Science of Sponsorship Update


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Investigations into the effects of participation in 12-Step mutual aid groups on long-term recovery outcomes have grown in number and methodological rigor and have evolved from the question of whether such participation exerts positive effects to the question of the precise mechanisms through which such effects are achieved.

One of the 12-Step mechanisms of change that has been studied in the past decade is sponsorship. In November 2015, I posted a blog outlining the following 10 conclusions drawn from studies of sponsorship.

  1. The functions performed by 12-Step fellowship sponsors fall into three broad categories: 1) encouraging participation in core 12-Step activities, 2) providing emotional support and practical recovery guidance, and 3) sharing the sponsor's story and lived recovery experience with the sponsee (Whelan, et al., 2009).
  2. Continuous sobriety increases in tandem with duration of sponsorship (Rynes & Tonigan, 2012; Young, 2013).
  3. Factor analysis of assertive models of linkage to 12-Step programs (e.g., MAAEZ) reveal that sponsorship contributes approximately 25% of the positive effects of these models on drinking outcomes (Subbaraman, Kaskutas, & Zemore, 2011).
  4. The positive effects of sponsorship occur independent of degree of meeting attendance (Witbrodt, et al., 2012).
  5. The rate of sponsorship in A.A. is quite high--82% of members report having a sponsor, as it is in N.A--88.6% report having a sponsor (Galanter, et al., 2013). Currently unsponsored A.A. members are more likely to be older A.A. members with prior sponsor relationships rather than new members who have chosen not to use a sponsor (Young, 2013).
  6. The greatest measurable benefits of sponsorship occur early. In terms of recovery initiation and stabilization, the greatest effects of being sponsored occur in the first year of the sponsorship relationship (Tonigan & Rice, 2010). Half of individuals who reduced sponsorship contact over a seven-year follow-up period maintained complete abstinence (Witbrodt, et al., 2012).
  7. The effects of sponsorship on recovery outcomes vary by sponsor and sponsor-sponsee relationship characteristics?a quality that can be measured via the Sponsor Alliance Inventory with improved sponsor-sponsee alliance associated with enhanced short-term abstinence outcomes (Kelly, et al., 2015).
  8. Surveyed sponsees report trustworthiness, discretion (respecting confidentiality), and integrity as the most important sponsor characteristics (Stevens, 2013).
  9. In a rare study of former injection drug users, having an AA/NA sponsor did not predict improved recovery outcomes, but sponsoring others produced substantially increased odds of abstinence compared to those who were not involved in sponsoring others (Crape, et al., 2002). The study findings by Crape and colleagues are consistent with other studies reporting exceptionally high abstinence rates among those serving as sponsors in A.A. (e.g., 91% abstinent rate in the 10-year follow-up study by Cross and colleagues (1990) and recent studies documenting the power of helping others in enhancing one's own long-term recovery stability and quality of life in recovery (See Zemore, et al., 2004, 2008, 2013)
  10. Sponsored members of 12-Step fellowships are more likely than those without sponsors to participate in other activities that have been linked to enhanced recovery outcomes, e.g., meeting attendance, home group affiliation, step work, service work, etc. (Young, 2013; Pagano, et al., 2009; Morgenstern, et al., 1996).

A new study of sponsorship conducted by Dennis Wendt and colleagues was recently published in the Journal of Study of Alcohol and Drugs. This multisite, randomized clinical trial examined the effects of 12-Step sponsorship on post-treatment substance use outcomes of people treated for a stimulant use disorder. The investigators drew two primary conclusions from the study data: 1) sponsorship at the end of treatment predicted a higher likelihood of abstinence from stimulant use and having no drug-related problems at follow-up, and 2) sponsorship rates can be improved for those seeking treatment from stimulant use disorders through a short-term TSF intervention (Wendt, et al., 2017, p. 287).

Collectively, these studies confirm the value of peer-based mentor relationships within the recovery process and also underscore the value of helping others in enhancing one's own recovery process. These findings underscore a message that I have tried to convey through much of my advocacy work: Recovery is contagious. Get close to it. Stay close to it. Catch it. Keep catching it. Pass it on.

References and Suggested Reading

Brown, R. E. (1995). The role of sponsorship in the recovery or relapse processes of drug dependency. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 13(1), 69-80. doi: 10.1300/j020v13n01_06

Crape, B. L., Latkin, C. A., Laris, A. S., & Knowlton, A. R. (2002). The effects of sponsorship in 12-Step treatment of injection drug users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 65, 291-301.

Cross, G. M., Morgan, C. W., Mooney, A. J., Martin, C. A., & Rafter, J.A. (1990). Alcoholism treatment:A ten-year follow-up study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 14, 169-173.

Galanter, M., Dermatis, H., Post, S., & Santucci, C. (2013). Abstinence from drugs of abuse in community-based members of Narcotics Anonymous. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 74(2), 349-352.

Gomes, K., & Hart, K. E. (2009). Adherence to recovery practices prescribed by Alcoholics Anonymous: Benefits to sustained abstinence and subjective quality of life. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 27(2), 223-235. doi: 10.1080/07347320902784874

Kelly, J. F., Greene, M. C., Bergman, B., Hoeppner, B. B., & Slaymaker, V. (2015). The sponsor alliance inventory:Assessing the therapeutic bond between 12-step attendees and their sponsors. Alcohol and Alcoholism, (advanced publication, 1-8, doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agv071.

Moos, R. H. (2008). Active ingredients of substance use-focused self-help groups. Addiction, 103(3), 387-396. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2007.02111.x

Morgenstern, J., Kahler, C. W., Frey, R. M., & Labouvie, E. (1996). Modeling therapeutic response to 12-step treatment: Optimal responders, nonresponders, partial responders. Journal of Substance Abuse, 8(1), 45-59. doi:10.1016/S0899-3289(96)90079-6

Pagano, M. E., Zemore, S. E., Onder, C. C., & Stout, R. L. (2009). Predictors of initial AA-related helping: Findings from project MATCH. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 70(1), 117-125.

Polcin, D. L., & Zemore, S. (2004). Psychiatric severity and spirituality, helping, and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous during recovery. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 30(3), 577-592. doi: 10.1081/ada-200032297

Rynes, K. N., & Tonigan, J. S. (2011). Do social networks explain 12-step sponsorship effectsA prospective lagged mediation analysis. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 432-439 doi: 10.1037/a0025377

Stevens, E. B., & Jason, L. A. (2015). Evaluating Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor attributes using conjoint analysis. Addictive Behaviors, 51, 12-17.

Subbaraman, M. S., Kaskutas, L. A., & Zemore, S. (2011). Sponsorship and service as mediators of the effects of Making Alcoholics Anonymous Easier (MAAEZ), a 12-step facilitation intervention. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 116(1-3), 117-124. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.12.008

Stevens, E. (2013). An exploratory investigation of the Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor: Qualities, characteristics, and their perceived importance. (2013). College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations. Paper 49. Retrieved from

Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an alcoholics anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397-403. doi: 10.1037/a0019013

Wendt, D. C., Hallfren, K. A., Daley, D. C. & Donovan, D. M. (2017). Predictors and outcomes of Twelve-Step sponsorship of stimulant users: Secondary analysis of a multisite randomized clinical trial. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 78, 287-295.

Whelan, P. J. P., Marshall, E. J., Ball, D. M., & Humphreys, K. (2009). The role of AA sponsors: A pilot study. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 44(4), 416-422. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agp014

Witbrodt, J., Kaskutas, L., Bond, J., & Delucchi, K. (2012). Does sponsorship improve outcomes above Alcoholics Anonymous attendanceA latent class growth curve analysis. Addiction, 107(2), 301-311. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03570.x

Young, L. B. (2012). Alcoholics Anonymous sponsorship: Characteristics of sponsored and sponsoring members. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 30(1), 52-66. doi: 10.1080/07347324.2012.635553

Young, L. B. (2013). Characteristics and practices of sponsored members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 8, 149-164.

?Zemore, S. E., Kaskutas, L. A., & Ammon, L. N. (2004). In 12-step groups, helping helps the helper. Addiction, 99(8), 1015-1023. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2004.00782.x

Zemore, S. E., & Kaskutas, L. A. (2008). 12-Step involvement and peer helping in day hospital and residential programs. Substance Use & Misuse, 43(12/13), 1882-1903.

Zemore, S., Subbaraman, M., & Tonigan, S. (2013). Involvement in 12-step activities and treatment outcomes, Substance Abuse, 34, 1, 60-69.