This article about Alcoholics Anonymous is not about how they help alcoholics, but reviews their unusual management and organizational practices, which fly in the face of much conventional wisdom about what good nonprofit management looks like. As part of our Blue Avocado philosophy of challenging assumptions, let this article stimulate your thinking about your own assumptions.
What U.S. nonprofit do you know that has more than one million members, more than 55,000 local chapters, elects its leaders, and does no advertising or fundraising?
Answer: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
AA may be the largest and least visible nonprofit organization serving your community. Within just a few miles of Silicon Valley where this writer lives, there are 115 meetings per week. In Humboldt County - a rural area of California with a population of only 130,000 - there are 174 weekly meetings! And these numbers are replicated across the globe.
AA's twelve-step philosophy and meeting structures are well known to much of thepublic. This article touches briefly on some of the lesser-known organizational aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Part of what makes AA interesting to other nonprofits is that many of their practices run counter to commonly accepted nonprofit "best practices." For example:
1. In contrast to the view that all-volunteer organizations are, almost by definition, small, local, and low-impact, Alcoholics Anonymous is a global all-volunteer organization. Meetings are organized by volunteer members. Only the publications division of AA (aagrapevine.org) has staff. As one Blue Avocado reader noted, "People do relatively small things (perhaps they manage the literature collection, or head a weekly meeting for a few months). They volunteer to represent their home groups at area organizational management meetings. Volunteerism is built into the steps, and into the literature. "It's made to be a healthy part of one's recovery."
2. While AA members work as "sponsors" to individual "sponsees," there's no divide between clients and service providers: most people inhabit both roles. From another reader: "The organization only exists and is supported through the individual support of each person served, which in turn creates the next service for a new person."
3. "Passing the hat" is frowned upon in most therapeutic group settings, but AA asks members to contribute a dollar at every meeting. One Blue Avocado reader wrote: "People only put $1.00 in the basket as it is passed around the meeting. From that small donation, rent for the meeting room, coffee supplies and materials are purchased. Whatever is left over (and it isn't much) gets divided between local, state and then the world office of AA."
4. Despite the desire of both commercial and nonprofit organizations to partner with AA, AA does not endorse any other organizations or products and maintains no alliances with other groups, no matter how closely they may be aligned with their mission. In this era of metrics-driven program evaluation, AA refuses to cooperate with any research study on its effectiveness.
5. AA engages in no outside fundraising, conducts no advertising campaigns, has no government contracts or corporate sponsorships. The national operation is funded through book sales . . . with the bible of AA, "Alcoholics Anonymous" selling for an affordable $7. AA has no spokespersons; and as of this writing in July 0f 2009, its national office has yet to issue a press release this year.
Not the only model
AA's model is not universally lauded, nor does AA provide the only model for dealing with alcoholism. The AA model does not help every alcoholic. The AA model requires no outside funding and requests minimal contributions from participants. Other models range from the drunk tank at your local police station to established, venerable clinics like the Betty Ford Center.
Its severest critics disparage and mock the twelve-step model; others are mystified by its "no marketing" policy; some point to the lack of control over sponsor behavior, and others question its flaunting of separation of church and state standards, noting the high participation of people (perhaps 1/3 of members) who attend meetings as a result of a court order.
Nonetheless, millions of recovering people can attest to the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous-- its positive impact on individuals, families and society is common knowledge. And its success serves as a reminder of the creativity and high impact of the nearly invisible all-volunteer nonprofits serving our communities.
Thanks ! to Blue Avocado readers who contributed comments to the writing of this article: Samantha C., Kate, Luis Lozano, Lindi Marti, Nzinga Misgana, Rebecca Moore, Billy White, Jr., and Darrel Wilson.
Martin Gorfinkel is a community volunteer in Silicon Valley, having retired from the technology company he founded and ran for 30 years.