How Philanthropy Didn’t Kill Alcoholics Anonymous (Part 1)

In this age of mega-philanthropy, it is easy to believe money is what is needed to make the world better. But I was recently reminded of a piece of history that illustrates the danger of overestimating the power of money and underestimating the power of people.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded just over 70 years ago when Bill W. and Dr. Bob --two self-proclaimed “hopeless drunks” -- found the power that one alcoholic has to help another. From Bill and Bob’s first meeting has grown more than 100,000 groups and over 2,000,000 members in 150 countries.

Imagine you were a donor or program officer back in 1939 who read of this fledgling group when the Cleveland Plain Dealer carried a series of articles and glowing editorials about it. Then you learned that the articles resulted in countless pleas for help to the group’s 20 members which grew to 500 within months. What could be clearer than the fact that these folks need some grant money?! Strategic planning, marketing, professional development, evaluation?! Could you have written a check fast enough?

But, Dr Bob and Bill would have already been ahead of you. According to Alcoholics Anonymous, “Meanwhile, in New York, Dr. Bob and Bill had in 1938 organized an over-all trusteeship for the budding Fellowship. Friends of John D. Rockefeller Jr. became board members alongside a contingent of A.A.'s. This board was named The Alcoholic Foundation.” Here’s the kicker…

“However, all efforts to raise large amounts of money failed, because Mr. Rockefeller had wisely concluded that great sums might spoil the infant society.”

I don’t know how Nyquil knows it’s nighttime and I sure don’t know how John D. knew to leave very well enough alone, but that’s the way the story is told. (More tomorrow.)

Susan Herr

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 09, 2007 in Health | High Net Worth Donors | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comments (3)


Nice post, Susan, a good illustration of the prime directive ("First, do no harm"). A similar caution should attend our waving money at the social ministries of churches and other faith-based organizations, and at other all-volunteer efforts. Not everything scales well, nor should it.

Posted by: Albert

Thanks for commenting, Albert. Just reviewing a great interview with Teri Freeman, pres of the community foundation in your hood, speaking to the dangerous thirst for scale. So seductive...

Posted by: Susan Herr [TypeKey Profile Page]

A recent copy of Reader's Digest has a couple of articles on Alcoholics Anonymous. The crux of the articles is that the famous 12 Steps, don't work at all. Apparently, there's no data to support the claim that Alcoholics Anonymous is successful at getting people to stop drinking. From my own experience, the 12 Steps, shut down the critical thinking section of ones brain. What do you think? Comments are welcome!!

Posted by: Micky