What do you do when the richest man in the world, a major philanthropist and self-described ally of your organization, refuses to give you money? That’s what happened to Alcoholics Anonymous when John D. Rockefeller turned them down, saying, “I am afraid that money will spoil this thing.” Rockefeller was well aware that accepting donations and large gifts compromises autonomy and independence—and, it turns out, anonymity.

The principle of anonymity was tested, broken, and later found to be the spiritual foundation for all of A.A.’s traditions between the beginnings of A.A. in 1935 and its adoption of 12 “traditions” or principles to guide the membership in 1950. Far from being a matter of convenience, fashion, or fear, anonymity symbolizes that its adherents place principles before personalities. Alcoholics’ need for alcohol parallels people’s need for wealth, fame and power. Appearing before a group of people as a person without status or pretense—anonymous—brings each individual more directly in contact with their true selves and allows them to focus on staying sober.

In a similar way, with Rockefeller’s help, the founders of A.A. found that mixing money and mission produced a volatile, unstable brew—just what they were trying to avoid. A group that has accepted a major gift or outside money may see itself as the product of one member’s generosity or that of an outside benefactor, instead of being just a group of people helping each other out. As Bill W., a co-founder, wrote, “Problems of money, property and authority may easily divert us from our primary spiritual aim… Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority.”

The early organizers of A.A. recognized that indiscriminately seeking and accepting donations could transform the nature of their enterprise. The flip side to this concept was to make the mission of the organization determine the nature of its fundraising. That model has served A.A. well over the years, and it remains a powerful lesson for most organizations: be absolutely clear about your mission—and find resources accordingly.

A.A. could not carry out its mission if it eschewed money entirely. Rent, snacks, and literature present certain fixed costs. Beyond these, the 12th step of recovery recommends that a recovered alcoholic carry the message to other suffering alcoholics—that kind of outreach can represent sizeable expenses in communication and transportation, for example. Because A.A. takes no money from outside sources, the responsibility for meeting these costs falls squarely on the members.

At each A.A. meeting, a treasurer “passes around the hat.” Individuals are not required to contribute or pay dues (the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking). But by putting money in the hat—however much they can afford—A.A. members express their gratitude and commitment toward continuing the work of A.A. 

One result of this policy is that where members do not feel committed or are dissatisfied with the way a group or club is being run, they need only withhold their contributions and the entity folds. As Bill A. of A.A.’s public information office says, “It may sound harsh, but groups are allowed to fail on their own… and also succeed on their own.” This structure speeds up the usual process for nonprofit groups to wither or thrive in response to the will of constituents.

To help members and groups decide how they want to contribute to A.A. finances, the books are kept completely open. Representatives from the national general service office (G.S.O.) and intergroup offices and group treasurers are available to answer questions. And the G.S.O. publishes quarterly financial summaries and a full accounting every year in the Final Conference Report.

With such a humble source of funds, one might imagine that only small, local outfits could scramble by. In fact, once groups have managed to cover their costs and set aside a “prudent reserve” in case of emergencies, they frequently send money to several federated layers of service entities. Local districts represent groups at area assemblies run by area committees, which in turn send delegates to the annual general service conference. An area may have a local intergroup or central office that takes calls and inquiries, coordinates group activities, sells A.A. literature, works with institutions, provides public information and cooperates with the professional community. The national general service office performs similar services, plus it publishes literature, conducts activities in treatment facilities and correctional facilities, and provides services for “loners” (people living in isolated areas where groups cannot form).

Not all groups contribute to these service entities, yet they all receive basic services if they wish. In recent years, somewhat less than half of all registered groups contributed to the national general service office. The annual cost of services per group is just over $100, while the average contribution per group is about $76. The difference is made up through sales of A.A. literature.

A.A. estimates that it now has nearly two million members in over 99,000 groups worldwide, about 51,150 of these in the U.S. The membership has grown to about 1,000 times its size at the end of 1939—not bad for a Do-It-Yourself project.

Many of us assume that we cannot fund our organizations solely through member contributions. But given the magnitude and success of A.A., such a course is worth considering. The advantage of self-sufficiency lies in the structure of accountability it sets up (transparency in financial matters plays a key role in securing these benefits and shouldn’t be overlooked). On the one hand, since there is no outside entity paying the piper, the group is free to call its own tune. On the other hand, whoever ends up making the decisions for the group will be directly accountable to the membership—an organization that fails to express the will of its members or provide a necessary service will die a natural, swift death.

The values that underlie self-support are quite common in many different types of organizations. Where people think, “we are all in this together, through thick and thin,” they support the organization in whatever way they can. They realize that the group as a whole is stronger than each individual alone—but also that each individual is a responsible and powerful actor, able to help construct a valuable entity. Such support and commitment even helps those groups that seek outside resources, for example for more capital-intensive projects. The strong grassroots base signals that any outside money will certainly be used for the good of the membership. And in the end, that is what we all need to keep at the forefront of our practice.

• A.A. groups only accept money from participants, and those contributions are capped at $2,000 a year.
• Bequests in wills are accepted only from A.A. members, only on a one-time basis, with a limit of $2,000.
• There is no limitation on contributions realized from conventions, conferences, dinners, area get-togethers, etc.
• Not all the money goes into one pot—each A.A. entity (group, district, area, central office and G.S.O.) is separate and autonomous.