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January 16, 2020

In this talk, Leah Edgerton, the executive director of Animal Charity Evaluators, describes the role of the EA movement in significantly increasing funding for animal welfare charities over the past four years. She considers EA’s uptick in influence alongside the difficulty animal welfare researchers encounter when attempting to measure impact. How, she asks, can we make good decisions about where to direct a growing amount of funding when we have so little evidence to guide us? She then shares how Animal Charity Evaluators is approaching this thorny question.

A transcript of her talk follows. We have lightly edited it for clarity. You can also watch Leah’s talk on YouTube or discuss it on the EA Forum.

The Talk

I would like to start out today with a thought experiment. Imagine, several years from now, that effective altruism has become mainstream.

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What changes would we expect to see? Would late-night sports broadcasts, instead of showing football matches, show prediction tournaments? Would hipsters, instead of wearing those faded Ramones t-shirts, walk around with faded Peter Singer t-shirts?

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More seriously, though, how would we want the characteristics of our movement to change? Thinking on the margin is a very different exercise when we're asking ourselves how to best spend less than 1% of a movement's funding, compared to 10, 20, or 30% of a movement's funding. This might seem like just a fun thought experiment or exercise, but it's actually become somewhat of a reality for those of us working in the animal advocacy cause area.

Perhaps the most striking metric by which to track this change is by looking at the amount of funding that EAs have influenced within the farmed animal advocacy cause area. Let's go back in time to 2014.

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Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), to my knowledge, was the only EA organization influencing funding within the animal advocacy cause area, and we moved just under $150,000 to our top charities that year. My best calculation puts our impact around something like 0.0015 to 0.003% of the movement's funding — a pretty small amount.

Fast-forward to 2018 and we see a very different picture.

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The combined efforts of Animal Charity Evaluators, Open Philanthropy Project, and the Centre for Effective Altruism’s Animal Welfare Fund influenced about $40 million in funding within the farmed animal advocacy cause area. Just as a fun aside, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about how much funding EAs influenced within global health and development, and my calculation came out to about 0.01% of the movement’s funding within the total humanitarian budget in 2017.

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As we explore the question of how to think about impact in a cause area where EAs have a lot of influence — where we are mainstream — it's also important to acknowledge another reality of advocacy within animal cause areas: the lack of evidence available to inform our work.

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There are very few studies that exist on any intervention commonly used with animal advocacy, and the few that do exist are often lacking in a control group, which means it's very difficult to interpret causality. In other cases, they might be underfunded and hence underpowered, which means that we're unable to detect the types of effects that we're looking for. And, more fundamentally, the types of effects that we're looking for are just particularly difficult to measure. Those include dietary change, attitude change, and systems change.

In my talk today, I'd like to talk through the question that we started with: What do we do as effective altruists when we're working in a cause area where we have a small amount of evidence and a large amount of influence? I'd like to walk you through ACE’s answer to that question.

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On the one hand, we seek to increase the amount of evidence available to inform our strategic decision-making. And simultaneously, we seek to prioritize the effectiveness of our movement on a movement level, in addition to considering individual interventions and individual organizations that are particularly promising.

So, let's dig in. Much of our work at ACE is focused on building a base of evidence that animal advocates can use to make better decisions.

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Our own research team conducts experimental research. We also do literature reviews that aim to answer some of the most fundamental and important questions that advocates are facing. In 2016, we also launched the Animal Advocacy Research Fund, which, to date, has funded 37 studies. Those are mostly focused on intervention research, foundational research, and movement growth.

On our website, we host a collaboration directory, which is kind of a matchmaking service between animal advocates who have research questions and researchers who have the skills to help answer them. We host a data repository on the Open Science Framework, where researchers can upload the raw data from all of their studies for anyone to use. (In fact, we actually require that our research fund recipients share their data transparently in some way as well.) We also host a research library on our website, which brings together the few studies that already exist so that animal advocates have a resource to go to when they're looking for evidence to inform their strategy.

We've also hosted a couple of events, including a 2016 symposium and a 2017 research workshop. Our events are aimed at bringing together animal advocates and researchers to share findings and discuss future research directions.

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More generally, we're seeking to move beyond the limitations of self-reported dietary data toward more robust data sources. Interestingly, when you ask people to report about their own dietary behavior, people often say, in the same survey, both that they are vegetarian and that they eat meat. It's unclear whether that's a difference in how people define vegetarianism or if people are just really bad at predicting their own behavior. In any case, there are a lot of really exciting new studies coming out that are focusing on using actual behavioral data. Those include using purchasing data from supermarkets and from institutional dining facilities. And I just want to take a minute here to give a shoutout to Jacob Peacock from the Humane League Labs, who wrote a great paper on the topic. If you'd like to discuss the topic further, I recommend reaching out to him.

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We're also making efforts to use the full range of evidence available to us. So, when we don't have randomized control trials, or for questions for which they're not a well-suited medium, we also seek to use historical and sociological evidence and case studies. We also host an interview section on our website where we interview experts from the animal advocacy movement who are approaching the question of reducing animal suffering from different angles.

I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge a well-founded potential critique of using research other than the gold standard of randomized control trials.

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I think the biggest risk here is opening ourselves up to justifying our own behavior. If we read the research in a way that makes us feel good about what we're currently doing, that's not really helping us find the ultimate truth of how to help animals. We might just be giving ourselves a pat on the back. It's really important to keep that in mind when you're doing qualitative research — that this is a potential bias we should aim to overcome.

I'd like to point out that the alternative carries risks as well. When we're talking about only investigating interventions for which it's easy to gather evidence, we might be tempted to overlook interventions that are particularly effective, but maybe the effects are very indirect and, therefore, difficult to measure. Or maybe they take place over a very long period of time, which means that it's impractical to see the results. In general, when using research it is just really important to be aware of the different types of bias that different types of evidence bring with them.

To summarize, we think that increasing the amount of evidence available and consulting as full a range of evidence as possible will help us make better decisions about how to end animal suffering.

So, let's check back in with our original question: How should effective altruists think about creating impact in a cause area where we don't have much evidence but we have a very large impact?

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Our approach to answering the second half of that question has been to prioritize the health, and hence effectiveness, of the movement as a whole, in addition to promoting individual interventions and organizations that we think are particularly promising.

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In practice, this has meant allocating resources among more organizations rather than fewer, having lower standards of evidence for organizations we think are particularly promising, and having a higher tolerance of risk.

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So, some of our concrete projects that reflect this line of thinking are our Recommended Charity Fund, which allocates resources not only around our top three or four charities, but also a smaller percentage among standout charities, and our newly launched Effective Animal Advocacy Fund.

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We launched the Effective Animal Advocacy Fund late last year with the idea of broadening the scope of charities that we support beyond just our top, standout charity designations.

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These could include charities with a shorter track record but a promising approach, or maybe those working in more neglected areas. Last year, we raised almost $2 million for this fund and we made our first distribution earlier this year. We distributed grants to 49 recipients who are working on movement-building in neglected geographic regions, movement-building with neglected demographic groups, capacity building in general, corporate outreach policy work, and work influencing public opinion.

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More generally, we've worked to better understand the role that diversity, equity, and inclusion play in capacity building within our movement. We theorize that on a movement level, diversity adds resilience, which will be needed for our movement to be effective over the long term. Reducing animal suffering is a complex question that spans the entire globe and has fundamental implications for people's attitudes and behaviors, which means it's very unlikely for us to be able to change this on a massive scale in the short term. We think that a broad, local movement with a diverse set of actors will be better at overcoming the obstacles that will inevitably arise.

More concretely, these types of movement-level considerations have inspired us to place a higher focus on organizational culture in our charity evaluations, and also to promote the work of those who are seeking to create a more equitable and inclusive movement for advocates of different demographic backgrounds.

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Tying this back to our efforts to increase the base of evidence available that we have to work with, we also see value in working with a broader set of actors — not only because of their direct impact, but also as an investment in the collection of future evidence. Being in touch with a larger set of organizations lets us learn more about other interventions that we haven't had a lot of contact with before. In addition, we see value in bringing a larger set of organizations closer to ACE’s work and closer to effective-altruism principles in general.

I'd like to take a moment here in the EA spirit of acknowledging a well-founded potential critique to broadening our approach.

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People might say that broadening our approach by working with people with different attitudes and beliefs might increase the risks that we face of conflict, mission drift, and dissolution by fragmentation. These are real risks. I think we've already seen some of them play out in small ways, but I'd also like to challenge you to think about whether these risks are really as scary as they might seem. They may even come with some potential benefits.

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Conflict, for example, could lead to necessary change, and mission drift could lead us towards a mission that preserves the current strengths of the effective animal advocacy movement while overcoming some of its limitations. And it's possible that fragmentation could lead toward multiple movements that could accomplish more separately than we have accomplished together with our current movement.

We do think these are really important risks to take seriously. And we think that the way to approach them is through thoughtful and constructive communication. But we think that the value of working with a broad set of actors and developing a resilient global movement outweigh the potential risks of these factors.

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Over the last five years, the introduction of an effective-altruism framework has drastically changed the landscape of the animal advocacy movement. Conversations informed by the principles of EA are taking place, quite literally, on center-stage at our largest conferences. Animal advocates are placing a higher emphasis on intra-movement cause privatization. They're using more and more evidence to back up their strategic planning. And they're thinking harder about the cost effectiveness of their interventions. We see donors who are asking important questions about where their donations can have the most impact and making more strategic allocations of their funding. We see organizations that have pivoted their focus in order to increase their marginal impact, and we've seen volunteers who are asking important questions about where their time can add the most value to our movement.

This growth of EA’s influence within the animal advocacy movement is something that we should all be proud of, and I know that many people in this room worked hard to make that happen, so thank you very much.

To quote a famous thinker of our times, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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Thinking on the margin is now a very different exercise than it used to be. Asking ourselves the question of how we should spend less than 1% of our movement's funding in order to have the greatest impact possible gives us a meaningfully different answer than when we ask ourselves how we should spend 25%. Compound that with a lack of evidence available to support our decision-making and you can see the importance of proceeding carefully.

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That's why at ACE, our approach is to focus on increasing the amount of evidence available to inform the decisions that we make, while simultaneously acting in ways that reflect epistemic humility and promote the health, and hence effectiveness, of our movement over the long term.

Thank you.

Moderator: And now Leah, I invite you over to Q-and-A Land. So, just a couple of questions here from the audience. How do the priorities of the Effective Animal Advocacy Fund differ from those of the EA Animal Welfare Fund?

Leah: I think it's a fair question. Those do have fairly similar goals. I think what makes the EA Animal Welfare Fund slightly different from ACE’s Animal Advocacy Fund is simply who is making the decisions. And I think I would like to see our movement move toward something we talked about in our factory farming meetup: having a more diverse set of funders and a more diverse set of thinkers, so that we're avoiding the groupthink effect and making these decisions thoughtfully and carefully, based on the different evidence that we all have available.

In practice, we have slightly different values and opinions regarding what we think the most neglected areas, types of interventions, and types of foundational questions are. But I think they actually are fairly similar funds.

Moderator: Thank you. The next question is sort of a multistage question. Other than effective donating and research, what concrete advice would you offer to a non-EA animal welfare sympathizer interested in effective citizen advocacy? Or, rather, what practical advice can we offer to aspiring animal advocates we come across outside of the EA bubble, and what can we recommend they do tomorrow, as well as a year from now?

Leah: I think that generally there are ways we can promote certain aspects of effective altruism within the animal advocacy community that we've seen resonate — basic ideas like measuring our impact and thinking about cause prioritization or narrowing the focus of our programs to where they're actually helping the most animals.

I think we've seen organizations and individual advocates think about working in different countries or on different types of interventions. So, that's one way. I think there are, as well, a lot of opportunities within ACE and within our recommended charities for internships, for job opportunities, for supporting the work as volunteers, for supporting it as donors. There’s a lot to look into there. The 80,000 Hours job board is a really great place to start.

Moderator: Awesome. OK, how do you think the effective animal advocacy community can be more inclusive or persuasive to the rest of the animal advocacy movement?

Leah: I think one thing that's important is to not go in with arrogance or think that we have all the answers. As I said in my talk today, the evidence base is really lacking and we have a lot of uncertainty about these questions. I think we can go in and say, “You know, it's important to be asking these questions, to be having these conversations.” But I think we also need to be humble and not go around saying that the approaches other people are taking are ineffective simply because the evidence that we have today has inspired us to work on something else.

It’s important to keep an open mind, and to remember that tearing each other down is probably much less effective than the various differences in our interventions. We need to think about the long term and build a movement where we can all have these conversations together and improve together — and not be arrogant about what are, in fact, very difficult questions.

Moderator: Great. Thank you so much for your time.