Vegan activism: the difference between individuals and groups

Vegan and animal rights activists come in different shapes and sizes, and there are several possible ways to categorize them. Let me suggest one way: we can distinguish between those who are working or volunteering for an organisation, and those who act individually.

I am aware that I am simplifying and generalizing, but bear with me for a moment, because I think what category one falls into, may often determine part of one one’s activist style and philosophy.

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I often make a distinction between pragmatic and more ideological activists or activism. Now the thing is that when you work or volunteer for a veg/animal rights organisation, you will often be a lot more pragmatic. You will have to be. This is because organisations tend to do different work than individuals. Organisations often became organisations (this is to say individuals joined together to form them) in order to have more influence and impact. Trying to establish alliances with institutional agents can increase this impact. So especially bigger groups often put a fair amount of resources into institutional change.

stick to ideology

The institutions that animal rights/veg groups try to influence, can take many forms. They can be political: local, regional or national governments, political parties… They can be corporate: businesses in all shapes and sizes, from food producers to restaurant chains to any business with a restaurant in it… They can be other organisations in civil society: environmental or health organisations who may be natural allies and help spread a message. They can be academic: schools and universities. All these institutions can have a multiplicatory or leverage effect: if you can move them, they’ll move many other people for you.

It is definitely possible to move institutions from an individual or grassroots position, and in fact it probably happens all the time. Yet it is undoubtedly often easier to do so – and to do so at a bigger scale – from a position within an organisation – changing laws, for instance, is not something easily done as an individual.

There are several reasons for this. Organisations represent a group of people, and some institutions – especially political ones – will only be moved if they see the organisation speaks for or can influence a certain number of people. Organisations also often have several resources available that individual activists or smaller groups do not always have: the means to do research and show certain results to institutional partners, or an outreach channel of many thousands of followers. They can use these channels to advertise what the “partner” did – which is of course great to either put pressure or incentivize them. Organisations also have more money, which may be useful for certain purposes, like campaigning, lobbying, etc.

These institutional allies will not always want to do exactly as the animal rights/veg groups suggest. They will not necessarily spread the message in the exact same way. This could because they don’t believe in it the same way we do, or because they think their own constituency is not ready for it. In my experience, for instance, when institutional partners want to do outreach about plant based food among their audience, they feel more confident emphasizing health and environmental reasons, than animal rights reasons.

When others don’t want to take on our exact message, we have the choice. The first option is to take an absolute stance and refuse to work with them. The second is to be strategic: we compromise and accept the way in which they will bring the message to their voters, members, employees etc. Of course, in our decision a lot will depend on the perceived gains and the perceived sacrifices. But the point I want to make is that generally, if we don’t want to be pragmatic and just stick to our strict ideology, have way less chances of starting alliances that may help influence big numbers of people. Don’t compromise, and you may end up working and preaching on an island.

The work that individuals (not affiliated with groups) do, is often more about reaching out one by one. It is easier there to be stricter and uncompromising: if a person doesn’t want to listen, one moves on to the next person. But the more one is out in the real world, away from the internet, partnering with other actors, the harder it becomes to maintain a strict ideology if one wants to have results.

I can understand that some activists do not want to be pragmatic. I understand they don’t want to advocate for meat reduction rather than full blown veganism, for instance, because they believe this can’t be reconciled with their views. That is fine. But at the very least, I hope those people can grant other people – and groups – a more pragmatic approach, without accusing them of betrayal or being greedy for funds, or whatever arguments animal rights groups get thrown at them these days.

Because there is no betrayal. I have said this before: we should be true not to our ideology and its rules (for instance veganism), but to the values and objectives below the ideology: decreasing animal abuse.  

It is good to bear all this in mind when forming an opinion of (big) organisations. Also remember that you rarely have all the information about them (practise slow opinion). You probably don’t know their entire strategy. Just assume that their intentions are the same: putting an end to the use, suffering and killing of animals.

Of course organisations have their own challenges. They may evolve in a wrong direction, become less efficient, more wasteful, bloated etc. But that doesn’t mean this is a given, or that the net benefit of these organisations is not good. Just like individuals, organisations will probably never be perfect. But we need them. As a movement, we need their resources, their expertise, their experience, their outreach and their influence to make the difference we want to make for animals.

See also:

the danger of big animal rights organisations
money money money in our movement
 compromise isn’t complicity

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.

On criticizing other activists and organisations

It is true that different people or audiences will be touched by different things, and that hence we do need different approaches. Yet this is no excuse not to try to find out which approaches are better than others. Not all strategies, actions, communication styles… are equally effective. Also, because some approaches or actions may theoretically have a net negative effect for the animals (turning more people off than on, for instance), it should be totally okay to discuss strategies and look for the best ones. We have, as a movement, limited resources, and if we want to be effective for the animals, we need to do our best to find out what works well and what works less well. We should then invest most of our efforts in what works well.


That being said, when we discuss strategies, actions etc, I think it is good to keep some things in mind, so that when we talk about other people or groups, we are being constructive, even when we are critical. Here are some of the things that I think are important when discussing and criticizing each other’s work (note: I am not claiming I always stick to these principles – sometimes I get carried away).

Be aware that there are real people behind whatever you are criticizing
No matter how much you hate a certain opinion, campaign or whatever… the people behind it are probably well meaning individuals whose main concern is helping the animals. Even if that’s not always true, it is probably better to assume it is. People can be hurt. Especially criticism from people who are on your side of the fence (working also to save animals) can be painful. I am sure criticism can contribute to burnout, and we definitely don’t want people to burn out and leave the movement.

Be a slow opinionist
I’m in favor of slow opinion. It means trying to be thorough before you come to a conclusion. It means being aware of the fact that you never have all the information and that you don’t know everything. It means being aware of the fact that you may have (indeed probably have) some blind spots. Slow opinion also means that you can have no opinion on something for a while, or even forever. Slow opinion obviously also means that you do your research and read and try to get to know the other person’s or organisation’s stance before you criticize them. You may want to ask about it in private first. Slow opinion means that questions are better than statements.

Think twice before criticizing organizations
Animal rights organizations get a lot of flack especially from the “grassroots” part of our movement. Organizations should definitely be examined critically, but don’t be too fast. It’s always good to realize that organizations might have different concerns than individuals: they need to keep more stakeholders in mind, they need to be concerned (yes, they do) about their public image, about relationships with all kinds of partners including businesses, other NGOs and governments. Know that your information on why they do what they do may still be incomplete. Maybe they can’t communicate everything they believe or know, for strategic reasons.

Be civil
Being civil is not just a matter of being respectful to people, but also of being effective. Whatever is not voiced in a calm, polite, reasonable way has a lot more chance of falling on deaf ears. That’s not productive. It’s a waste of time. Being civil helps us make progress faster.
Being civil also includes being honest. Don’t say things that you know are not true, don’t change words, make stuff up or exaggerate things.

Be aware of the medium you are using
If you write on social media (which most of us do nowadays) be aware of the limits of the medium. Watch out for your own biases, prejudices, projections etc. that might influence the way you read what other people write. Often they are not as angry or mean as you are imagining. It’s always a good idea to take a few deep breaths, or wait a while before you respond to a post on social media.

Don’t be afraid of changing your opinion or position
It’s ok to change your view as you are thinking things through or new information becomes available to you. Don’t be stubborn. It’s not about being right, it’s about finding out what works. Don’t be afraid to admit when you were wrong.

Only criticize in public when it has added value
Real criticism is best done in private. It is not automatically wrong to express critical views in public, but be aware of the risks. You might be helping the spreading of rumors or things that are simply not true.

Keep in mind that criticism often just does not work
In his timeless classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie warns us to be very careful with criticism. Let’s finish with a quote by him:

“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Any other points? Let me know…

The danger of big animal rights organisations

I think Mercy for Animals is one of the most impactful animal rights organisations in the US. In just a couple of years, they have grown out to be a group that very regularly gets big media coverage for its undercover investigations. Thus, it has exposed what happens in factory farms to millions of people in the US and beyond.


And yet, today I found this on Facebook:


I have a reallly hard time getting this. I do not like to question people’s motivations and intentions, but in this case it is really hard for me to see this as a sincere attempt to help animals. At the very least, given what MFA has done, this seems to me to be terribly and sadly misguided.

There are also other possible interpretations. One is that the author of this has had a personal bad experience with the group in question – they could be, for instance, an ex-employee. The second is that things like this are set up by the opposition: the meat industry itself.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by a long shot, but think about it. What would be some efficient ways to fight against the success organisations like Mercy for Animals are having? The ag-gag laws, which in some US states have made it illegal to make photographs of factory farms are one thing. Another tactic could be to damage animal rights organisations from within the movement.

A good way to do that would be to try to diminish the credibility of organisations like MFA by accusing them of all kinds of things: saying they are corrupt (out to get money for themselves), inefficient, or not pure in their mission. Basically it’s a “divide and conquer” strategy.

More generally, I believe that trying to spread, within our movement, a very rigid, dogmatic, no-compromise strategy would be a great thing for the industry to do. I’m not saying that everyone who believes in no-compromise black-and white solutions and who dislikes any sort of pragmatism has been inspired by the opposition, obviously. But I do believe that the industry loves to see the increase of fundamentalism or radicalism (I’m using the words not in their derogatory but more in their philosophical sense). Fundamentalist ideologists are, I believe, by far not as dangerous as pragmatic, strategic thinking people. When individuals get together to build an organisation, and acquire money enough in order to get huge media attention and afford lobbyists, that is the moment they get really dangerous. And that is the moment they would need to be discredited by all means necessary.

Whether the industry is behind some of this or not, don’t fall into the trap of believing the big organisations are betraying the animals or wasting your money. They consist of committed individuals like you and me, doing the best they can for the animals every day. Support them.

Disclaimer: I founded and for 15 years led EVA, a Belgian veg organisation. It isn’t “big” (12 staff at most), but it is definitely above grassroots level.