How Philanthropy Didn’t Kill Alcoholics Anonymous (Part 2)

Picking up on yesterday’s post, imagine what would have happened if John D. Rockefeller had decided to pour resources into Alcoholics Anonymous back in 1939. Could he have killed it with kindness?

Although it is the 12 Steps that have gained fame, AA's remarkable growth has been governed by an equally important set of 12 Traditions which weren't formally adopted until 1950. They state, in addition to members maintaining anonymity at the level of press, that the organization should be “...fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” In general, this support comes from the dollar meeting participants place in the passed basket (some folks give $2 bucks while newcomers are told, “Keep coming back, we need you more than we need your money.”)

I recently discussed the Rockefeller story with a friend who is part of the AA fellowship. She told me, “I come from a small town in Oregon. Our AA club sits on the outskirts of town in a cinder block building that doesn’t look so good and doesn’t even smell so nice. But nobody is worried about dressing it up because people come for the power of the message. We keep it really simple. It makes me wonder about the churches in town that seem to always be needing more money to send missionaries into the field and to fund new buildings. ”

What does this have to do with today’s donor?

- Philanthropy is an awesome responsibility. The oath that physicians take, to first do no harm, applies to those who offer their gifts to advance change. When asked for money, we each do well to consider whether paying someone to do something changes the nature of how a service is offered or received. (If alcoholics were paid for each meeting they attended, or each phone call they made to help someone suffering, AA would never have gotten off the ground.)

- Some ideas are good, and with money and talented leadership they can take hold. But as in business, some ideas are great. The message is so solid, so clear, so appealing, that folks will rise up to make it happen no matter what. Where do you want to put your dollars?

Susan Herr

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 10, 2007 in Health | High Net Worth Donors | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment