Lessons for Social Change Organizing from the Twelve Step Movement

When we do online to field organizing, we often rely on small groups that build a depth of community and trust.  For those groups to work well, the leaders must share leadership and have a depth of skills that helps individuals in the group to heal, grow, and lead. I am excited to share this extended blog post from Justin Ruben about building decentralized leader-led networks, which looks to the 12-Step Movement for inspiration.

Justin is brilliant and funny. (His posts on Facebook about his children make me laugh out loud!) He is currently a fellow with the Center for Community Change. As the former Executive Director of MoveOn, and in other roles there, Justin helped to create MoveOn’s field organizing program and their local council leadership network.  Before that he was a labor and environmental justice organizer.

In looking at AA and other 12-Step programs, Justin asks:  how can we organize more people with fewer staff and still achieve significant depth of engagement?  How is it that we do personal transformation at scale?  Are there particular innovations and lessons from the Twelve-Step Movement that could be directly adapted to our work as social change organizers, or serve as inspiration for us?

I’m grateful to Justin for the listening, thinking and engaging he is doing on building network depth.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!


PS.  If you want to go further on AA and other examples of leaderless organizations, I highly recommend The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, and this video by network thinker Clay Shirky on institutions versus collaboration.

Excerpt from Higher Power: Lessons for Social Change Organizing from The Twelve Step Movement by Justin Ruben

Here are some of the things that I think make twelve-step programs work well and are worthy of our consideration:

alcoholics_anonymous1. No Gurus. Personal transformation efforts are almost always pegged to charismatic leaders, who then become tragic single points of failure (usually of the “sleeping with adherents” variety). Instead of charismatic leadership, AA substituted a process that works, and a fellowship built around mutual support and storytelling. The principle of anonymity in twelve-step programs helps protect against cults of personality, local or national.

2. Taking the business out of most meetings. How many progressive meetings have you been to that were about as nourishing as a bowl of sand? How excited were you to go back?

The business of figuring stuff out together is often dull and annoying. But it seems like in progressive organizing, that’s often 95% of what we do. And when professionalized, middle-class-ish folks are involved, our attachment to being efficient and results-oriented that can make this reality particularly hard to change. There are multiple solutions to this problem. But, too often, we don’t solve it.

3. The conception of leadership. The way leadership is constructed in twelve-step programs—based on “service to” vs. “power over,” and in rotation—checks some of the worst excesses of ego that normally plague leadership. And the rotation forces groups to develop leaders on an ongoing basis, to boot.

4. Sponsorship. Sponsorship was one of the earliest innovations in AA, rooted in the 12th Step understanding that each AA’s sobriety required them carry the message to others.

Sponsorship seems to provide a level of support and accountability that most of us rarely get in our lives—someone who at first may drive you to meetings, take you to the movies, have you check in with them every day by phone or SMS; someone who you can call at any hour in a crisis, and who will guide you through the program, but insist that you take responsibility for your own recovery.  When I compare this to the experiences I’ve had as a member of an activist group, or a union, or an outdoor club, or a synagogue … there’s literally no comparison.

5. Flexibility within a framework that’s relatively resistant to change. Each AA group is autonomous. And even the Twelve Traditions are framed as guidance from experience, not absolute rules.  In some respects, the flexibility within the program has allowed it to evolve with the times. For example, as technology has evolved, everything from SMS to YouTube to the web has been adapted as a tool for spreading the message. These things have happened in part because no one needs to ask permission of the GSO to do them.

On the other hand, core elements of the program are extremely difficult to change. So far, this combination of tactical flexibility with fidelity to core principles has allowed AA and some other programs to survive and grow.

6, You can’t meet your own needs without meeting others’. To work the program, you have to serve. The 12th Step, and the entire culture, pushes people to service, especially carrying the message to others.

Find lots of other great insights in the complete article (PDF 206kb)



  1. Anonymous
    08/06/2014 at 12:41 pm

    I am a long-time member of AA. When thinking about what lessons 12 step programs can offer to social change organizing I have to remember that some activists involved in social change are driven by what they think is the problem and what they think is the solution. They are attached to a certain outcome. And, what drives them to spend so much energy and time is not always because they have the desire to be in conscious unity with their Creator or the human race. In fact, some people are driven to protect our natural world or animals because of their extreme hatred for the human race. I am reminded by people I admire that all humans however, not just addicts in recovery, have a deep need to love. And the true reward for any activism is love. The action comes from the deep need to love and the reward is love.

    The 12 step programs are the greatest altruistic movements of our time. Members of these programs learn through experience that the result of working a program is a conscious unity, that they no longer feel alone in the world with all of their problems. Members go out of their way with enthusiasm to help the newcomer and do service work because they know that giving of themselves means staying sober, and the rewards come back ten-fold in their lives. They can easily do it “for free and for fun” with no strings attached because their only expectation of an outcome is what always happens, “if I pour in love I will get back love.” This is the great law of the universe, no matter who you are or what problems you have. And if organizers and facilitators can use the 12 step model to nurture conscious unity within their small groups (to start), perhaps these trained activists will take action out in the world for free and for fun, with no strings attached. The certain outcome will be love, and this will be enough.

  2. Anonymous
    08/06/2014 at 12:44 pm

    This analysis and overview of AA and its associated organization and culture rings to true to me and my experience in the rooms. As a recovering alcoholic and someone who works in the progressive political sphere, I appreciate Justin’s insights and his keen perception of the nuances of both worlds. For example, when discussing how the process of AA works he correctly highlights a weakness of many in the political left to properly plan out and make sure a process works before rolling it out on a large scale. His anecdotes are personal and of appropriate tone. I particularly appreciate the coffee theme with mention of a coffee pot being necessary to start an AA group and the blue mug synagogue story.

  3. Teo
    08/06/2014 at 11:16 pm

    This rings true for me as well as someone in recovery and immersed in sustainable activism. The piece I would add that is fundamental to 12 step programs, but often missing in activist circles is centering the needs and the agency with those most impacted. 12 step programs are lead by and in service of those struggling with addiction. What would our activism look like if that was how we approached it?

  4. 08/07/2014 at 12:48 am

    Interesting premise for a post. Thought this Atlantic and Salon articles would be relevant.

    Not sure AA is the best model for progressive campaign organisations to look at.


    • Justin Ruben
      08/07/2014 at 5:20 pm

      I’m far from an expert, but from what I can tell — yes, there’s legitimate debate about 12-Step as an approach to treating addiction. (I have friends who swear it’s saved their lives, but I’ve never even been in a program, so I feel uniquely unqualified to judge). What I was focused on in the article is on 12-Step **as an organizing model.** I think there are things we can learn as organizers from how it works as a widespread, distributed, decentralized small group network doing transformation at scale with millions of participants — whether or not we think it’s the best treatment modality.

  5. 08/07/2014 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you, Justin, for such a thought provoking analysis of 12-step. I am particularly challenged by the aspect of deep, personal need that AA members come to the group from.

    The most analogous model I have seen is the small group models in evangelical churches, which don’t just address spiritual needs, but can also dig into marital issues, financial problems, addiction, parenting, and other fundamentals.

    Evangelical churches, like AA, have a model for replication and growth. But even the churches don’t quite seem to tap the same consistent level of acute need that AA does: basically everyone at AA has hit rock bottom and turned to AA in that process.

    I’m not sure that we can tap into that level of need for progressive organizing, but I have hopes that we can create scalable small group models for organizing around other needs: parenting, book clubs, career coaching, etc. And the AA model pushes us to think about how deep we can go with these groups.

  6. 08/11/2014 at 12:01 pm

    Wrote a piece akin to this last year about the international aid industry: Letting go is a big part of what social change advocates must learn to do, over and over again.

  7. Anonymous
    08/11/2014 at 8:39 pm

    There are 12 “particular innovations” and lessons from the Twelve-Step Movement that should be directly adapted to our work as social change organizers not just 6. Unfortunately, it is not possible to apply half-measures and get full results. You can’t pick the results that will show up.

    The full article mentions the traditions but it shorts the evolution and contribution of those traditions to all the similar self-help networks. It is not the “12 steps” that make the networks functional but “The 12 traditions of AA” that are essential to the success. The traditions were quickly developed because the organizing was falling apart and well drunks can be real crazy even when we don’t drink.

    My experience suggests that “traditions” are the best place to look for the lessons for organizers. The steps would be a better guide for the lessons for “network leadership”.

    Traditions are here (

    In reading the traditions, it is easy to understand why many organizers and organizations simply can not make the leap needed to reap the benefits of the model. A unquestioning reliance on the common welfare, setting self evaluated “desire” as the personal bar of membership, following leaders that do not govern, a focus on avoiding “money, property and prestige as distractions from purpose”, a commitment to forever nonprofessional, and a iron-clad public relations strategy based on attraction rather than promotion.

    The seeds of much of social change failure we lament are rooted out by the traditions of the 12 step programs. Surprisingly, the very problems the traditions are focused on avoiding are encoded in the DNA of the modern advocacy nonprofit organizations focused on leadership, differentiation, self-promotion and money(fundraising) in order to create change.

    Finally, I am a bit uncomfortable teasing apart many of the 12 step programs from social change organizing. The programs actually are deep engagement and social change networks. The people in these networks get very engaged in every level of change from personal, community, to state and national policy. The programs inspire drastic changes in behavior. Leaderfull groups call on each other to change in order to save themselves and each others families. These networks engage and inspire empathy, forgiveness, responsibility, works and action. They do so off the radar of organizers radar and usual evaluation metrics. But make no mistake, the rooms are as potent an organizing space as ever created.

    The organizing work within the networks efforts are always people to people driven and anonymity prevents sharing the success.

    In order to apply some of the 12 innovations to other organizing contexts, we need to look at the reality that those practices create in a movement. The traditions create trust among the participants, but not too much trust as anonymity prevents celebrity. The traditions sustain the network, establish a protocol for connecting to the network. The traditions define the communications grid, demand service to others and inspire creation of shared resources to support a universal vision.

    Some movements will never be able to cross the chasm to distributed organizing. They might not need to. However, more movements can benefit from adapting reinforcing practices, traditions and rituals that celebrate trust building peer to peer work, service leadership, open participation, clear engagement protocols and a deep faith in people as the tools and solution to the problem the movement is struggling to address.

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