Want to make the world a better place? You may want to rethink your relationship with money.

money and a heart

Did you, like me, grow up thinking that money doesn’t make you happy and that there are much more important things in life? Were you raised with the idea that money is dirty, and something to avoid? That striving for it might make you a bad person? The result of such an upbringing – and way of thinking – may be that you are a nice and caring person, with less money than you could have had. And, that’s a pity, because you could have used that money to do good.
money and a heart

Money: holy grail, or 
I’ve come to realize that it’s not just greedy people that may have a problematic relationship with money, but also people who I will call “do-gooders” (with all due respect, and for want of a better word).
While the greedy people may live with the idea that money is the most wonderful thing in the world and want as much of it as they can get, the do-gooders will often avoid it as much as they can, believing it is a bad thing. They will see being rich as a vice and being relatively poor as a virtue (I know, this dichotomy of greedy bastards versus do-gooders is a bit too simplistic, but let’s keep it for the sake of the argument).

You might be missing out
At this point you may already be pulling up your nose, slightly disgusted at the fact that on this “non-profit” blog, I’m writing about making – or at least not shunning – money. This almost sounds like the text of a would-be financial guru who is telling you it’s your right to get rich, right? But, you having that feeling would exactly prove my point.

Let me try to put you a bit at ease. First of all, I’m not talking about getting super wealthy here (more about what I mean later). Neither am I talking about making more money for your own sake (though I wouldn’t condemn that). Rather, I suggest that we learn to appreciate the value of money for the good things we can do with it. And no, I don’t believe donations or philanthro-capitalism will solve all the problems in the world, and I do think we need more systemic solutions. I believe there are quite a few problems with how a lot of money is made, the role it has in our society and the way people go after it. And, I believe that unbridled capitalism suffers from a lot of shortcomings.
But, I also believe that more money in the hands of good, caring people is a good thing, and that the do-goodies shouldn’t leave the making of money to the greedy ones.

money - more money in the hands

My career without much money
Because telling people in social movements that they might want to care more about money will, in the eyes of some, unavoidably make me look un-virtuous, let me add that my own twenty-year career as an animal rights advocate has been largely unpaid or for very small financial returns. I had the ability to do that, because my girlfriend owns the house we live in (thanks to her grandparents); so, we don’t have to pay rent, and we rent out part of it through AirBnb, which provides a bit of extra income. The fact, however, that I can do my activism unpaid doesn’t mean that I am against people making money from activism. If one can earn one’s keep doing something good, and, thus, have more time to do it, what would be the problem with that?

20.000 euros down the drain?
Back to where we were. This is what I realized: because I never learned to take an interest in money, I missed out on opportunities to make a difference. My parents are quite ethical people who care about making the world a better place. But, in not teaching me to sufficiently value money and in giving me the impression I should shun it, they may have inadvertently reduced my chances of doing good.

Let me illustrate this more concretely. I remember at one point – about twenty years ago – having about ten thousand euros in my bank account (back then it was in a different currency, but never mind that). Suppose I had had no need to touch that amount since then, and that it had just been sitting in my savings account. The average interest on a savings account in the past twenty years in Belgium has been about two percent. At that rate, after twenty years, that capital would have grown to about 14.500 €. If I had invested the initial 10.000 € in something (stocks or bonds, for instance) that would have offered me a higher interest rate (say a reasonable and realistic seven percent), my capital would have increased to about 36.000 €. That is a difference of more than 20.000 €. And, that’s just on this small initial sum. Note that present day interest is usually less than one percent, while inflation rates are at two percent; so, your money is quickly losing its value in a regular savings account.

compound interest graph
Einstein called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world.

The problem was that I had no financial knowledge at all, and wasn’t motivated or stimulated to learn about it. Einstein famously called compound interest the eighth miracle of the world (check this page to learn a bit more), but I only really realized how it works this year, at age 44. It’s also only now that I realize a lot of the things we think about investing are incorrect clichés, and that when done properly and wisely, investing is not as risky as most people think it is. In fact, one line I read again and again is that we can’t afford not to invest. Maybe I’m particularly late and slow, but there must be many more people – do-gooders especially – like me (my guess is the “money = evil” attitude is more prevalent in Europe than in the US and other parts of the world).

All the good you can do
If today, you are still convinced that money is dirty and evil and you don’t want any of it, your reaction might be: 1. so what? and 2. investing like that is unethical anyway. I’ll respond briefly to these arguments, but I am under no illusion that I will convince the most anti-capitalist among readers. So be it.
Regarding “so what?”: if you think rationally about this for a minute, you know that there is no doubt that money can be used to do good. You could do good with this money in several ways:
– You could donate it to a non-profit.
– You could invest it in a sustainable or compassionate startup.
– You could even live on it yourself for a year or a couple of years (depending where you live), so that you don’t have to have some run of the mill paid job and have more time to volunteer.
– You could start your own project with it.

I think it’s clear that you are better off having this money than not having it. Unless of course, having made that money by investing would somehow be necessarily unethical (which is the second objection). There obviously are many unethical ways to make money. You can uncritically invest in stocks or funds where your money is used for bad things. But, that is not necessarily so, and many banks today offer sustainable investment options. These may not be entirely satisfactory to all of us, but it is possible to find ways to invest that are healthy and sound, or at least neutral. Moreover, apart from increasing your own returns, you also help these companies grow by helping them to raise capital. And, if you want, as a shareholder you can even participate and vote at their annual general meeting and help determine the course of the company.
Some would argue that by participating in the stock market, one is contributing to a system that is fundamentally flawed and problematic. But, then, so is putting your money in a savings account – because that too is a way of investing in and contributing to systems you may fault – and with even less control, at that!
Probably many of us have simplistic ideas about capitalism. This talk by Jonathan Haidt does a good job at illustrating that.

Let’s look at some other objections to making money – all of which I held at some point, or still partly hold.

“Money corrupts. People who are interested in money don’t end up caring about the world.”
I don’t think there is any law of nature that dictates that money corrupts. It may also be that people who are greedy to begin with are the ones to acquire a lot of money, rather than the other way around. In any case, in this post, I’m not at all talking about the ruthless accumulation of wealth through all means possible. I’m simply talking about taking *some* interest in money and investing it in an ethical way, so that we have more means at our disposal to do good.
Also, don’t forget about people who got really rich and because of that are returning a lot of their wealth to society and are investing it, for instance, in the animal rights movement or any other movement. Our movement is actually to a large extent funded by people who made a lot of money (hopefully in the nicest ways possible) and are donating it to a cause they care about.

“Money is irrelevant.”
Some people – often those who are interested in spirituality – would hold that money is not what makes the world go round and that it is actually irrelevant. It’s not about what you have, but what you are, etc. I’d say: try to tell that to poor people. Probably only those who are privileged enough can say things like this (even though there might be some grains of truth in these opinions here and there).

“Money and the role it plays in our society is inherently problematic.”
As long as we’re not enlightened and don’t have the means to freely provide each other with whatever we need, money is a convenient way to exchange goods and services. At the same time, I think it’s a pretty primitive one, and I can imagine societies and worlds in which we’re no longer using it. Too many things are determined by how much money we have, and shouldn’t be. Here’s a simple example: for a person with little money, it is much more difficult to ride a train in first class. Yet, she may have a higher need for it: she may need to focus, have concentration problems, suffer from panic attacks and have more need for quiet, or whatever. The fact that her level of wealth determines how she can travel does not seem optimal at all.

If we want new systems, we’ll need money for that, too. Even if you loathe capitalism and want to throw it over, you’ll probably do it faster if you have money to help create a movement. There is an attempt in my country to create a new kind of bank (a bank of the people). To start it, they need… money. I think a good way to see it is that any new systems we are going to build will partly or largely be built with money from the old systems…

My preliminary conclusions
quote about missing out on opportunities through like of moneyIf I would have children (I don’t and won’t), I would try to teach them that money is not an end in itself, but that as a means to great ends, it can be extremely helpful. I would make sure they don’t grow up thinking that money, and making it, is bad or evil or corrupting. I would try to raise them with a desire to become people with integrity, who also value money for the good they can do with it. I would teach them some financial literacy, and warn them to not under- or over-estimate the risks involved in investing.

Many do-gooders too might want to slightly rethink their relationship with money. It would be good if movements of do-gooders told their members and activists something about the importance of money. If young people start to invest wisely and sustainably at the age of say 22, after graduation, they can build up capital that can make an incredible difference in the world. I haven’t looked at any numbers, and don’t know if any are available, but my suspicion is that many activists, across movements, are people who are not exactly well off. What if we were better off, and had more means to spend on our movement and our own happiness? What if we didn’t leave the making of money to the greedy people only. Money, though often abused, or considered an end, is nothing more than a tool. It’s a tool just like marketing is a tool. We can choose to abstain from using these tools, and leave the using of them in the hands of people who will often be likely to abuse them, or we can wield them ourselves and do some good with it.

PS: want to get more information on investing? The websites are endless, but I found this podcast really good.

Time to donate! (and why animal causes are a great choice)

This is the time of the year when organizations receive the biggest part of their donations from their sympathizers and supporters. It’s the time when we all can help them to further our common goals.

I’ve written before about the importance of money, and the importance of organizations. Campaigning for animals – or for any other cause – can be done at a grassroots or volunteer level, and that’s awesome. But we also need bigger organizations to make a difference. They need to pay their staff; they rely on the work of experts; they need to finance advertisements to get the word out, etc. The more money they have, the better.

Many people are cynical about donating, believing (or often using as an excuse) that their money won’t actually be used for anything good, but will get stuck along the way and just pay overhead, or pay for bloated organizations. There is undoubtedly some loss, and there are inefficient organizations out there, but there also many great ones, where people work their asses off to make a difference, and where the leaders think strategically, in terms of generating as much impact as possible.

Effective Altruism, a young movement and philosophy, is about identifying the best causes, organizations and interventions, and donating to (or volunteering or working for) these. Within the Effective Altruism movement, there are meta-organizations (see below) that do research about who and what works best. The recommendations these meta-organizations come up with are our best leads for making effective, life-changing donations.

Comparing good causes and organizations should not be a taboo. When we buy a computer, we make an investment in something that we expect works. The same goes for our donations: we want to make good investments. Indeed, if there is any domain where we should insist on great return on investment, it’s the domain of decreasing suffering and saving lives.

Here are some criteria that people who identify as “effective altruists” use to choose the causes and organizations they support:

  • when choosing a cause, look at the amount of victims and at the intensity of their suffering. Malaria, for instance, kills more people than rare neurological diseases. And some problems are more horrible than others.
  • look at the need for funding and the added value of your donation. A lot of money was collected for the disease ALS with the incredibly successful Ice Bucket Challenge. Maybe it’s time to donate to something else…
  • give to organizations working for or in poorer countries, where your money can have a lot more impact because costs are lower there.
  • look up the advice from experts who’ve done the research for you. Organizations that recommend charities to give to are Givewell, The Life you Can Save, and – for animal causes – Animal Charity Evaluators.

From an Effective Altruism viewpoint, farmed animals are a great cause to give to. Not only are there a huge number of farmed animals who are suffering immensely, but also this cause is very neglected. Of all the money from US donations, only 1.5 percent goes to animals, and of that tiny bit, only 1 percent goes to farmed animals. So, farmed animals get 0,015% of donations in the US.

Donations in the US (source: Animal Charity Evaluators)

Lastly, when you give, let it be known. We put a lot of stuff on our Facebook walls that may be giving people a laugh, but we’re often shy about sharing our good deeds, because we think that’s not done. But people take their cues for what is good behavior from other people. When they see many people around them who donate, they will be more inclined to donate themselves. Conversely, when they don’t see that behavior, they will think it’s fine not to donate. So, when you donate, tell other people about it, to help normalize giving. To set an example, I yearly give away ten percent of my income, which amounts to 2500 euro. This year, I gave, among others, to Give Directly and The Good Food Institute. I just posted that on Facebook. It’s a bit hard, because you open yourself up to the criticism that you want to show how good you are. But as you understand, it’s not about that.

Maybe you don’t have any money to donate, and you do volunteer work. That’s great. And, maybe you don’t have time, but you do have some money. That’s great too, because with your money, you’re paying for other people to invest time in making the world a better place.

Thanks for whatever you do, and happy holidays!

The fetish of being vegan

The longer I live in the vegan movement, the more I have the impression that most of us have a kind of vegan fetish, believing that eating one hundred percent vegan is more important than anything else, either in life in general, or in animal rights activism. It seems that many vegans, consciously or not, believe something like this:

A vegan can do nothing wrong, 
a non-vegan can do nothing right, 
and a vegan is always better than a non-vegan.

But of course, when you think about it, what you put in your mouth is of relatively minor importance compared to other things. And I’m not talking about children dying of hunger in Africa or whatever – let’s not have that argument. I’m talking about other things within the animal rights/vegan movement. 

First of all, any person can have a big impact on other people surrounding them, with their communication, their behaviour, their example, their cooking. This impact is much more important, because potentially much bigger, than what they eat themselves. Personally, when I believe I will have a bigger impact by making an exception, I will do so (unfortunately, I have limits, and I’m very easily put off and disgusted, so this only goes for microbits of animal foods).


Secondly, there’s not just communication, but there’s also the question what we do with our time, and with our money. Some non-vegans may donate a lot of money to animal rights causes, or may invest a lot of time in them. And of course they may invest time and money in other causes than animal rights. You can fault them for not being vegan if you want, but you have to realize that their impact might be way bigger than yours. 

By all means, be vegan (like I have been for 17 years), but let’s not make a fetish out of our personal consumption, at the cost of our attention to other things that may impact the lives of animals much, much more.

And no, of course it’s not an either/or thing, and we can be vegan consumers while doing all this other great stuff. But in practise, as we all know, a lot of energy – way too much of it – goes to that focus on personal consumption. We worry about micro-ingredients like e-numbers, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. We focus on these things for the sake of “guarding the line”, to protect ourselves and our movement against the great big scary nightmare of “sliding back” and watering down veganism. But that great big scary nightmare is a fiction, and is nothing that should concern us right now. If we ever get people to avoid meat, dairy and eggs (and we will), I’m sure we’ll also be able to outphase e-numbers, honey, and other bits of animal product from our food system.

Let’s focus on what’s really important. Let’s put the biggest part of our energy in where we can reduce the most suffering.

Money money money in our movement

Organisations – especially the bigger ones – often get a lot of criticism from grassroots groups and individual activists, for all kinds of things. One of the accusations these organisations get thrown at them is that they are all about money/fundraising/donations. Organisations are being called corporations or businesses. Francione, for instance, lately seems to make it a sport to point out “big red donate buttons” on all the major organisations’ websites.

big is wonderful
Let me be clear. I believe that organisations should be as transparant as possible about where they get their money and how they spend it. From strategically stupid choices and bad management, to extravagant wages for certain functions or even downright corruption: these are risks in any movement, also in ours. Apart from intentional misconduct, sometimes organisations may become less dynamic after a while and just raise funds to keep existing and keep people on board. Organisations should constantly be aware of this risk, and can use their members and donors. to help them watch out for them.

Corruption and abuse of funds should be called out. Fundraising, however, obviously should not. There is no shame in looking for donations or fundraising. There is no shame in big budgets. There is no shame in being big. On the contrary: if small is beautiful, then in our movement, big is wonderful. 

In most organisations, the biggest part of their bugdet goes to staff costs (salaries). This is normal too. Yes, you can run volunteer-only organisations. But they usually won’t get as big or as impactful as organisations with paid staff (I’m sure some people will try to come up with counterexamples. Bring them on.)

Many people can invest volunteer hours, but once you need full time staff on the job, you pay them a wage. It’s simple. Often an organisation will need to find people with professional backgrounds and expertise. The battle against the ag-gag laws in the US, I assume, cannot be won with volunteers only.

Another criticism (again by our friend Francione) is that organisations will often choose (single issue) campaigns in order to raise funds. Apart from the fact that I’m sure these targets are chosen for other reasons (like strategic ones, or just to alleviate suffering), I think there’s nothing bad with choosing a target or campaign because we know it will raise some funds. If we can raise a lot of money on an antifur campaign (say), that can often provide money or other opportunities to also work on other topics.

What’s the insinuation here anyway? That organisations and their staff are interested in money for money’s sake only? That the people in organisations want big wages, or want to expand their organisations for their own ego? Give me a break. The industry of animal (ab)use has billions of dollars at its disposal. So I hope we’re not going to whine about the few hundred million that our movement has in total? 

It’s strange how suspicious people are of money when the context is the nonprofit sector. It seems that the world is allowed to make a lot of money selling laundry detergents or video games, making movies, but not by doing good. It’s an absurd idea, and it’s very much a pity, actually, that the hardest way of actually making a living is by doing good. Many people want to work the entire time for animals or some other good cause, but they can’t, because there are not enough paid jobs available and they have to make a living somehow. The more of these paid jobs there are, the better.

To those saying we can’t change things with money, I’d say: indeed. But we can change things with committed people able to give 100% of their time to the cause. We can change things with TV-commercials. We can change things through lobbying. We can change things by handing out hundreds of thousands of booklets. We can change things with undercover investigations… And for all these things, we need… money.

Fundraisers, do your work! Money is something in our movement that we should get as much of as possible, and do great things with. Let no one tell you any different.

Our movement’s newest asset: big money

“We have science, logic and morality on our side. It’s only a matter of time before we win.” 

The above quote is by Bruce Friedrich, long time and much appreciated activist, now working at Farm Sanctuary. I share Bruce’s belief that someday, we will win. I share his belief in the power of science, logic and morality. But I’m happy to see that lately, we’ve seen another factor at our side: money.

Not that the vegan movement didn’t have any money at all before, but today it’s kind of a whole new ballgame. For the first time, big money is being bet on vegan products. Companies like Hampton Creek, Beyond Beef and Impossible foods have raised literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Check out some others here.

For the first time, investors can see a big future for meat, dairy and egg alternatives. Given that the production of animal products will become more and more problematic on environmental grounds, and more and more unacceptable to people on ethical grounds, people like Bill Gates and Twitter’s Biz Stone have been opening their wallets. Google’s Sergey Brinn has invested in the research for in vitro meat by Mark Post in the Netherlands, and Google has recently made an offer to buy Impossible Foods.

The perception value of investors like these betting on meat alternatives is important: these guys are not stupid. If they see something in meat substitutes… well, it must mean there might really be something in it.

But other than mere symbolic or perception value, the millions of dollars these venture capitalists are making available, allow entrepreneurs to put together dream teams and acquire the best researchers, tech people and marketeers to develop and then market their new products.

developing alternatives

If you read some of the media coverage these new ventures are getting, you can see that the entrepreneurs are looking to imitate (and improve) meat (or other animal products) like never before. They want to make a product that is at least indistinguishable from the original animal product, but hopefully even better. And now they have the money, the brains, the technology to do so. Read about Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek (egg substitutes) or Muufri (real milk, but not from animals). It’s fascinating stuff.

I think the importance of developing good alternatives for animal products cannot be overestimated. Meat still has a symbolic value (especially in emerging ecomomies), but as far as people choose to eat meat for culinary reasons, almost no one, I am sure, insists on putting pieces of a dead animal in their mouth. Rather, people are looking for a certain taste and texture. If you can imitate that taste and texture exactly (or improve upon it), and make the products healthier, more sustainable and cruelty free while you’re at it… there is no reason why we couldn’t get every omnivore to eat these “alternatives” rather than the “animal originals”.

There is no doubt that all of these developments happen within the classical capitalist framework, which is probably not the ideal solution. However, to call all of this nothing more than “vegan consumerism” which has nothing to do with ethics, is misguided. Making our society less dependent on the use of animals by developping alternatives (in food, research, clothing) is high priority. It is crucial for people to have good alternatives if we want them to be able to let their compassion flow.