Resignation as Chair of The Vegan Society

Dear CEO and Council,

On 7 July this year, The Vegan Society proudly tweeted that "Last year, we were one of 37 #Charities that joined the @CharityAgstHate initiative to challenge posts that incite hate and violence on #SocialMedia." Yet the society took no meaningful action when a disabled, Black, non-binary trustee was "identified as a target for complaints by [a member of the society] on social media [who] encouraged his followers and other individuals to search for adverse information on [this trustee] and to provide it to him and to complain to the Vegan Society". The report into such complaints expressed that they "appear to have been motivated by a profound personal animosity towards [this trustee] related in part to [this trustee's] identity and protected characteristics". So what have we witnessed over the past six months (and more) if not a coordinated campaign of racist, transphobic, and ableist bullying against the society's youngest voluntary trustee, but which the society (a certain section of Council, in particular) seems willing to ignore?

I stood for Council in 2018 and 2021, and as Chair in 2020, not for power or prestige, but in response to what I perceived to be a combination of the following:

  1. "a culture of protectionism, arrogance, mistrust, blame, complacency, and general unprofessionalism" where "Bullying is tolerated, and goodwill is squandered" (to which I had alerted Council in 2016, after I resigned as Technical Director);
  2. a willingness to ignore, uphold or even reinforce systemic oppression (which I considered to have been demonstrated by The Vegan Society's historic lack of diversity and representation on both Council and staff, and its response to Julia Feliz Brueck's 2017 article on the society's own blog calling for "consistent anti-oppression").

It is clear to me now that such issues start at the top, i.e. with Council. And I regret that I have been unable to do more to address them. While I have proposed and seconded Black (and multiply-marginalised) trustees to Council, they have faced hostility and had their expertise and experiences dismissed - and I apologise to them for encouraging participation in such a toxic environment. While I have booked anti-racism training for Council and the Senior Management Team, and shared other anti-racism resources, these appear to have been ignored by those with entrenched views. While I have arranged an investigation into concerns about racism on Council, this has been delayed again and again and again. (And attempts to address other oppressions, such as cissexism/transphobia and ableism, or make other improvements have been met with similar resistance.) While I have shared explicit advice from our lawyers, it has been rejected by those with apparent conflicts of interest and loyalty. And while I have proposed mediation to address the divisions on Council (even before the Section 15 advice from the Charity Commission for the same), this was only supported by half of Council, with another trustee blocking any decisions about its scope (by delaying them until after its completion!) Although, with neither targeted training nor legal advice seeming to change trustees' positions previously, and all trustees who opposed mediation passing a motion to enforce rather than address divisions on Council (despite them being identified as "the greatest risk to the organisation’s future and wellbeing"), there's little room for optimism that mediation would have fared any better - especially as such trustees now have an absolute majority on Council, so will be able to force through or block any initiatives as they see fit.

Indeed, joining Council in 2018 felt a lot like penetrating a clique or cabal where one was celebrated if they were willing to uphold the status quo (including excessive cosiness with one or two individuals in senior management, and a corresponding lack of accountability) but denigrated if they dared suggested another way. Naturally, I soon found myself on the outside. Nevertheless, 2018, 2019 and 2020 each saw the election of new trustees who were also not part of this inner circle. Some of these new trustees had crossed paths before, some of them hadn't, yet they have now perversely been described as a clique on the basis that they were maligned by the same member of the society for not supporting his perspective (or preference for Chair and Vice-Chair). But once that inner circle no longer had an absolute majority on Council, there was a change of leadership, and a greater emphasis on ensuring that, while we continue to focus on challenging the exploitation of other animals, we strive not to uphold the oppression of marginalised humans as we do so. However, it seems that this could not be allowed...

It therefore comes as little surprise that my time as Chair was almost immediately marred by a public smear campaign from those with personal and professional relationships to trustees who had recently lost their leadership roles (including members of their immediate families). Furthermore, I consider that there is compelling evidence that this campaign was instigated by certain trustees. It is certainly telling that such trustees failed to distance them from actions carried out in their names, offered no support to trustees so smeared, and refused to allow any expression of support in the society's statement on the investigation that rejected all allegations against me, nor any statement on the impact that this has had (despite both being recommended by our crisis communications agency). Instead, they appear to have capitalised on such complaints - repeatedly trying to censure one accused trustee before the investigation had concluded, and bolstering their own positions by opposing the recommendations from both the Charity Commission and our own lawyers that we delay the AGM until it had (potentially contributing to the loss of a trustee who was smeared for not sharing their views). I believe that this illustrates the extent to which they will prioritise their own personal interests over those of the society, and ignore the harm caused by doing so (whether to individuals or the organisation). The priority of such trustees seems to be placing income (particularly short-term income) over ethics (Nestlé, Palestine, etc.) while preserving a predominately white, predominately male, predominately cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and neurotypical stranglehold over The Vegan Society and the vegan movement - making claims of "anti-white, misandrist, CIS-phobic prejudice", "pursuing identity politics in a destructive and divisive way", "weaponising the intersectional framework", or similar when challenged.

While the report from the investigation into the associated allegations isn't everything that I'd hoped for, I recognise the qualifications of the investigating QC, and accept their findings completely. Of course, I welcome my exoneration, but I remain concerned that the society protects from any accountability those who make complaints that "appear to have been motivated by a profound personal animosity... related in part to... identity and protected characteristics... and to... friendships with individuals who were displaced from leadership positions", while costing us over £40,000 (excluding staff costs, opportunity costs, etc.), taking more than six months to address, and undermining our democracy in the meantime. (Indeed, I am under no illusion that my inclusion within these complaints was for any other reason than to ensure I could not consider any complaints against the Vice-Chair.) The society seems keen to protect those who have made such malicious, false or otherwise unsubstantiated allegations - continuing to carry out business with them, accommodating them as members, redacting the names of those who have been very public about their complaints, and not even revealing the identities of any others to those whom they accuse (let alone to the membership as a whole). Yet those who have been falsely accused are offered no protection, and are in no way compensated for the months of suspicion and online abuse to which they have been subjected - and continue to be subjected. Furthermore, the society's statement on the report is effectively hidden on the website, rather than shared with all who might be aware of the complaints, so it does little to exonerate accused trustees. It's also important to note that the investigator's brief did not include the conflicts of interest and loyalty of those trustees with connections to complainants, their possible involvement in the origin of such complaints, nor the apparent breaches of confidence from the society's leadership to complainants. So these issues need to be urgently addressed.

As Chair, I have also witnessed trustees reject professional advice from the Charity Commission, our lawyers, our crisis communications agency, our anti-racism trainer, suitably qualified trustees, etc. (especially Black women and Black non-binary people). And I have encountered what I consider to be examples of all of the behaviours highlighted in my communication of 2016 (mentioned above), as well as continual bad faith engagement from trustees - including filibustering, micromanagement, self-aggrandisement, performative allyship, white fragility, misrepresentation, insinuation, sealioning, denialism, ultracrepidarianism, and unlawful (even criminal) activity. I additionally consider that such behaviour includes persistent breaches of The Vegan Society's legally binding Articles of Association, particularly regarding conflicts of interest and loyalty; transparency and accountability; respect, constructiveness, sensitivity, and avoidance of offence; and acting unilaterally without authorisation. (Furthermore, while a member's complaints were acted on very quickly, my own formal complaint about conflicts of interest and loyalty has been all but ignored.)

Overall, the behaviour outlined above (by a handful of trustees and a handful of other members) has frustrated progress, reduced profitability, and increased Council's workload by an order of magnitude, becoming a full-time commitment for me rather than up to "several hours per week... but usually much less" (as we advise potential candidates for Council). Consequentially, this has resulted in a significant loss of personal income too (for example, around a 75% reduction over May and June). But even worse, it has taken its toll on the mental health of a number of trustees. And eventually enough is enough. The society has failed its volunteer trustees, and in doing so it has failed its members, vegans generally (especially those from marginalised backgrounds) and other animals. So, after three years on Council, I am resigning as both Chair and Trustee for much the same reasons I joined - as I cannot lead, or continue to be part of, a Council that thinks and behaves in such a way. (Indeed, I can imagine how Sian Berry feels...)

Despite the surprise expressed at other trustees' resignation, none of them should come as a surprise to anyone on Council who's been paying any attention to trustees' concerns. Nevertheless, I'm sure that such departures will be cause for celebration by those who have demonstrated malicious intent. However, I also hope that they may encourage the membership or the Charity Commission to take action to address the long-standing issues with the society where its Council will not. And I extend my best wishes to CEO and staff, the vast majority of whom I am confident prioritise the best interests of the society over any personal agenda, while opposing interpersonal, institutional and systemic oppression. I hope we will see a day when the Council of The Vegan Society universally does likewise. Then it may prove more successful in reaching a wider cross section of the population - both to encourage them to go vegan, and to join the society.

In the meantime, I would like to express my deepest admiration for my former colleagues on Council Ali Ryland, Eshe Kiama Zuri, Joel Bravette, Michele Fox and Sally Anderson, as well as Interim CEO Louise Davies - all of whom have shown their integrity and strength of character under the most challenging circumstances. Should Council or SMT have any questions, please send these via Louise - to whose questions alone I am prepared to respond.

Kind regards,

Robb (he/him/his)

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