The Other Side of Service: When Giving Back Becomes Exploitation

By Olivia Pennelle 11/05/19

Being of service means sharing our story of recovery to someone who is struggling or taking a newcomer to their first meeting, not taking away someone's ability to support themselves.

Young woman sitting in front of laptop bites a pencil in frustration.
Asking someone to work for free isn’t service — it’s exploitation.  Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

The greatest travesty in our field is exploiting people with lived experience for free labor. Peers and other recovery support specialists should be paid a fair, living wage. -Robert Ashford

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to provide some kind of service — giving a talk, organizing an event, facilitating a panel discussion, attending and supporting a conference, writing a blog, or reviewing a website — for no pay, under the guise of giving back to the recovery community. 

There is this notion within the community that because we found recovery, we should show our gratitude by giving back. This thought process originates from 12-step fellowships — specifically Step 12: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” 

Exploitation Presented as Service

The literature goes further to suggest that our recovery is incumbent upon that giving: “The joy of living is the theme of A.A.’s Twelfth Step, and action is its key word. Here we turn outward toward our fellow alcoholics who are still in distress. Here we experience the kind of giving that asks no rewards. Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety. When the Twelfth Step is seen in its full implication, it is really talking about the kind of love that has no price tag on it.”

But asking someone to work in the recovery space for free isn’t service — it’s exploitation. 

That statement sounds harsh, but I’ve found it to be true. And I learned the hard way. I found my recovery in a 12-step fellowship, and I dutifully gave back in abundance: I had several service positions at two to three meetings for the majority of my first five years. I’ve held literature, chair, secretary, treasury, and coffee/tea person positions. I have sponsored. I have learned that when you give, you also commit to regular attendance and are there to help newcomers. 

While I don’t dispute that service helps others and is helpful for continued recovery, there comes a point where it can have a detrimental and potentially harmful impact. 

I found that people began to take advantage of the commitment I made to show up. They did not arrive to perform their own duties, leaving me to do their jobs. Sometimes the coffee person showed up at the start time of the meeting rather than earlier as planned. A literature person would only show up halfway through the meeting, or not at all, and treasurers would show up at the end of the meeting. So I had to set up the room, unpack and set out the literature, make tea and coffee, buy milk, welcome the newcomers, and start the meeting. This was a regular occurrence, and I thought it was my duty to put up and shut up. I did this for many years, until I got fed up and realized that I wasn’t there to carry other people: I was there to support my recovery. 

When I left AA I felt a tremendous relief. There was a lot about the program and fellowship that didn't work for me. I was able to leave and find a pathway that was better suited to my needs. In doing so, I realized a number of truths, one of which is that my recovery isn’t incumbent upon what I give away for free. My emotional sobriety and sustained recovery depend on my continued development — in therapy, and through various other means of self-development and care. 

The problem of service is not isolated to the rooms of 12-step meetings. It is an issue that is prevalent in the recovery community at large: there is an assumption that if you inhabit the recovery space within any capacity, you can rightfully ask someone to provide a service for free. I’m not talking about sharing at a meeting, hospital, or other institution, I’m talking about the request to provide professional help for free in the name of service. 

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked to write for free, to attend a conference and speak (and to pay for the ticket to the conference as well as all other travel expenses), to interview someone on my website or promote someone's product or service, and to provide my online content expertise by reviewing business websites. All with no compensation offered. On the contrary, I was expected to provide these services for free, and the underlying presumption was that I should feel grateful to do it.

I learned the hard way that while I want to help out anyone who is trying to pursue their dreams, I cannot do that at the expense of my well-being. I burned myself out by saying yes all the time. I also kept my earnings in a low-income bracket because I was afraid to say no. How would that reflect on me and my recovery? I was terrified that someone would think I wasn’t willing to help another person in recovery, or that I wasn’t grateful for what I had been freely given to me. 

But here is the important difference: I wasn’t being asked to give back the hand of recovery; I was being asked to perform a specialized professional service — using the experience that I have gained by working incredibly hard (mostly seven days a week for several years) — for free. The irony is that these requests typically come from organizations and employees who are paid. An event, for example, generates income and typically has sponsors. Many of the attendees at these events work for organizations in a paid position and are given the luxury of attending during work time or are sponsored or paid to attend. These employees also have benefits: health and dental insurance, as well as paid leave. 

What makes this particularly hard to digest is that many of these grassroots organizations are advocating for the better treatment of people in recovery and with substance use disorder, but they are unwilling to instill those values by paying the people who work to further their cause. 

Placing Value on Expertise

I am a full-time freelance writer and content strategist. The only way I pay my bills, and the exorbitant fees of running a business, is by getting paid for the work that I do. And often this involves having to negotiate fair pay from highly profitable businesses within the recovery industry — where executives earn six figures — because they do not value or understand what goes into being a writer. I haven’t had a vacation since I have been self-employed, and I pay for my own insurance.

Apart from the role recovery culture plays in the idea of labor as service, I think the expectation of free labor also comes down to a lack of knowledge, value, and respect for the role of writers and what we do. 

Writers don’t just sit down and the words flow onto a screen in 20 minutes. We spend hours, days, and weeks formulating content. We put in the emotional labor of transforming our emotions and experiences into words that others can relate to. We spend months — years even — developing relationships with researchers and other stakeholders within the community to provide reliable sources of information. We do research in order to gain different perspectives. And then we go back to the work and rewrite it, again and again. It is beyond a full-time job. The same goes for speaking: it takes time and energy to prepare and deliver a speech. I could write an entire essay on how long it takes to develop regular business, too. Work doesn’t just fall into our laps. 

So if you work within the recovery industry, before asking someone in your community to do something for free, ask yourself whether you would do it for free if you didn’t have any other source of income. Ask yourself if you would ask any other professional to do that for free. When you ask someone to attend and participate in your event for free, ask yourself if you are taking away that person’s opportunity to pay their bills by working for someone willing to pay them and show respect and value for their work. 

The True Meaning of Service

I think it’s time that we revisit the true meaning of service: sharing our story of recovery to someone who is struggling. That means sharing at a meeting, or taking a newcomer to their first meeting. It doesn’t mean taking away someone's ability to support themselves.

That said, I am still here because some organizations do value my work. Others take note of my boundary that I won’t work for free and change their perspective. Then there are some community organizations that are already leading the way, like the Alano Club of Portland. Executive Director Brent Canode says, “As a recovery community organization, we feel a moral obligation to pay our dedicated staff fair and competitive wages for the important work they do to support recovery in our community. Our industry has a checkered past when it comes to labor standards and capitalizing on the free service of recovering men and women who naturally want to help others. We must always strive to set the bar high when it comes to valuing our recovery workforce because who else is going to if we won't?"

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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including, Workit Health, Ravishly, Recovery Campus, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE. Find Liv on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Liv also co-hosts a podcast — Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Listen here.