Helping animals? Or helping themselves?

The original version of this article was published Fri, 23 Mar '18 on Animal Rights Zone.

Is outreach incompatible with income?

Any London-based vegans who were glued to their seats after hearing why condoms aren't usually vegan, or who turned up early to get a good seat for Vegan Geezer, might have caught me speaking at February's Greater London Vegan Festival.

One of the "Ten Factors for Effective Vegan Advocacy and Animal Activism" that I discussed was "Rationale", i.e. how our motivation should obviously be to help nonhuman animals, but how that's sometimes mixed up with less altruistic ambitions - whether a desire to gain social capital, to preserve a status quo, or to benefit financially.

This has been a topic of debate within the movement for some time. To what extent is outreach compatible with income? How do we determine whose motivation is to help animals, and whose is to help themselves? And why do we sometimes seem to celebrate the latter more than the former?

Three of a kind?

Broadly speaking, there are three types of organisation advocating for animals.

  1. Volunteer-run grassroots groups.
    Grassroots groups typically engage in outreach and other forms of activism at a local level. With any income (e.g. donations) used solely for expenses incurred in their advocacy (rather than wages), grassroots activists may need to divide their time between activism and paid employment.
  2. National (and international) charities.
    While some argue against the very concept of people being paid to advocate for animals, national (and international) charities are able to provide a level of availability that is usually impossible for grassroots groups, and are typically better placed to engage with national government, media, and commercial organisations.
  3. Commercial organisations.
    Whether promoting plant-based food, or clothing with vegan messages, commercial organisations may have a role to play in vegan advocacy. And while that may not be their primary focus, animal advocates invariably welcome the increasing availability of vegan products and services.

So, while all may have their place, it can still be important to recognise the differences between them.

When is "vegan" not "vegan"?

Of course, there are also commercial organisations that offer vegan products and services but who do not share our "philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practicable - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose" (i.e. the definition of veganism).

In such cases, it is inevitable that the proceeds will be spent on animal exploitation. However, for most of us, it's not "possible and practicable" to avoid supporting some of these organisations - for example, by purchasing daily essentials from supermarkets and manufacturers that have both vegan and non-vegan ranges. 

Nevertheless, when we choose to support, say, a "vegan" event organised by non-vegans in order to profit from the growth of our community, we must recognise that we are choosing to give our money to those who will inevitably spend it on animal exploitation. Can such events justifiably be described as "vegan"? (Even "suitable for vegans" or "vegan friendly"?) The organisers must be laughing all the way to the butcher's shop!

The "professionals"

As should be clear from the above, I understand the need for charities to pay staff to advocate for animals. Indeed, while a consultant at The Vegan Society, I advocated for the relatively low salaries to be increased to attract and retain the best staff (particularly those for whom the existing remuneration was not economically viable), and to develop junior staff into more senior positions (rather than watching them come in at low salaries, get trained up, then double their income by going elsewhere).

Activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta goes even further, pointing out the double standards that we have for non-profit and for-profit organisations, and suggesting that our model for non-profits should more closely mirror commercial enterprises. Others may feel that the reverse should be true (i.e. that commercial enterprises should more closely mirror non-profits). But either way, the disadvantages of this uneven playing field for non-profit organisations are all too apparent.

However, an additional danger comes when we assign unwarranted credibility to this professional status. This may be done unconsciously - reinforced by the dual meaning of the word "professional" (i.e. both a source of income, and a standard of conduct). Or it may be done consciously - to differentiate between "professionals" (the minority who are earning money from their advocacy) and "civilians" (everybody else) and thereby suggest that the professionals are more qualified, and more effective.

But the suggestion that those who are paid to advocate for animals are better at doing so simply because they are paid to do so is counter-intuitive. Those who are paid to advocate for animals clearly have an additional motive - i.e. to generate an income. Therefore, their motivation and the consequential actions deserve even greater scrutiny than those of the unpaid activist.

This deliberate division between "professionals" and other advocates fuels understandable accusations that some are "careerists" - more interested in their income than in the cause. And there are certainly examples of where that seems to be the case:

  • accepting payment from non-vegans to promote something less than veganism
  • selling books that dilute veganism to nothing more than a diet that one can opt in and out of as convenient
  • earning hundred of thousands of dollars running animal advocacy organisations, or supporting organisations whose actions directly contradict vegan values
  • putting vegan blogs or podcasts behind a "paywall" because they're not generating enough advertising revenue
  • and trying to charge vegans thousands of dollars to teach them how to promote veganism - while simultaneously telling them that honey and isinglass (part of a fish) are vegan!

The big questions

So, if we accept that some may receive money from their activism, what do we need to ask ourselves to determine whose motivation is to help animals, and whose is to help themselves? How do we decide which activities to support, and which to avoid?

  1. Are they diluting their message?

    Have they adopted a fully vegan position, or something less? Are they promoting any non-vegan messages, events, products, etc. - even alongside vegan ones? Do they suggest that veganism is a diet only? Or recommend consuming animal ingredients that we could easily avoid?

    The dilution of the vegan message is one of the most obvious signs that the desire to help nonhumans animals may not be their (sole) motivation. Sometimes it's to maximise the appeal to non-vegans - and thereby increase the pool of possible donors. And sometimes it's to avoid taking steps that advocates find personally inconvenient (for example, ensuring that their beer is vegan.)

  2. What are the sources of revenue?

    In addition to direct sales (such as membership fees, event tickets, books, and merchandise) there are a number of possible sources of revenue for various forms of activism - including sponsors, philanthropists, and corporate partners. And sometimes animal advocacy organisations find themselves under pressure to dilute their message in order to secure funding from the above. For example, philanthropists may be prepared to fund the promotion of so-called "humane" animal agriculture, but not an end to animal exploitation; or businesses may seek endorsement of their not-quite-vegan products.

    So, in additional to looking for explicit dilution, it's worth looking for such sources of revenue, To what extent are the organisation's stated aims (and yours!) compatible with those of any third-parties providing funding? This can give some indication of an organisation's true motivation.

  3. Where does the money go? (And is that all of it?)

    An even more important question that "where does the money come from?" can be "where does it go?" Are any profits invested in vegan advocacy? Are they donated to animal sanctuaries? And is that all the profits, or a token amount? How much goes into the organisers' personal bank accounts? And if those organisers are not vegan, will they be spending it on animal exploitation?

    Again, I'm not averse to people earning a living from animal advocacy, or from providing vegan products and services. But we need to be careful not to confuse one with another - to think that we're contributing to the end of animal exploitation, where we're actually just lining the pockets of a few individuals exploiting the goodwill of the vegan community. And we need to be wary of claims that an event "barely broke even", or that profits will be "re-invested in future events", when there's zero accountability.
  4. Who are the organisers?

    Are they grassroots groups, charities, or commercial organisations? Are they even vegan? What's the track-record of the key individuals involved? How long have they been advocating for animals? Have they only started to do so as the critical mass of vegans has made it commercially viable to do so?

    There are undoubtedly both benevolent individuals and commercial organisations who are prepared to organise activities for the benefit the movement. But they're rare. So, supporting activism by grassroots groups and charities can addresses many of the concerns about where the money goes. (Although, even here there are alleged exceptions.)
  5. Is it inclusive? Is it accessible - physically and financially?

    Closely related to the above, to what extent do organisers reflect the diversity of the wider vegan population? Are members of marginalised groups in positions of influence, or merely tokenised? Is any activity affordable for those on low incomes, or are any concessions derisory? Is it physically accessible? And how to the organisers respond to calls for greater diversity, representation, and inclusivity? Do they encourage it, or react defensively?

    As veganism has become more mainstream, and the number of vegans has increased, the availability of vegan products has increased too. Obviously, that's a good thing - at least for the most part. However, mainstream veganism has exhibited a tendency to be organised by relatively-affluent individuals, to feature relatively-affluent individuals, and to target relatively-affluent individuals. This has meant neglecting members of marginalised groups - and thereby stifling the growth of the movement.

Them and us

To some extent, the vegan movement has become a victim of its own success, It has reached a critical mass where it's worth engaging with the community purely for the financial rewards, whether or not one agrees with its philosophy. There are certainly some benefits to that - in the increasing range of vegan-friendly products available (from both vegan and non-vegan companies). However, the flipside is those that seek to take advantage of the vegan community for their own benefit, while giving the impression that they're doing it for the benefit of animals.

So, before we invest our time or money, it's worth considering the rationale of the immediate beneficiary (as opposed to the nonhuman animals that we hope will ultimately benefit). Because the question is no longer "are THEY helping animals, or just helping themselves?" It's now "are WE helping animals, or just helping themselves?"

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