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© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., March 1997
article is adapted from a presentation given by Gary A.
Glynn, Class A (nonalcoholic) trustee at a general sharing
session of the General Service Board, October 1994.
subtitle for this sharing session on corporate poverty is:
"spiritual and practical principles that assure AA's
future." That got me thinking. I think in AA, spiritual
and practical are the same thing. Imagine someone coming
into service who wanted to have some influence in AA and
promoted some practical-sounding idea that had no spiritual
merit. The Fellowship would quickly put a stop to that.
Such a person would have to find some idea with a spiritual
basis - even if he didn't believe it. So anything that is
going to be of any practical use to us has to be spiritual
the same time, it looks to me as if AA, beginning with Bill
W., has quickly dropped any spiritual-sounding ideas that
don't pass the practical tests of keeping alcoholics sober
or keeping AA together.
is corporate poverty a spiritual and practical principle
that will assure AA's future? Of course it is.
the Seventh Tradition, when talking about how AA acted when
it found out about the bequests that were coming its way,
Bill wrote, "The pressure of that fat treasury would
surely tempt the board to invent all kinds of schemes to
do good with such funds, and so divert AA from its primary
purpose. The moment that happened, our Fellowship's confidence
would be shaken. The board would be isolated, and would
fall under heavy attack of criticism from both AA and the
public. Then our trustees wrote a bright page in AA history.
They declared for the principle that AA must always stay
poor. Bare running expenses plus a prudent reserve would
henceforth be the Foundation's financial policy." He
went on to say, "At that moment, we believe, the principle
of corporate poverty was firmly and finally embedded in
sounds pretty simple: avoid schemes that divert us from
our primary purpose and only have enough money around to
meet bare running expenses and maintain a prudent reserve.
I don't think anyone in this room would object to those
statements, so why are we sharing about them? The reason
is that they mean different things to different people.
Concepts try to help us a little more in making these principles
concrete, but the Concepts can be confusing, especially
about the power of the purse and our prudent reserve, which
usually are at the center of debates about corporate poverty.
In the first warranty, Bill tells us why a dictator wouldn't
last a year: "And in the brief time he did last, what
would he use for money? Our Delegates, directly representing
the groups, control the ultimate supply of our service funds."
Sounds here like the power of the purse is supposed to be
immediate, doesn't it? That's on page 63 [of Twelve Concepts
for World Service]. On page 65, in the second warranty,
writing about what hard times might do to AA, Bill says,
"Our present reserve and its book income could see
us through several years of hard times without the slightest
diminution in the strength and quality of our world effort."
Sounds here as if immediate wasn't what he had in mind after
Bill's writings, there's the sense of his recognizing the
balancing act he was asking us to take on. Too much, and
we argue over perilous wealth and power and lose sight of
our primary purpose of carrying the message. Too little,
and we risk losing the ability to carry the message at all.
So he spoke for both sides in different places.
are the issues here? AA groups are formed and dissolved
all the time, and a reserve of one or two months for a group
seems adequate to a lot of people. I've been asked, "If
one or two month's reserve is okay for a group, why do we
need ten or twelve at GSO?" For one thing, it is probably
easier to form a new group than it is to form a new GSO.
There is no alternative GSO to turn to if ours goes under.
The services we provide have been built up out of many years'
collective experience and would be hard to recreate. Also,
despite the eagerness of others to publish some of our literature,
GSO needs to continue to publish regularly without the threat
of interruption so the message of sobriety will continuously
be available, both through the written message itself and
the services supported in part by literature profits. Many
of our projects extend over a considerable period of time,
like financing new translations or planning a convention.
I think the Fellowship takes the financial stability of
GSO for granted and assumes it will always stay that way.
wrote about how Alcoholics Anonymous got the outside world's
attention when the world realized AA was going to be self-supporting.
He pointed out that most people viewed alcoholics as financially
irresponsible. When I tell people who don't know much about
AA that we accept no outside contributions, and are self-supporting
and solvent, the reaction is amazement and admiration. AA
has such a solid reputation with the public. When we discuss
the idea that it might be sound to lower our Reserve Fund
to come closer to some supposedly more spiritual level of
corporate poverty, we should recognize that we would also
be coming closer to the point of running out of money if
we run into hard times or if some of those "possible
demands on the Reserve Fund" occur at inconvenient
intervals. The lower our Reserve Fund, the higher the risk
of some financial accident where we run out of money. What
would we do if we ran out of money? A financial failure
of AA would do incalculable harm to our reputation with
the public, the Fellowship, and with some poor drunk who's
looking for a reason to believe AA doesn't work.
we ran out of money, we might have to borrow from a bank
temporarily to keep the doors open. If we did that, we would
lose some measure of financial independence. A strong Reserve
Fund is one of the prices we have to pay to assure that
no one but the Fellowship sets our financial policies. And
continually debating whether the Reserve Fund is perilously
large is part of the price.
counter to that argument is that if there ever was a real
emergency, AA groups would increase their contributions
and rescue GSO. This argument says, in effect, that we should
rely on our Higher Power operating through the groups to
save us from our own imprudence. Maybe that would work.
If we rely on that, we wouldn't have to worry about the
accuracy of our budgets, our accounting, or much of anything
really. This may be the place to invoke Bill's comment in
the Ninth Concept about casting the whole idea of planning
for tomorrow onto a fatuous idea of Providence. I don't
believe that because God looks after AA, it doesn't matter
what we do in the practical realm. It's risky to ask our
Higher Power to bail us out of trouble when we can avoid
it ourselves by budgeting solidly, running GSO and the Grapevine
in a businesslike manner, and keeping at least ten months'
expenses in our Reserve Fund. I know that some responsible
people in service think nine or even eight months might
be okay. The treasurer probably should be a bit more conservative
than most of you.
also think that if we ever had to go to the groups and say,
for example, "If you don't send us $500,000 of contributions
within the next three months we'll have to lay off half
of our staff and cancel the Conference," the reaction
probably wouldn't be, "Oh, aren't they spiritual at
GSO, practicing corporate poverty. Well, anyone can make
a mistake. Let's send them more money." I think the
actual and proper response from the groups would be that
GSO didn't know what it was doing and shouldn't be trusted
with any money at all.
it is true that some groups are reluctant to contribute
to GSO when they see a $9 million Reserve Fund. The problem
with focusing on this amount is that the dollar amount low
enough to counter that reluctance is so low that we would
be running severe risks if we got to that level. That's
the main reason we've been displaying our financial numbers
on a per-group basis as well as in total, like $156 per
group for the amount in the Reserve Fund. This is not a
trick; it's a way to point out to the Fellowship how large
we are. A large Fellowship will show large absolute dollar
W. solved the question of whether a prudent reserve inhibited
contributions. He wrote, "It is said that the impression
is created that AA Headquarters is already well off and
that hence there is no need for more money. This is not
at all the general attitude, however, and its effect on
contributions is probably small." I wish I could get
away with simply asserting that conclusion the way Bill
did, but I don't think I can.
think the keys here are, first, we must be true stewards
with AA's money, acting as if we were poor even if we have
a prudent Reserve Fund. No one is going to send us contributions
if we are perceived as wasting money or spending it in marginally
effective ways. I have said elsewhere that there were two
ways to avoid going over the twelve-month limit on the Reserve
Fund: spend more money or reduce literature income. I said,
"We will not increase spending above ordinary amounts
unless the Fellowship clearly indicates a desire for new
services. We must control spending, despite the presence
of a large Reserve Fund, with the same sense of stewardship
that we would exercise if the Reserve Fund were small."
I believe that truly and think it's a reasonable description
of corporate poverty in practice. And in fact that's what
we did, reducing pamphlet and other literature prices in
a way that makes it easier to carry the message and helps
other two keys to more contributions, and what I think is
much more important - the number of groups contributing
- are, first, explaining what the money is spent on, which
we are now able to do with our new reports, and second,
emphasizing the spiritual benefits of making contributions.
Contributions are as important to the contributor as they
are to the recipient. Contributions are very important for
AA unity because making contributions gives the groups an
opportunity to know that they are part of carrying the message
of AA around the world.
contributions are important to us and they must always be
at a high enough level so we hear the Fellowship directly,
but I've never understood the equation that group contributions
equals self-support but literature sales do not. I agree
completely with Bill W. that book profits are "actually
the sum of a great many contributions which book buyers
make to the general welfare of Alcoholics Anonymous. The
certain and continuous solvency of our world service rests
squarely upon these contributions. Looked at in this way,
our Reserve Fund is actually the aggregate of many small
sacrifices made by the book buyers."
I'm trying to say is that corporate poverty is more a state
of mind than the size of our bank account. We all know people
and organizations that extravagantly spend money they don't
have, living beyond their means either by ignoring the facts
of their finances or by assuming a rosy tomorrow. So you
can in fact be poor and not practice corporate poverty.
It happens to museums and opera companies all the time.
The opposite is also possible, that we can maintain a prudent
reserve without falling into the temptation of spending
it just because it's there. One fear I hear expressed is
that GSO might ignore the will of the Fellowship because
we have a prudent reserve. My experience at board weekends,
the Conference, and AAWS and Grapevine corporate board meetings
is that there is no danger of that. First of all, group
contributions pay for three-quarters of services spending.
But even more important, we listen because we know we should
advantage of having a sound prudent reserve is that it makes
it easier for us to sign a lease for office space on good
terms. A reserve fund is one of the few ways a nonprofit
has to show a landlord that it is creditworthy. Another
big advantage is that it lets us plan with better budgets.
The year 1994 is a good example. We used best estimates
throughout the budget. If we had had only five or six months'
expenses in reserve, we would have had to use more conservative
budget estimates, which would have meant either cutting
expenses or raising literature prices to balance our budget,
which we never had to contemplate. I wouldn't have been
able to support reducing literature prices at mid-year,
even though it was the right thing to do from a service
point of view, if we had only had a six months' Reserve
started out by saying that if it wasn't spiritual it wouldn't
work in AA and if it wasn't practical, it wasn't spiritual.
A solid, prudent Reserve Fund and good business management
skills are both spiritual and practical. It is neither practical
nor spiritual to accumulate more or spend more than we need
to. It is also neither practical nor spiritual to run out
of money. As usual Bill has a good phrase for what we need.
He called it fiscal common sense.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., March 1997
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