posted online.” and that if members knew more they would be more engaged. At least we can agree on that.

  • […] Disgruntled Sociologist is heartened by the response to the earlier posts about ASA finances.  The discussion at is particularly illuminating and […]

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