Bill W. Talks

Bill W. Talks

A Suggested Plan for the Reorganization of the A.A. General Service Board

By Bill W., New York, December, 1957

Dear Delegates:

As you know, our present General Service Board of A.A. is composed of 8 non-alcoholics, and 7 alcoholics. The Board’s Charter legally provides that the non-alcoholic members must always exceed the alcoholics by a majority of one, no matter what the size of the Board may be.

From time to time we have debated changing this ratio in order to provide a larger alcoholic membership to cope with the present day conditions. At the 1957 Conference a "sense of the meeting" poll revealed a desire to switch the ratio to 7 "nons" and 8 alkies. But the majority in favor of this change was not large (44-33), and consequently the poll was not conclusive.

Until recently, I’ve never quite understood this reluctance in the Conference and at the "grassroots" to place a majority of alcoholics on A.A.’s Board of Trustees, even though more alcoholic trustees are badly needed and despite the further fact that A.A. declared at St. Louis in 1955 that it had "come of age" and would definitely manage its own affairs henceforth.

We are of course still agreed that we need non-alcoholic trustees to give our General Service Board stability and public recognition. But why should we insist on having a majority of them – particularly when at groups, intergroups and club levels non-alcoholics are no longer elected to our local boards or committees at all?

Though this unwillingness for change has often seemed inconsistent, I now feel that this is nevertheless a situation in which – up to the present time – the Conference has been right and I have been wrong.

On the surface, it has been argued that we don’t want to force any of our non-alcoholic friends and great benefactors off the General Service Board. But we have never considered doing that. The original non-alcoholics of our Board have long since died or resigned. As to the present members, we have never had the slightest idea of asking any of them for resignations, either. We want them all to stay, so long as they will. Every plan to change the ratio of "alkies" to the "nons" has emphasized that the transition would take place only as fast as some of the present non-alcoholics resign of their own accord. It can be confidently said that not one non-alcoholic Board member today believes that a "majority of nons" is necessary for an effective Trusteeship. The "nons" have repeatedly offered to retire whenever we wish to shift the ratio. Some of them have made this clear at actual Conference sessions where this matter has been under debate. Therefore the fear of pressuring or hurting our non-alcoholic friends has not actually been the main underlying objection. What, then, is our real fear?

Well, I think we still have the same basic fears that we had in 1938 when the Board was first organized. Then (as probably now) we feared our own instability. We feared wet benders, and even more we feared "dry" benders. Since our present day "area Trustees" are really elected people, we now fear politics in addition.

The General Service Board is so remote from us that we don’t yet trust a board of alkies – or even a majority of alkies – to handle large funds and carry on important A.A. business. We still want a majority of non-alcoholics to stand sentinel over us. This was in 1938 and it must be so today. What other reason could there be?

Are these fears still justified? Personally I now think – under present conditions – that a few of these fears are really justified, although many of them are definitely not. Therefore I believe the Conference has – up to now – been correct in refusing to change the trustee ratio.

Consciously or unconsciously the Conference has doubtless felt that the present system of choosing alcoholic Trustees does not sufficiently guarantee us a selection of Board members who will surely be free of politics; who will always be able enough and stable enough to function properly. That, I think, is the deep down difficulty.

What now, can we do about this? To begin with, we can cure unjustified fears by looking at the facts. Next we can change our structure so as to guarantee the selection of time-tested alkies of trustee ability, pretty much minus politics.

First, let’s tackle the unjustified fears and criticisms:

1. I’ve attended our Board meetings for nearly twenty years. I’ve seen perilous times and very heated sessions, when the future of A.A. was at stake. I’ve seen the non-alcoholics stabilize the Board in these tempests. But I have never witnessed a session where a majority of non-alcoholics would have been required to do this job.

Never have the alcoholic members been so wrong or unreasonable that a complete majority of nons would have been required to vote them down. In fact I’ve never seen the Board divide strictly on "alky" and "non-alky" lines at any time. For "stabilization" purposes a Board composed of one-third non-alcoholics would have done exactly as well as a majority or non-alcoholics. A one-third non-alcoholic membership would always have held the balance of voting power under any conditions. Of this I’m positive.

Today we are even safer. A minority of the Board of Trustees can always insist on referring questions in dispute to the Conference itself. It is therefore impossible for the majority to make a foolish snap decision on an important matter.

2. There are also certain fears about the selection of the "in town alcoholic Trustees. Some people think we have too many of them. "Why so many ‘New York’ alcoholics?" they ask. I believe both of these fears to be unjustified. Let’s have a look:

First, as to numbers: Today we have 4 "in town" alcoholic Trustees. Because our affairs and their ramifications have grown so large, these volunteers are already overworked. The average A.A. has no idea how much work there is for them and how important this labor is to the week to week, and month to month, direction of our services. This volume of important detail has become so huge that we can no longer ask the non-alcoholic Board members to handle very much of it.

Neither can the area "Trustees" be of much use for this purpose as they show up in New York only once in three months. So the "in town" alky Trustees must be constantly at work with the A.A. Grapevine, A.A. Publishing, and the General Service Office. They must have representation on our basic committees: Finance, Policy, and Nominating. They also have to hold posts on the Literature, Public Information, and General Service Committees. They must always be nearby and on call.

Without them Headquarters’ every day management might collapse. If we ever reduce the non-alcoholics on the Board by three, we shall have to increase the number of "in town" alky Trustees to five, at least. Neither can we possibly reduce their numbers in order to seat more "area Trustees," as some now think we should.

In this connection, more education is required. Many A.A.s still believe that the Board of Trustees should be primarily am "area" representation, like the Conference. But while a certain amount of area representation is really needed for A.A. policy formation, the Board as a whole cannot possibly operate as an area or political function. Mainly, the Board has to be composed of the best people we can get, and most of them have to be near the operation itself. Stockholders in a business corporation don’t insist that their directors come from North, South, East or West. They insist that the best possible directors be chosen. The more directors that can be nearby, and on the job, the better. It is much like that with A.A.’s Trustees.

Now let’s consider how the "New York" alkie Trustees are selected. There has been worry about this, but there shouldn’t be. Every one of them gets a mighty careful screening, and all of them have to be chosen for their special skills – finance, public relations, law, writing, editorial, etc. It is not hard to find out in advance whether an "in town" candidate has these qualifications, and if he is a good worker and a good A.A. besides.

But fine qualifications don’t get an "in town worker" onto the Board of Trustees at once. He first must serve an apprenticeship as a director of A.A. Publishing or the A.A. Grapevine. Thus we have a good look at what he can, and will do. When a vacancy occurs on the Board of Trustees, we therefore have a choice of several such men who have already proven themselves. Even then, they have to pass muster with the Nominating Committee of the Conference and the Nominating Committee of the General Service Board. Of course a "dud" is possible but not probable. I don’t see how this system could be more airtight, and I think we can quit worrying; it has worked very well for some years now.

3. Now we come to the question of the "area Trustees" and here is mainly where the rub is.

We need more "area alky" Trustees and we need them badly. At present there are only three, and we could certainly use five. We don’t need these A.A.s to "represent" or to "politick" for their areas – that isn’t, and cannot be the idea. In fact they represent A.A. world-wide.

What we do want of them is help with our main policy decisions. The Board must absolutely have the advice of the "area" members to ascertain just what the "grassroots" feels and needs. These "area" out of town members are the very heart of the Board’s General Policy Committee which, every three months, sits for a whole Sunday afternoon prior to the Trustees and other Committee meetings the next day.

Through this Committee we filter every policy question that has arisen in the quarter preceding. This Committee disposes of smaller matters. And, after careful debate, it drafts recommendations to the Board of Trustees on the larger ones. In cases where the Committee disagrees, a minority report is made to the Board. This is the most important and vital Committee in the whole Headquarters. Without it and it’s hard core of "area" Trustees, we could certainly make very disastrous blunders. This is why we must have at least five "area" Trustees.

So the score, up to now, is a need for five "in town alkies" and five "out of town alkies."

This number we must have if we are going to function in the future.

But serious doubts have arisen about the method of selection of the "area" Trustees. Some of these doubts may well be justified.

If we continue, as at present, to select "area" Trustees by straight Third Legacy elective methods, we may be letting ourselves in for a future bad result. The number of them is so small that two or three might not, at any particular time, be of the best Trustee material. It is also to be remembered that these A.A.’s serve four years each, and they attend sixteen meetings of the General Service Board, plus four General Service Conferences. Once in, they are going to stay there for a long time (something which of course, is necessary for continuity). But the extra honor and prestige factor would surely cause far more log rolling and political striving during their Third Legacy elections, than could ever be the case with Delegates. This political condition we simply cannot risk at the Trustee level.

There are still other factors to consider. While we are mainly looking (in these "area" Trustees) for experienced and hard-working A.A.’s who have the confidence of their regions and who understand conditions there, we want as many as possible who also have business or professional qualifications. This isn’t a "must" with "area" men. But it is very desirable because the Board has so much business to transact. And most surely our good business judgment should not be the monopoly of the "in town alkies" and the non-alcoholics only.

Moreover, when a vacancy occurs, the General Service Board ought to have some latitude in filling that opening with the kind of man it needs at a particular time. For example: if the Board already has two lawyers, why send in another lawyer as an area Trustee if the main requirement of the Board at the moment may be for an out of town finance man?

For all these reasons I doubt if the present methods of selecting area Trustees is either safe or practical. We have been very lucky in our "area" Trustees so far. But I don’t think our "luck" is likely to hold unless we change our system.

Therefore, I offer for your consideration (or amendment) the following suggestions:

  1. That, as they resign, we reduce the number of non-alcoholics to five, this number being quite enough for stability.
  2. That when two "nons" have left the Board, we replace them with two additional "area" alkies.
  3. That when three "nons" have left the Board, we then add one more "in town" alcoholic Trustee.
  4. That when the Board reduces to six "nons", we put into effect a system for the selection of area Trustees which would be a combination of the "Third Legacy" and the "appointive" methods. This might be done as follows:
  1. Divide the U.S. into four large areas. Make Canada the fifth area. Each of these areas would have a Trustee at all times.
  2. A year or more before a vacancy occurs, each state (or province) within the affected area could name its own Trustee candidate – perhaps at Assembly time, to avoid expenses.
  3. From this list of State (or Provincial) nominations, the Nominating Committee of the Conference, sitting jointly with the Nominating Committee of the General Service Board, would then select the "area" Trustees from these several nominations; also an alternate, or perhaps two alternates.
  4. The Joint Nominating Committee would be guided by the current needs of the General Service Board, by a careful investigation of the candidate nominee, and by a definite list of Conference approved qualifications which each "area" Trustee should possess.
  5. In addition, the General Service Conference should approve the first choice for a Trustee made by the Joint Nominating Committee. But if the Conference disagrees with the Committee’s choice, the first three choices of the Committee could then be put in the hat and drawing made for the final choice.

It is my firm belief that such a system, combining the elective and appointive methods, can overcome our present fears and greatly insure our safety in the years to come.

It is my intention to offer these suggestions to the General Service Board at their January, 1958 meeting for their consideration.

Meanwhile, I am offering this plan to you only for study and careful consultation with your Committeemen, and with such other experienced A.A.’s as you may wish to approach. Please bear in mind that this plan is tentative only. It simply presents material upon which we hope you will develop your ideas.

It would clearly be a mistake – certainly at this stage – to carry these ideas to the whole grassroots. Experience has shown that it is always unwise to carry a problem of this sort to the grassroots at once. The Conference itself must first have preliminary discussion so that it can go home with definite ideas – pro and con. The grassroots "conscience" certainly cannot function if it hasn’t got the facts.

Excepting for a change in the A.A. Traditions or in Article 12 of the Conference Charter, it is of course not mandatory for the Conference to go in for widespread grassroots consultation at all. The Conference is elected on the basis that its members are trusted servants of A.A. and so must have real powers of action and decision. Practically speaking, the choice of whether or not to consult the grassroots should be left up to each Delegate – as to his own area. But he should never so consult until he can report at least a preliminary discussion on the subject by the Conference itself. Several years ago we got off to a confused start on the ratio question for this very reason.

Consequently, I think our timetable might now be:

  1. Trustee consent in January, 1958 as to general principles involved
  2. Conference consideration in April, 1958, concerning suggested change in ratio.
  3. Conference appointment in 1958 of a committee to study this subject and to recommend a proposal for area discussion
  4. Conference action on the proposal in 1959, if possible.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that no changes in Trustee ratios, numbers, or manner of selection should ever be permanent. Twenty years from now we may want no non-alcoholics whatever; or maybe we’ll need a lot more of them just to keep us in line (something I don’t believe!). But the Conference should have, and surely be given, complete control of this matter at all times.

Therefore I don’t see why we should delay trying the experiment. I have just outlined above. If it doesn’t work, we can always change.

A.A. has often asked me to make suggestions and sometimes to take the initiative in these structural projects. That is why I have tried to go into this very important matter so thoroughly.

Please believe that I shall not be at all affected if you happen to disagree. Above all, you must act on experience and on the facts; and never because you think I want a change. Since St. Louis, the future belongs to you!



P.S. Some A.A.’s believe that we should increase our Board from 15 to 21 members in order to get the 10 alcoholics we need. This would involve raising the non-alcoholics from 8 to 11 in number. But, might this not be cumbersome and needlessly expensive? Personally, I think so.


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