Chris Rennard writes…The inspiration behind Alcoholics Anonymous

Last week I was asked to speak to a group of charity fundraisers in Geneva. You can see my speech below this article on YouTube.

I was asked to inspire them based on work that I had done with the Liberal Democrats as a senior manager between 1989 and 2009 to help spend resources more effectively, raise substantially more money from large donors and make the party more electorally successful.

In researching my speech, I looked at many good causes and charities that I could highlight as inspirational examples. I told the fundraisers that these causes did not generally begin with the desire of a particular philanthropist to give away some money. They generally began, of course, with an individual identifying a problem, seeing a solution and wanting to do something about it.

I quoted a number of examples of good causes such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, that had been founded in Geneva. But I was particularly struck by what I found out about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and how they don’t seek big donations, legacies or significant financial support at all. Instead, they inspire their members.

Many of us will have friends or family members who have struggled with alcoholism and I know of several who have benefited from their engagement with Alcoholics Anonymous. It was founded by people in Akron, Ohio in 1934. In 2012 it is estimated to have over two million members worldwide with 114,000 AA meetings taking place each week. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has sold over 30million copies and is available in 58 languages.

Three principles of the organisation really impressed me:

Firstly, AA is fully self-supporting from its own members and declines outside contributions. Money is collected on a voluntary basis at every AA meeting with each AA group keeping only what it needs for its immediate purpose (less a prudent reserve – perhaps one month’s rent of the building it is using for a weekly meeting). All other money is passed through a local national and international service structure from the bottom up, with each part of the structure retaining only what it immediately needs to function.

Secondly, this refusal to accept outside money evolved almost accidentally, and the impetus for it came from one of the richest banking families in the world. There were initially grand plans for AA buildings and centres with paid staff and large budgets. An associate of the Rockefeller banking dynasty suggested AA ask his boss for funds to make this happen. They did so. All of Rockefeller’s associates warmly endorsed the proposal and it looked like AA was about to get a substantial financial donation to go nationwide on a grand scale. But Mr Rockefeller himself had the vision to see that a sudden injection of cash might destroy the fledgling movement, and to appreciate the great value of self-support and one alcoholic helping another. So, he said “no” to the large donation, and suggested instead covering some modest travelling expense of the two founders and the initial cost of printing a book about the AA programme and the personal stories of the first one hundred people to get sober, which would be for sale to prospective AA members.

Thirdly, a key component of the AA recovery programme, and a key part of what keeps AA members sober, is helping others.

When one of the founders, William Griffiths Wilson (known as Bill W), first got sober he believed that he had to try to help other alcoholics do the same. His first attempts were not particularly successful. Bill had been a stockbroker in New York, but had fallen on hard times in the early 1930s. His wife, Lois, helped support his philanthropic work in the early months, as Bill spoke to one alcoholic after another on skid row and in asylums and hospitals, telling them what he had done and encouraging them to do the same.
But although the drinkers he spoke to were very impressed by what he had done, and very keen to try become sober – they kept on getting drunk. Six months later, with funds running low Bill was exasperated and on the verge of giving up. He told his wife that it was hopeless. He had tried his best but not a single person he had tried to help had stayed sober. He said he had asked too much of her and he should now give up this work and get a city job to pay the bills.

The whole of AA’s future and the lives of millions of alcoholics stood on a knife edge at that moment. AA was saved not by an alcoholic, but by the long suffering wife of one when Lois Wilson turned to Bill, took his hand and said what do you mean not a single person has stayed sober, “That’s not true YOU HAVE!” she said.

The effort to inspire others had worked to inspire him. Promoting his message had guided him to recovery and, in turn, helped millions of across the world to inspire themselves by trying to inspire others.

* Chris Rennard is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats. He has led for the Party in the House of Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill

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  • I notice you made absolutely no mention of all the religious nonsense that is required by AA.

  • Simon Beard 9th Jul '12 - 1:30pm


    I think you fail to notice some of the chief characteristics of AA here. Principally the fact that it is in many ways more of a religion than a charity. Most people who make this point are trying to takl down AA, I’m not, but I think that it needs to be recognised that all of the points you mention make perfect sense when you look at AA along side churches and other religious groups and really aren’t that applicable to most other charitable organisations.

    Religious organisations are entirely self-supporting, who would give money to a church they didn’t belong to? The only exception I can think of is the Salvation Army, which in some ways is a church that is more like a charitable organisation than a religion.

    Religious organisations are fostered by their self-reliance, and by the fact that they encourage members to rely upon and help each other. Becoming too ‘worldly’ or outward facing in fundraising, even for supposidly charitable work, can greatly damage a religious cause and most groups are aware of this.

    Religious organisations thrive, whether they are evangelical or not, on sharing the vision of their members with others, and this is usually the most significant way in which they foster a communal identity.

    What I think we need to think about as a political organisation is how much we can survive if we try to see ourselves as a charity, relying on external fundraising and handing outreach and advertising to professionals, rather than keeping them solely in the hands of members, or whether we too should be more like a church and less like a charity.

  • I’m an ex lib dem councillor here in nottingham and an active member of AA for some 18 years and AA works. I have to have that desire to stop drinking and AA helps me achieve that 1 day at a time. AA is self supporting and we fund our meetings with contributions from ourself,s . We decline outside contributions and its been one of our traditions since the 12 steps and 12 traditions were devised for our recovery.

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