Battling Substance Abuse

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1982

For whatever reason, philanthropic activity in alcohol and drug treatment gets relatively little attention or public visibility. At the grassroots level, the most effective force for sobriety in the U.S. is Alcoholics Anonymous, the classic voluntary organization of the sort that has long kept American civil society healthy. But AA is powered by voluntarism and mutual collaboration, not by donated money.

There have, however, been some notable philanthropic successes in battling substance abuse. The philanthropy-supported Salvation Army does cost-effective, hands-on, faith-based work with difficult populations, persevering through the high relapse rates that afflict all treatment regimens and ultimately achieving success with many individuals. The nonprofit Hazelden Foundation, which started a twelve-step program for alcoholics in 1949, now operates a half-dozen campuses; in 2012, its 7,431 donors provided Hazelden with more than $10 million in gifts. The Betty Ford Center, founded in 1982 by the former First Lady with philanthropist Leonard Firestone, has served 90,000 patients as a high-visibility nonprofit supported by its own foundation, which raises several million dollars every year in donations. In 2013, Hazelden and the Ford Center announced a merger to create the largest nonprofit addiction-treatment organization in the U.S.

Another treatment center launched in 1982 by a political family is Marworth, donated by former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations William Scranton and his wife, Mary. Recognizing the dearth of residential substance-abuse treatment options in their area, they offered their magnificent family estate (located near the Pennsylvania city that bears their surname) to Geisinger Health Systems to become one of the country’s leading alcohol and drug detoxification facilities. A nonprofit that grew out of philanthropist Abigail Geisinger’s 1915 donation of a hospital (inspired by the Mayo Clinic), the Geisinger system is now one of the largest rural health-care networks in America, treating 2.6 million people in 44 Pennsylvania counties.

Since its establishment, Marworth has treated more than 40,000 patients—with a special focus on helping doctors and health-care workers as well as law-enforcement officials who are suffering from addiction. All services are rendered in the original stone mansion, “where the breathtaking exterior matches the interior—with colonial furnishings, paintings of the Revolutionary War, and leather and crochet-topped sturdy sofas and chairs,” in the words of one rehab review. For years, William and Mary Scranton (he died in 2013) maintained a modest home at the foot of their erstwhile estate, from which they would periodically check in on the people being helped by their gift.

Philanthropists Mel and Betty Sembler founded Straight Inc., which treated 10,000 adolescents from 1976 to 1993 in a strict but effective program. They now support the policy, research, and advocacy work of the Drug Free America Foundation. Perhaps the most prominent advocacy group on this topic is the Partnership for a Drug Free America, which has long enjoyed major funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And major donor Tom Siebel has put more than $30 million of his money into a highly focused and successful public campaign against methamphetamine use (see separate 2005 entry).