Lessons from the Most Successful Nonprofit (That Nobody’s Talking About)

Is Alcoholics Anonymous the most successful nonprofit in the world? The author provides the rationale behind her contention that it is.

I attended my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) seven months into getting my MBA at Presidio Graduate School—a program dedicated to sustainability. The irony wasn’t lost on me. After several years of using alcohol to calm high-achiever anxieties, I reached a breaking point; when I realized that my drinking was—go figure—unsustainable. I never lost a job or a relationship as a result of it, nor did I encounter any troubles with the law. I had a regular yoga practice, ate organic foods, and I was obtaining a degree that would help me solve social and environmental problems through the power of business. All was well, or so it seemed.
A.A.’s first step is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Sure, I was exhausted by my inability to consistently moderate my mostly-weekend drinking. I never knew where one drink would take me, and couldn’t seem to get rid of the intense shame I would wake up with the morning after. But it was the hypocrisy in my life, and the difference between what my outside looked like and how I felt inside, that became truly unmanageable. I was ready to start walking my talk, and to ask for help.
Studying sustainability while attending regular A.A. meetings, it was impossible for me to not see the organization and its members within the context of social impact—the testimonials of transformation so powerful that I was often left in a state of sheer disbelief. During a meeting that was focused on the seventh tradition, which states, “Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions,” it struck me: This is a very sustainable business model! Why aren’t more people talking about this, I wondered, and sharing lessons learned? Oh right, that second “A” stands for anonymous.
I chewed on this realization for years while applying everything I was learning in A.A. to my life as a social entrepreneur, writer, and human being. One night over dinner, a mentor of mine with a talent for planting seeds said, “I’d be really interested in reading an article about how the lessons of sponsorship could be applied to mentorship in business.” The idea both scared and intrigued me, making clear it was something I should consider pursuing. After confirming with my sponsor that it would be okay to write an article about A.A.—so long as I only broke my own anonymity, and made clear I do not speak for the organization—I decided to broaden the scope, do some research, and attempt to summarize why I believe Alcoholics Anonymous might just be the most successful nonprofit in the world.
Scalable Growth\n
A.A. was founded in 1935 by two white-collar professionals from Akron Ohio—Robert Smith (a doctor) and Bill Wilson (a stock broker)—who discovered that it was only through talking to another alcoholic and trying to be of service that they were able to maintain their sobriety. Small groups began to form as they spread their message of hope, with the first “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous published in 1939, the goal being to share the solution they’d found more broadly.
Since then, this text has been translated into forty-three languages, achieving circulation of close to 12 million by 1976, with meetings now taking place in more than 150 countries. Worldwide membership was last estimated at over two million people, putting it on par with top rated organizations like United Way when it comes to beneficiary reach. Incredible considering much of this growth occurred through pre-internet word-of-mouth. And this number doesn’t even take into account all of the other 12-step programs that have grown out of A.A.—a testament in itself to the organization’s success.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports untreated alcohol problems waste an estimated $184.6 billion dollars per year in health care, business and criminal justice costs; and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports 1 in 6 adults living in the United States qualifies as a binge drinker—that’s a big opportunity for continued growth, and impact.
Single-Minded Focus\n
Every business owner, marketing professional, fundraiser and consumer knows the importance of having a clear message when communicating the value of a product or service. Nonprofits are notorious for what’s been termed “mission creep,” where a project grows beyond its original mission due to initial successes, interfering with the clarity of outward-facing communications and, as a result, vision fulfillment. A.A. has avoided this pitfall.
The first paragraph in the “Foreword to the First Edition” of the Big Book states, “To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.” The Twelve Traditions serve as the organization’s rules of operation and are read at every meeting, with the fifth tradition stating, “Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Nearly all meetings are open-access, making it possible for anyone to attend with the only requirement for membership being a desire to stop drinking.
There are many slogans and sayings repeated in A.A., some of which have become widely known due to TV and film’s (often inaccurate) portrayal of recovery programs. One of these is “principals before personalities,” encouraging members to look beyond what may be irritating qualities of a particular person and remember the organization’s primary purpose. Another is “look for the similarities instead of the differences,” a suggestion I found so profound upon first hearing that I naively posted it to Facebook, unintentionally announcing to everyone familiar with A.A. that I was now sober. This too is an attempt to stress the importance of unity, and correct self-perceptions of “terminal uniqueness”—a defining quality among those struggling with addiction.
Having taken various breaks from drinking throughout my life, I considered staying sober without the support of A.A. (I had the same negative stereotypes held by many). After a month or so, however, I noticed that my friends didn’t seem quite as blown away by my non-drinking realizations as I was. Having a community of people I could relate to—similar to what I’d experienced through yoga and graduate school—seemed like a good idea. I also knew A.A. was basically free, which appealed given my lack of income.
In every meeting a basket is passed where members drop donations—one dollar being the accepted norm. The money is collected by a treasurer, nominated by the group for a period of 6 months, and goes towards paying rent and purchasing literature. Excess reserves occasionally go towards coffee and sweets, and are then divided between the meeting’s District, Area Assembly, General Service Office, and World Service, located in New York City. Usually a can is also passed to collect donations that allow members to take meetings and literature to those currently confined to hospitals and institutions.
The importance of being of service through taking commitments (e.g., setting up chairs, making coffee, welcoming newcomers, facilitating meetings, choosing speakers, bringing literature, etc.) is emphasized. Doing so ensures meetings happen (a.k.a. clear accountability) while encouraging regular attendance, allowing members to deepen their relationships while keeping egos right-sized. With constantly rotating roles and responsibilities, A.A. is an entirely people-powered movement.
Quiet Leadership\n
It’s widely accepted that leading by force tends to create resistance, as does telling someone what he or she “should” be doing. The latter can be particularly challenging when brains are overloaded with information, hearts are filled with passion, and there’s perceived urgency to solve problems, all of which tends to be true for environmentalists. This is why Presidio encouraged a quiet leadership approach—coming from a calm and centered place, practicing humility, leading by example, taking time to listen, and learning how to inspire the best thinking in those around you. Once again I was reminded of A.A. and its “attraction rather than promotion” policy.
A.A. members are instructed to share from a place of personal experience only. What might otherwise sound like unsolicited advice is softened when adding, “it’s been my experience that” beforehand. The standard format of a speaker’s share includes: 1) what it was like, 2) what happened, and 3) what it’s like now. This story arc allows listeners to: 1) identify with the problem, 2) become inspired by a shift in perspective, and 3) have hope for the future. There is no cross-talk allowed during the open sharing portion, creating a safe place for thoughts and feelings to be released but not commented on.
When seeking a sponsor, someone who takes you through the Twelve Steps, it’s suggested to approach an individual that has what you want—also wise advice when selecting mentors. Sponsoring others provides a deep sense of purpose, boosting confidence and decreasing the self-centered fear that severs connection to positive life force. Being sponsored is a practice of receptivity, and trust. It’s a give and receive model that works well in business (and life) too.
One week before I decided to stop drinking, I recited a poem to my leadership class called “I’m Ready.” The assignment was focused on what it means to be an authentic leader, and saying my words aloud held unexpected weight. The sentiment conveyed reminds me of a quote from Leadership from the Inside Out, in which Gary Snyder says, “We may not transform reality, but we may transform ourselves. And if we transform ourselves, we might just change the world a little bit.”
Chairs in a circle image via Shutterstock\n
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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