My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
by Susan Cheever
Simon and Schuster, 2004
320 pp., $24.00
Nonprofits today are being criticized for fundraising abuses, extravagant salaries, and questionable abuses. For a refreshing change, Susan Cheever’s new biography of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson reminds us that philanthropy’s true end—transforming broken lives—has often been efficiently achieved.
Unlike many nonprofit organizations, which tend to become bureaucratized and increasingly dependent on fundraising as they grow, Wilson’s group has remained radically decentralized and lean. There are no “leaders” or “spokesmen” in A.A., just a small, central office in New York City. Nor does A.A. require annual fundraising banquets, calls from telemarketers, or fancy mailings to raise money. Instead, the organization receives tens of thousands of donations each year from recovering alcoholics grateful for A.A.’s help.
Wilson’s own organizational ideas and distaste for the limelight account for some of A.A.’s lean structure. No less important were the lessons that John D. Rockefeller Jr. taught him during the organization’s formative years.
William Wilson was born in East Dorset, Vermont, in 1895. He served as an Army second lieutenant in World War I. Like many doughboys, he came home from France with a taste for booze.
After trying his hand at several careers, Wilson settled in as a stock analyst. He was very good at discovering neglected enterprises—so good that he kept getting hired even in the frostiest years of the Great Depression. Initially, Wilson’s ability to hold his alcohol helped him professionally. He would visit manufacturers and spend his days touring factories. Meanwhile, his nights were spent carousing with workers at speakeasies, gathering valuable information in between bouts of boozing. His research enabled his employers to spot undervalued companies whose shares usually rose in value.
Eventually, however, drinking would lead to his ruin. One day in 1932 he was visiting Pathe Laboratories, a New Jersey company that developed film. That night, he was offered “Jersey Lightning.” Wilson went on a drinking binge and didn’t return to work for three days. He was sacked, and no one else would hire him.
Wilson spent much of 1933 in a boozy haze, living on his wife’s meager income as a secretary. When he was sober, he would write lengthy letters to his former employers denouncing them for firing him. Wilson, a political conservative, also wrote long letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, accusing him of socialistic misdeeds.
By 1934 Wilson had tried everything to get his drinking under control, including a lengthy stay at Towns Hospital in Manhattan—at the time deemed the best method of drying out. He also began attending meetings of the Oxford Group, then an influential Christian organization that had had some success in helping alcoholics beat the bottle. At first, Wilson continued to drink. Late one day in 1934, however, Wilson, an agnostic, decided to pray. “If there is a God, let him show himself!”
“Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light,” Wilson wrote in his autobiography. “I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison.” And for the remaining 37 years of his life, Wilson abstained from alcohol.
After his conversion, Wilson continued attending Oxford Group meetings. Though his drinking was under control, his finances were not. A battle for control of the National Rubber Machinery Company broke out in late in 1934, and Wilson traveled to Akron, Ohio, with hopes of capitalizing on the dispute. The business portion of the trip was unsuccessful, but a call to the Rev. Walter Tunks proved life-changing. He came to Tunks hoping to find an alcoholic he could help to dry out. The minister led Wilson to Robert Smith, a local proctologist who believed that alcoholics could work with each other in small groups to become sober.
Wilson had come to the same conclusion based on his experiences at Towns Hospital and with the Oxford Group. Together, the two men founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.
Wilson and Smith spent the next two years developing their organization. All their work was volunteer activity, however, and Wilson needed to make a living. In an attempt to find funding to support himself and his organization, Wilson turned to a friend who knew an associate of John D. Rockefeller Jr. In 1937 Wilson requested $50,000 from Rockefeller.
Rockefeller was a logical source of funds. Like his father and grandfather, he was a teetotaler. Moreover, Wilson’s wife, Lois, was a distant cousin of Rockefeller’s mother. Rockefeller declined the request for $50,000, but he did create a $5,000 fund from which Wilson and Smith could draw small salaries and pay their mortgages. He also offered the two A.A. founders the pro bono services of his lawyers, who helped Wilson and Smith establish a nonprofit group, originally called the Alcoholic Foundation, to attract other donors.
The Alcoholic Foundation was nearly stillborn, however, because Wilson and Smith insisted that both alcoholics and non-alcoholics be put on the board. Rockefeller’s lawyers worked out a compromise: The foundation would operate a board composed of recovering alcoholics and non-alcoholics.
Rockefeller came to Wilson’s aid a second time when he organized a fundraising banquet for A.A. in 1940. Rockefeller did not attend, but he delegated his son Nelson to be keynote speaker, and he personally pledged $1,000. Other attendees gave lesser amounts.
At first Wilson was outraged. They were heavily in debt! Why couldn’t Rockefeller give more? But “in the hours spent with the Rockefeller advisers and lawyers,” Cheever writes, Wilson found that Rockefeller “had given them something more valuable than money.” That something was the realization that Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t need to be a large, centralized charity to be successful. Rockefeller’s associates provided not only practical knowledge about how to start a charity, but insight into the problems that large, cash-hungry nonprofits constantly face. The experiences convinced him that to remain successful, A.A. should be decentralized.
“John D. Rockefeller Jr. saved us from the perils of property management and professionalism,” Wilson wrote in a history of A.A.’s early years that was published in 1957. “He couldn’t have done more.”
By 1941, thanks to Rockefeller’s assistance, as well as a best-selling book by Wilson and national publicity on radio and in magazines, Alcoholics Anonymous had become a successful organization. But decentralization was creating its own set of problems. Wilson visited A.A. chapters across the country and found that rules for membership varied widely. Some chapters refused to admit women. Others insisted one could not be admitted to A.A. without “proof of alcoholism” in the form of written testimonials.
Wilson decided to codify A.A.’s membership rules in a document he called “The Twelve Traditions.” These include: a membership open to anyone who wanted to stop drinking; a requirement that a group “never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise”; a requirement that each group be “fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions”; and a requirement that A.A. remain a nonprofessional organization.
After obtaining the reluctant support of co-founder Robert Smith, Wilson then persuaded his fellow A.A. members to adopt the Twelve Traditions at their 1955 annual convention. In addition, Wilson lobbied to prevent the creation of an A.A. president, and he insisted that the A.A. board be elected by the membership as a whole, and not be a self-perpetuating organization under the control of a domineering central office. Wilson insisted that these reforms were necessary to ensure that power in A.A. remain diffuse; he did not want anyone to use A.A. as a vehicle for obtaining wealth and power.
From that day forward, A.A. has remained what it is today: thousands of meetings loosely connected through a small central office. Wilson’s insistence that no one become the “leader of A.A.” has ensured that the movement remains an organization that has stayed true to its mission of helping alcoholics recover their broken lives.
After 1955, Wilson retired from A.A., living on the substantial royalties from his books. Ironically, Wilson was a heavy smoker throughout his life and died as a result of complications from emphysema.
Rockefeller’s grantmaking relationship with Wilson and A.A. shows that donors can do far more than cut checks. Had Rockefeller infused A.A. early in its career with larger sums of money, the organization might have followed the path of so many other nonprofits and become a centralized, high-overhead operation. By withholding funds and offering expertise, Rockefeller helped ensure that A.A. remained focused on its task of helping alcoholics.
William Wilson’s struggles to prevent the creation of an A.A. bureaucracy ought to be studied by other social entrepreneurs. Far too many creators of nonprofits start off with an admirable goal, but become distracted by wealth and power. Wilson’s life reminds us that the goal of a nonprofit creator should not be to become rich and famous, but to better the lives of the struggling and the destitute.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of By Their Bootstraps and The Foundation Builders.