Unexpected ways to help farmed animals – an interview with Joey Savoie of Charity Entrepreneurship

Charity Entrepreneurship is a research and training program aimed at creating multiple high impact charities with a different focus area each year. They are part of Charity Science Foundation of Canada. In 2018-2019, their research is focused on animal welfare. ​Their mission is to increase the number of effective charities in the world. Recently, Charity Entrepreneurship published the “Top Charity Ideas 2019” – a list of recommended charities based on months of their research, with six charities focusing on animal advocacy they want to help start through their incubation program (if you’re looking for an entrepreneurial career for animals you can apply for the program until May 15th 2019). I had an interview with Charity Entrepreneurship’s director – Joey Savoie, who has founded several charities and is now working to make it easier for others to start new high impact organizations.

Vegan Strategist: Joey, there are over one million nonprofits and hundreds of charities in the world. Why would founding new organizations be a good way to make a difference?
Joey Savoie: The two biggest factors that are easy to forget when considering the number of nonprofits are 1. the scale of the problems that we face and 2. the relatively small size of most nonprofits. Regarding the first, there are, for instance, over one million doctors in the US and several times that worldwide, and yet there are still great problems with pain and disease. The problems of the world, from global health to animal issues to economic challenges, are huge, and many of them get virtually no attention despite their importance.
And then there is the second factor: almost all charities are really small. In the UK, for example, 39% of charities raised less than £10,000 over a year, and another 34% raised between £10,000 and £100,000. This means that 73% of charities are raising less money than the cost of hiring a single doctor. The ratios are similar across most countries. When you consider both the size of the problems and the relatively small current reach of charities, there are still plenty of areas where starting a high impact organization could make a significant difference.

Many people seem to start a charity in an area that they are personally connected to. Is that the best idea?
I can see several issues with that. For one, the most important causes might not affect the people who are in a position to start a nonprofit. Examples include helping those who cannot help themselves, such as animals. There are also problems that are not as visible to those who have the resources to start a charity but still affect many beings, such as factory farming compared to companion animal welfare.
Many people would agree that when we make an important decision, like buying a house, it is good to carefully look at data as part of the process. Similarly, for such a big question as which charity to start, it is important to consider the numbers, and not only what has personally affected the founder. Some people I know have saved a great number of animals, but are not “animal people” themselves, and did not grow up with them as kids. They just looked at the conditions some animals are kept in and considered the numbers of victims, realizing it was an impactful way to help the world, regardless of their personal background. This idea holds true for more than just starting charities; it can also help you pick which animal to focus on helping, or which area to get a job in.

So which animals are most important to focus on? All animals seem important to help.
Sadly, many animals do need assistance, but we don’t have the resources to help them all, and so we need to prioritize. Although all animals deserve a suffering-free life, some animals are currently more neglected or mistreated, so you can help prevent more hardship if you focus on them.
Partially because they are out of sight, farm animals receive much less money and attention compared to other animals. And then among farm animals, some of them receive less attention than others, and some have substantially worse lives. Factory farmed birds and fish generally have the lowest life quality. When we considered a number of factors, including current focuses and which animals have the hardest lives, we ended up determining that fish look like the most important animal group for activists to focus on.

Joey giving a talk at the ProVeg incubator in Berlin

So given a focus on chickens and fish, what are the top ideas for new animal charities?
The interventions we published on our Top Charity Ideas list might still change, but based on the research we have conducted so far, we have concluded that the most promising ideas include:

  • Campaigning corporations to improve fish water quality – particularly the oxygen levels in the water that fish need to breathe effectively.
  • Institutional ask research – researching and comparing possible institutional changes, used later as asks during corporate and government-focused campaigns
  • Feed fortification of egg-laying hens – reducing the suffering of hens through campaigning for feed fortification with an optimal dosage of phosphorus, calcium, and ​vitamin D3
  • Increasing the follow-through rate of cage-free pledges – increasing the odds of a smooth global transition to cage-free laying hen farming through working with producers and targeted financial institutions
  • Animal advocacy career experiments – systematic investigation into the best strategies for getting key positions filled at top animal organizations
  • Animal research coordination and systemization – cross-organizational planning and systematic consideration of research priorities

How do you know these are the best new animal charities to start? It’s a pretty big area to narrow down to just six ideas. Some of these interventions are not common in the animal space currently (food fortification, dissolved oxygen, careers support)
An idea being uncommon or unheard of may be a good sign. Some ideas are promising but are just not at the top of animal activists’ minds. For example, both lack of food fortification and suboptimal oxygen levels cause a lot of suffering in animals, but they are also much less visible than, say, gestation crates. But just because something is more visible, it does not mean it is more important. Narrowing down was challenging, and it’s likely that there are other really high impact ideas out there that we have not researched or found yet. However, when compared to most charity ideas, our suggestions are well backed up by research. Most individuals in the animal movement who might consider founding a charity will not have a full year to consider options or a full-time research team to look into them deeply. These ideas are not the only promising ideas but, rather, some good bets on how to have the biggest impact on animals.

There are now six ideas on your top charity list that concern animal advocacy, and two of them focus solely on research. Can you explain how their effort will translate to decreasing animal suffering?
Research is a tricky area. It’s very important, but it’s also very easy to do research that doesn’t have much of an impact. Broadly, research is helpful in making better decisions, say, when a large animal nonprofit is about to launch a large scale corporate and governmental campaign on a specific issue. Often, we are talking about millions of dollars and years of work spent on these campaigns, so it’s really important that we are working on the right issue. Imagine a campaign on making fish conditions better, which would, by the way, be a very important goal given how rough factory farmed fish’ lives currently are. A question that comes up is what to work on specifically, whether it’s the density at which the fish are kept, or the way they are slaughtered, or the quality of the water they have to live in. To answer these kinds of questions, we need to do careful research, talk to experts, and get a deep sense of what would help fish the most. Research can often lead to surprising results. For example, fish tend to group closer than many other animals and thus are not nearly as bothered by density as they would be by poor water quality. Therefore, if a large scale campaign was run on fish stocking density, the fish would be helped far less than if we had spent the same money and time on improving water quality. If someone did one single year of research, they could make sure that large scale efforts are targeted at the best possible areas. So you can see how this small piece of research could massively help many animals.

What are the likeliest ways animal research efforts could fail to have an impact?
The key question every researcher or research-focused charity needs to ask is: “how does this end up affecting animals in a positive way?”. If your answer is unclear or pretty nebulous like “it will inform people and thus change people’s attitudes” you really want to make sure that that is really happening. For example, you might want to survey the sort of people who you would expect might change their attitudes, and make sure that your results would really change them as much as you think it might.

What does it mean if something is not recommended? For example, there are no recommendations of plant-based alternatives.
There can be multiple reasons for this. An area could be really effective, but just not the right fit for a new charity given the ones already in the field. An area could be promising but needs more research before we can be sure of its impact. Some areas looked interesting, but our research team simply did not have enough time to research deeply. With plant-based alternatives, a couple of these factors come into play. For one, there is a lot of interest in this from the private sector (for-profit). There are quite a few incubators specifically for these organizations that seem like they would be better placed than Charity Entrepreneurship to help new organizations in that specific area.

How does this research apply to existing animal organizations, or where one should fund?
Our research is really targeted at new charities that should be founded, so it could be quite tricky to draw lessons for funding existing charities. For example, if there was one superb charity working in a specific area, that might be a great reason for funding that charity, but a reason against starting another charity in that area. I think more lessons can be drawn for current organizations in deciding what they want to work on, but it does depend a lot on the detail. We do hope to release specific writeups of advice based on our research both for funders and for organizations, but would caution people not to generalize from our research until then.

Are you concerned, as many people within the animals rights movement are, that welfare reforms may hinder progress towards abolition (e.g. by creating a sense of complacency among people when a sufficient level of welfare is reached)?
This is an area I would love to see some more concrete research on. I think that right now people just have very different intuitions on the topic without a lot of data. The data I have seen from other charitable areas such as tobacco taxation would suggest that complacency is generally not a big concern. Taking a step in the right direction tends to spread awareness of the area and reduces cognitive dissonance. Another piece of evidence is that despite the fact that many welfare reforms have passed over time, most surveys find that people are more concerned about animal issues now than ever before in history, which would be opposite of what you might expect to see if welfarism created complacency.

You focus on helping people start new charities, but could some of these ideas not be picked up by existing charities?
I think for some ideas this is definitely possible, and many of them will likely be done in collaboration with many organizations both new and more established. For instance, the work that has been done on cage-free campaigns would have been very hard to do by only a single new charity. Success will generally require a number of organizations and funders to get on board with an idea.

Starting a charity seems like a tough thing to do. How does the CE incubation program help new or would-be founders?
Our incubation program is designed to take a person from a basic familiarity with starting charities to being fully prepared to found and run an organization. The program is an equivalent to a full course at a university in terms of workload. It will run for 2 months from June 17th to August 16th 2019 and the deadline for applications is May 15 2019. Among topics covered are quantitative decision making, cost-effectiveness analysis, fundraising, grant writing, research interpretation, basic statistics or budgeting, and strategic planning. Broadly we are aiming to teach every skill a person would need to run a really great charity.
For those who decide to start one of our incubated charities, there are many optional benefits after the program finishes. They aim to ease the transition into becoming a fully independent charity entrepreneur and will include: $50,000 seed fund grants, help in fundraising, ongoing mentorship, free co-working office space for one year in London, legal incubation and access to network of experienced founders and experts. You can apply for the program on Charity Entrepreneurship website and read more on what to expect from the program on our blog. Our program is likely more extensive in terms of help than most incubators and more focused (e.g. this year we’ll be focusing on animal and global health charities and, more specifically, our top recommended ideas).

Useful sources:
1) Top Charity Ideas 2019
2) From humans in Canada to battery caged chickens in the United States, which animals have the hardest lives: results
3) Which animals need the most help from animal advocacy movement
4) List of all CE research publications and reports

When activists mean business. An interview with David Benzaquen

David Benzaquen

David BenzaquenMost of us who want to help animals usually end up doing some kind of advocacy or outreach, either individually or volunteering or working for a non-profit organization. However, as I have touched on in other posts and in this talk, we should not underestimate the importance of the for-profit sector: the companies producing and distributing the alternatives. Some of us in the movement have understood this well, and started their own production company (Josh Tetrick at Hampton Creek is a striking example). Other activists, like David Benzaquen, did something different. In 2012, David, who’s living in New York, started a consulting company called PlantBased solutions, which helps clients like Gardein, Miyoko’s Kitchen, or Ocean Hugger Foods, with marketing, branding, fundraising, and more.
I interviewed him…

Vegan Strategist: David, you weren’t always running a business. Why did you switch from a non-profit to a for-profit environment?
David Benzaquen: I originally worked in fundraising and advocacy for various animal protection groups, such as Farm Sanctuary. My motivation to start my business was to advance ethical, plant-based eating through new means. When I worked in the nonprofit world, I saw that most of our movement was using a limited set of tools to encourage positive behavior change. I greatly admire this work to educate people about the benefits of changing their diets, but I didn’t feel that replicating everyone else’s strategy was the most effective use of my time.

What helped you come to that realization?
My exploration of using business (and marketing, in particular) was motivated by two things. First, I was exposed to the field of Effective Altruism, where people attempt to measure the social impact of their choices and careers and make rational choices about where they can do the most good. Second, I attended a talk by a man named Jeff Dunn, who greatly inspired me. Mr. Dunn was once the CEO of Coca-Cola, but after having an epiphany that he could not continue promoting a harmful product he once called “sugar water and fairy dust”, he left the company. He then became CEO of Bolthouse Farms, and created something of a stir in the marketing world by branding carrots the same way we traditionally see done for junk foods like chips and soda. I was so inspired by how he used fun and engaging marketing to make carrots “cool” that I realized I wanted to do the same thing for vegan food!

How do you feel about the impact you’re generating today?
Most of the work that our movement is doing to advance plant-based/vegan living is through what we call a “push” method of marketing. That is, we show the consumer what’s wrong with the status quo and try to convince them to change their lifestyle accordingly. While some people may embrace change this way, most will be reticent to abandon what they’re used to and will feel overwhelmed by the threat our ideologies pose to their view of the world. In the work that we do now, rather than trying to convince someone that the world is bad or that they need to change who they are, we just show how delicious, beautiful, and healthy vegan products are and “pull”, or attract, the consumers to try them. Rather than pointing out the problems, we are offering the solutions and making them desirable and non-threatening. These approaches are incredibly impactful because many people who would otherwise shut down become open to incorporating more vegan products into their lives. They willingly overcome barriers and eliminate assumptions about how difficult or unpleasant living a compassionate lifestyle can be.

How’s business?
Business is amazing! I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I always used to think of business as a “4-letter word”. But regardless of what one thinks of how money and corporate power can be used for bad, the reality is every person needs to buy food and other items to survive. If we don’t engage in the marketplace of goods and work to make vegan products that can compete with the less ethical/sustainable/healthy animal versions, we will never succeed. And, the market is booming! When I started this company, nobody thought that vegan food could be big business. In the last few years, the richest people on earth, from Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing to Peter Thiel and Jerry Yang, have all invested in vegan food companies because they recognize that our reliance on animal protein is just not sustainable. We are honored to be working and growing with so many other compassionate business luminaries. As of the end of 2016, our company has worked with vegan businesses in nearly ten countries, and the list keeps growing as our movement spreads globally.

Can you tell us about some of the main challenges that companies are dealing with, and how a company like yours is able to help overcome those challenges?
The food business is an extraordinarily complex industry. First, operationally, one must grow or manufacture products in one place, process them, store them, and distribute them far and wide, often using strict temperature controls. These practices are very expensive and have high risks for failure (poor weather can lead to low crop yields, electricity challenges can lead to loss of cooling and spoilage, etc.). Second, because there are so many different foods and brands that can meet consumers’ desires to address their hunger or seek gustatory pleasure, companies must devote considerable resources to marketing and sales to ensure that their products break through the clutter and get onto consumers’ plates.
With PlantBased Solutions, we’re able to help companies in several key ways. First, because we are focused on the plant-based space and have worked with many of the world’s leading vegan brands, we know the competitive landscape for our clients better than anyone, and we are able to help market their products in a differentiated and effective way. Second, we have performed a significant amount of proprietary research on the consumers eating plant-based products, both the vegan/vegetarian community, and even more importantly, the flexitarians who are moving in that direction and whom we most need to influence. This allows us to plan our clients’ messaging, branding, and targeted marketing in the most effective way to motivate these consumers to find and buy the products.

To what extent does your animal rights background and motivation shine through when you help marketing products?
We are entirely committed to advancing plant-based products that align with our values, but we do not market them based on these values. We know that the vast majority of consumers buy food not based on mission, but based on taste, price, and convenience. Rather than trying to convince them to buy our clients’ brands for the reasons we would, we show them how tasty, affordable, and convenient (both to find and use) these products are.

Still, our work ethic and passion for our clients and their products obviously goes far beyond a marketing or consulting team that is motivated only by their paychecks. We believe that helping our clients sell lots of products means displacing a lot of harm in the world, from cruelty to animals and environmental destruction, to heart attacks and cancer. We are on a mission to help our clients succeed because we know that lives depend on it. We are proud to do this work, and this passion comes out in the time and devotion we give each client and in the thought and care we put in to what we do.

If companies are so important, what can individual activists do to help them succeed?
The most important thing you, as an individual activist, can do to help plant-based/vegan businesses succeed is to vote with your dollars and your forks! Every time you buy a plant-based product at a grocery store or order one of these items off a menu, you are directing money away from companies that do harm and towards those that will use the resources to build a more compassionate world. In addition, we are building a new compassionate economy from the ground up, and it takes a lot of people to support that infrastructure. No matter what your individual skills are, I can guarantee there are ways you can apply them to a career in vegan business.

More info:
Or listen to this podcast with David at the Plant-based entrepreneur