July 17, 2020
Animal suffering is a global problem that requires action on a global level. How can we think about effectiveness across geographical and cultural contexts? How can North American and European advocates support advocacy in other parts of the world in responsible and impactful ways? In this talk, Leah explores the pros and cons of different approaches to international advocacy.
Leah has been involved in the effective altruism community since 2011, and has been an animal advocate her whole life. From 2015 to 2017, she was an integral part of Animal Charity Evaluators’ (ACE’s) communications team, building up their social media channels, growing the reach of their email list, and helping to plan and launch their website redesign.
From 2017 to 2019, she worked at ProVeg International, one of ACE’s Standout Charities. In her role as ProVeg’s Strategy and Internationalization Manager, she conceptualized and grew the China Programme from scratch, and coordinated with external academics to conduct experimental research on meat reduction interventions.
Leah returned to ACE’s team as Executive Director in February 2019.
Nathan Labenz [Interviewer]: Leah Edgerton, welcome to EA Global Virtual. It is awesome to have you here.
Leah: Thank you, it's great to be here, Nathan.
Nathan: Obviously, we would've much rather met in person this weekend, but under the circumstances, we’re all doing our part to stop the spread of this virus. I think this is a great alternative.
We have given the effective altruism (EA) community the chance to post questions on the EA Forum in this “ask me anything” format. We have several questions for you. I'm excited to read those that have come from the community and give you a chance to answer, and then we can have a little follow-up conversation as we go. Sound good?
Leah: Sounds great. And just so you know, we will be answering the EA Forum questions that we don't get to in this session in writing [on the Forum].
Nathan: Awesome. First question: What do you think the main bottlenecks and limiting factors are in the EA animal welfare (EAA) movement?
Leah: Great question. As we see it, some of the main bottlenecks are around talent and funding. When we talk about talent, we mean, specifically, skills like strong organizational leadership and management. Those are skills that we think are particularly neglected. We also hear that there's a strong need for more economists, social scientists, and policy experts, particularly for the research aspect of effective animal advocacy. There's an organization called Animal Advocacy Careers that has done some research to identify neglected talent areas, so I would definitely recommend that you look them up if you want to dig deeper into that question.
In terms of funding, I think we all know that farm animal advocacy is still a fairly neglected cause area. There's also a feedback loop: the lack of funding makes it difficult for us to attract and retain talent. Those two challenges feed into each other.
Another area where we see bottlenecks to growth concerns animal advocacy in countries where there's a high population of farmed animals, but a small advocacy community. Obviously, the movement is most professionalized within North America and Europe, but most farmed animals live outside of those regions. So we'd love to see more organizations, more advocates, and more funding going to countries where farm animals are currently being raised.
In general, another bottleneck affecting the impact of the effective animal advocacy movement is the lack of research. While there are many more organizations doing research than there were a few years ago, there are still a lot of really huge, unanswered questions — and a really high amount of uncertainty around what the most effective interventions are. While we are currently prioritizing farm animal advocacy as the cause area within animal advocacy that we think is the most neglected, the greatest in scale, and the most tractable, further research could help us better understand how to help other populations of animals — for example, wild animals who appear to be suffering in large numbers but for whom we don't know many tractable interventions to apply.
Nathan: Thank you. We'll go into a little bit more depth on some of that research in a few subsequent questions. But going back to the funding gap and ability to attract and retain talent for a second: Do you know, off the top of your head, what the practical implications of that are for, say, an economist who might be interested in getting into this line of work? Does that translate into a tangible salary difference relative to what they would receive in other professional endeavors? Could you give us a sense of what that actually looks like?
Leah: Yeah, we actually have an economist who is going to start at ACE in May, and so we have a little bit of experience recruiting for that type of position. I certainly think that the salaries within the effective animal advocacy research community are still quite a lot lower than what an economist would expect to make in another field.
We have a lot of room for more funding to go toward supporting more organizations and more positions, but also the positions within farm animal advocacy — and particularly research positions — probably need to be higher-paid in order for us to continue attracting and retaining high-level talent over the long term.
Nathan: Let's move to the second question: What have you changed your mind on recently?
Leah: Yeah, I know this is a good EA question — it’s one I like to ask people at EA Global. So I'm not surprised to see that on the list.
I'm answering it on behalf of ACE as an organization, not myself as an individual. I think one of the things that we’ve changed our mind on in the past few years is ACE’s ability to conduct research and make recommendations for charities working outside of North America and Europe. When we started, we just felt that our team was too small and too inexperienced to be able to look outside of language groups or cultural contexts that we were familiar with. But as our team has grown, both in number and in terms of our cultural backgrounds, we've started to be able to support organizations working in other parts of the world a little bit better.
Another change that we've made recently is how we use our cost-effectiveness estimates. That's our third criterion in our charity evaluation. We found that those estimates were quite prone to misinterpretation. Basically, the imprecision of those calculations — because there's just so little evidence for them — turned out to be not-so-useful for us in our decision-making around charity evaluations. Therefore, we've redone how we calculate those. Last year we shifted to more of a relative scale; we compared the cost effectiveness of interventions between charities, rather than trying to guess how many animals per dollar a given charity spares. We're also trying to put more focus on other indicators of effectiveness, like strong leadership, a track record of success, a healthy culture, and a sustainable organizational structure.
In terms of our own strategy, we've also made some pivots recently. Because of the growth of many other excellent effective animal advocacy research organizations in our space, like Rethink Priorities and Humane League Labs (just to name a few), we’ve seen a lot of really great experimental and observational research, as well as literature reviews, being done on some of the foundational questions for our movement. Given that there are so many other actors in the space now, we're really trying to focus on what we do best, which is our charity evaluations, followed by our grant-making. So we narrowed the focus of our own research questions this year, and will do so going forward, to questions that can help improve our own decision-making for evaluations and grant-making.
We've also made a few other changes to ACE internally. We are launching a new operating model next week. We're switching to a new project management tool. We've made changes to our internal communication and people management systems. We've hired a managing director. Last year was my first year at ACE, so there have been quite a lot of changes in terms of our internal operations as well as our strategy.
Nathan: I don't know if you would have enough experience yet at ACE to answer this question, but if you look back to the early days of ACE versus today, with all of these changes and all of the wisdom accumulated, how much better able to evaluate charities do you think you are now, versus in the early days of the organization?
Leah: I think there's been a huge trend toward improvement. I actually have been at ACE off and on for five years. I was in a different role previously, and our first director of research is currently serving as a board member. So we do retain quite a lot of institutional knowledge.
Every year after our charity evaluation process, we do a post-mortem, where we look at what worked well, what didn't, and what types of questions we can add nuance to. Our criteria have been an evolving project over the course of many years. We've added a lot of rigor and we've gotten outside experts to weigh in on how best to understand some of the different areas. Last year we added a culture survey to be able to get information not just from the charities’ leaders, but from all of the staff members who are willing to share. This year we'll probably tweak our criteria to better reflect whether charities’ work is a good fit for the particular local context they’re in. These are criteria that we see as evolving while the effective animal advocacy movement learns more and obtains more research upon which to base our decisions.
Nathan: Cool. That organizational culture fit criterion is particularly interesting and not one that I would've thought of, but definitely makes sense now that I hear it.
Let's go back now to some cause areas that are a little bit less well understood. We have a question around how many resources you think that the EA animal welfare movement as a whole, and ACE in particular, should be investing in animal cause areas that are “less mainstream,” such as, invertebrate welfare and wild animal suffering. How do you think about that and what kind of information are you looking for that might make you think it should be more or less of your overall portfolio?
Leah: With all EA cause areas, we focus our work based on what we think is most effective using the criteria of scale, neglectedness, and tractability. So when you think about invertebrate populations, those tend to be very, very high in scale. We also neglect them; we don't really know of many insect welfare organizations. The thing that keeps us from prioritizing them as a top priority is, of course, tractability. And we don't have a lot of evidence currently on the level of sentience of invertebrates.
So to answer your question, we would put more of a focus on invertebrate welfare if we were more confident in the level of sentience, which is related to the scale of the problem, and if we knew of particular interventions to reduce invertebrate suffering, which is related to tractability.
I have a similar answer for causes like wild animal suffering. There seems to be very little evidence around whether wild animals have lives worth living or not, whether their lives are positive or not. I think we need a better understanding of what the suffering of wild animals — which is a huge category of animals — looks like. How can we understand it? How can we compare it and prioritize it [relative to other causes]? How can we find interventions that work when addressing it?
Whether something is mainstream isn’t really a criterion that we would use to prioritize a certain cause, although, of course, how weird or outside the mainstream a topic is tends to influence its tractability. For example, if we were to do a lot of media work around invertebrate sentience or wild animal welfare, those are topics that are pretty unintuitive to mainstream readers. We have to be aware of the effects if we focus on those. How does that affect the perception of our work around slightly more mainstream areas like farm animal advocacy?
Nathan: Yeah, I totally understand that. We recently had a birthday party for our one-year-old baby, Ernie, who is a bit of an EA Global mascot. We played a little game; we were going to do a giveaway to a charity based on what he chose. We put a bunch of objects out in front of him. Amy [Nathan’s wife] was originally talking about making a donation to a wild animal welfare organization and I said, “I don't think that's going to play with our guests. They're not that savvy to this whole thing even at a high level. It probably seems a little bit too weird to try to explain to them in the course of a birthday party gimmick.” So we ended up going with something a little bit more down the fairway, which was farm animals, and which everybody, I think, can get.
Leah: We have given grants to the Wild Animal Initiative through our Effective Animal Advocacy Fund, and we have done research on wild animal welfare. We still think it’s a worthwhile thing to do — although, as you said, we’re also strategic about when to talk about it. Maybe a one-year old's birthday party is not quite the audience for such a nuanced topic.
Nathan: Yeah, we had an Impossible Whopper, which was a very tangible item that everybody could understand, since they could actually see it.
Switching gears a little bit, let’s get back to international expansion. You mentioned that the movement is more professional in the United States and Europe. We have a question to that effect. Obviously, a tremendous amount of animal welfare concerns are in other countries: China, India, South Africa, et cetera. What are the most effective ways that we can expand the movement internationally? Do you think this should be tackled by existing EA organizations, or potentially by new organizations created locally? Also, this questioner thanks you for agreeing to do this talk.
Leah: Oh, well, you're welcome. Thanks for the question. I definitely think that there are multiple ways to address this. There's certainly the option of organizations that have been successful in one part of the world expanding to other countries. They can share some of their wisdom and also some of their funding. Then there's the strategy of supporting groups locally, which have the freedom to develop their own agendas.
I think that there are pros and cons to the different models. Of course, if you're expanding organizations that are already established in North America or in Europe, those organizations might be able to bring with them stronger management or strategic expertise. Maybe they also bring a network of funders, which can make it easier to get started in another country.
But there are also trade-offs, like how well an international organization could be perceived in the local context. Might having a top-down strategy from a culture that is different from where you're doing the local work be a bad fit? We don't want to have organizations from North American pushing an agenda that works well in their region, but maybe doesn't work as well in South America or in Asia. I think it's really important to consider the trade-offs.
There are, of course, pros and cons with supporting local organizations, too. Sometimes having a big international brand behind you can make your campaigns more effective, but other times you want to have a brand that feels more local and homegrown, and might be better perceived by local companies or governments. Those are some of the trade-offs I would think about in that type of a decision.
Organizations in Western Europe and North America that are considering working in other parts of the world have the responsibility to educate ourselves in cultural literacy and try to understand what we bring with us as Western Europeans and North Americans, in terms of our own blind spots. There are things to consider like language barriers and how to make our resources more accessible to people in different parts of the world.
So while we do think that there's a good reason for large, professional organizations in Western Europe and North America to expand to other countries, some of the most effective ways to do that reflect a combination of bringing in expertise from those organizations and drawing on the expertise of locals who understand the context and can make sound strategic decisions.
Some of the people I've seen do that really well are from the Open Wing Alliance, which is run through the Humane League — one of our top charities. The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations is one of our standout charities as well. They're working to support organizations specifically within India and finding ways to be more effective and strategic with training and funding.
We do have a few resources on our website for anyone who wants to learn more about this topic. We recently did a roundtable blog post series, interviewing different advocates from around the world on effective international advocacy. We have also written country reports on India, Brazil, and China, covering some of the considerations for effective animal advocacy there.
Nathan: The Open Wing Alliance had a speaker, I believe, at last fall's EA Global in London, who did a great job. So that would be another resource to check out if you're interested in learning more about their work.
Let's change gears a bit and talk about how you operate as an organization, and maybe also how your selected charities operate. We have a question around remote organizations. We're all experiencing that at the moment, but when it's optional, a lot of organizations have staff retreats. The questioner asks, “Do you think retreats are worth the cost and the staff time? How do you think about that, and how confident are you in your opinion on the matter?”
Leah: Great question. ACE has been a fully remote organization since we started. We've never had an office. We have maybe two staff members in the Bay Area, but generally we don't have any hubs. We have people working in many different countries, and over the last three years or so, we've been doing in-person retreats. We’ve historically met twice a year in-person in different parts of the United States in order to have a week together to talk about strategy, to discuss big-picture ideas, and to just connect.
We’ve found [retreats] to be a really positive addition to our team culture. We generate a lot of creative strategic ideas. We also found, from the culture surveys that we conduct every six months, that team retreats tend to be among the most motivating and inspiring times of the year for our staff. So in that sense, we think it really adds a lot of value to our team's culture and ability to work well together.
That said, they are expensive — certainly less expensive than having a year-round office, but it's important to consider the trade-offs. We were actually planning to have a retreat the week prior to EA Global, but we canceled that due to the current situation with the pandemic. So I guess we're about to find out how well a remote retreat works. Next week and the following week, we're going to have a remote retreat where we meet for several hours a day over Zoom and hold our sessions that way. We've also tried to plan remote social activities. So if you ask me again in a few months, I'll be able to tell you about the pros and cons of in-person versus remote retreats.
Nathan: Cool. That information has never been more relevant than it is right now.
Moving right along, the next question is about the effects of your evaluations on the market, as it were, for animal charities: Are you concerned about any possible negative effects of ACE's charity recommendations? For example, charities might start to over-optimize toward key metrics that ACE has specified or that they've established with you. They may begin to compete with each other in somewhat unhealthy ways. Have you seen any examples of that? Is it something that you’re working to mitigate?
Leah: That's a great question. It's one that's become increasingly relevant over time. When ACE was founded in 2014, as far as we know, we were the only EA organization influencing funding within the animal advocacy cause area. That year we tracked just under $150,000 in gifts to our recommendations. It's hard to remember, but it seems like that was well under 1% of the farm animal advocacy movement’s budget.
But if we fast-forward to 2018 — the most recent year I have data for — the combined efforts of Open Philanthropy, the Centre for Effective Altruism’s Animal Welfare Fund, and ACE influence about $40 million in funding, which is about 25% of the movement's budget. Obviously that's very exciting and impressive, and definitely a trend that we hope continues.
It's also really important to consider the responsibility that we have and what types of incentives we might be putting in place with unintended negative consequences. So yes, we definitely don't want to incentivize over-optimization for specific metrics. That’s part of what we’ve tried to address over the years with changes to our charity evaluation criteria. As just one example, I mentioned earlier that we've changed how we did cost-effectiveness estimates — partly because of the likelihood of their being misunderstood, but partly because they're not necessarily measuring something very useful. We've moved towards a model of more relative cost-effectiveness estimates.
To dive a little bit deeper into that, while we want, of course, to incentivize charities to be cost-effective, we also want to avoid unintended long-term effects. For example, one way to increase that cost-effectiveness ratio would be to potentially pay people less, but that might have more negative long-term effects like higher staff turnover, or an inability to attract high-level talent. So we want to make sure that our criteria aren't incentivizing for short-term, quick-fix solutions, but rather contributing to the effectiveness of a movement over the long term.
We also noticed — again, because of the amount of funding influenced by EA organizations — that we want to avoid an effect of moving more funding toward just a few large organizations that use interventions that have particularly strong evidence behind them. Because our movement is still at such a young stage, we have very little evidence of what [actually works]. In particular, it's difficult to measure the indirect or long-term effects of the interventions that we're using.
Part of how we've tried to address that is by starting the Effective Animal Advocacy Fund. That fund tries to allocate funding among a larger set of organizations beyond just our top and standout charities.
Nathan: The $40 million in funding that you mentioned ACE influencing — which is 25% of the movement's budget — would make $160 million your estimate of the movement's entire budget. What's included in that? I don’t know whether to think that’s small or not. But would that include things as broad as PETA? What does that $160 million actually encompass?
Leah: I actually took that figure from Lewis Bollard's research. I would ask him for more specifics. But as far as I understand it, that is the entire budget of organizations that focus entirely on farm animal advocacy. I think he also tried to guess what proportion of organizations like PETA's budget went toward farm animal advocacy. So I think he did try to take slices of organizations’ budgets into account in cases where organizations have more than one program area.
Nathan: Wow, I would've guessed bigger. That is actually surprisingly small to me, but obviously speaks to the neglectedness of the overall domain.
The next question is a very interesting one. There has been, across the EA movement over the last several years, an evolution from a focus on a very provable return on investment (ROI) — and I always think of cash transfers as the baseline for that kind of giving — to a more portfolio-based approach that focuses on “power law” returns and entails looking for the next big thing. That's often called hits-based giving.
The question here is: What does hits-based giving look like in the context of animal advocacy? Do you think that we should be focusing more on a portfolio of things, such that 90% of them might fail but the big ones will pay off for the entire set of investments? It is also interesting to observe that, oftentimes, the very best ideas look like bad ideas at first.
Also, how do you think ACE can use what evidence does exist in what the questioner calls an epistemically permissive way — meaning the evidence isn’t so rigorous, but you’re still learning from it to try to get some idea of what those big winners might be?
Leah: That's a great question. As I mentioned in my response to the previous one, this is what we've tried to address with our Effective Animal Advocacy Fund. With this fund, we want to support organizations that are really doing good work, but are not the kinds of high-certainty bets that our charity evaluation process is designed to uncover. These organizations are either very small, have a short track record, or work in really important but neglected areas. But we think they are still just as effective a use of funding as our top standout charities.
Through this fund, we've historically funded groups working in capacity building, particularly in neglected geographical areas or in neglected demographic groups. We've also funded groups that have a really high expected value, but we don't have a lot of evidence yet about whether or not their approach works. We have slightly lower standards of evidence, but we also want to draw on the EA principle of using evidence and reason. So if we don't have evidence, how can we use reason to make a guess at what has high expected value? Last year, we gave $1.8 million in grants among over 60 groups working in over 20 different countries.
Another potentially interesting aspect of this type of giving is that yes, we're giving to things [whose efficacy has yet to be determined], but we also end up learning a lot after funding them. How did their approach work out? It feeds into our goal of gathering more evidence in order to make more informed strategic decisions over the long term. The more things we try, the more things we learn.
Nathan: Is there anything that stands out so far as a particularly promising possible hit, or is it just too early to say?
Leah: It's pretty early to say. We handed out our first round of grants just under a year ago. We do have a blog post that we published late last year, in which we follow up with our round-one grantees. We'll be doing a follow-up with our round-two grantees soon, and we're also going to be announcing three grants in the next few weeks. We have to pivot a bit on those because the current pandemic has obviously affected the types of interventions that the groups can carry out. So we'll have a slight delay on that.
Nathan: Thank you. Next question: What would you say to someone who is currently undecided between donating to ACE and to one of ACE's top charities?
Leah: That's a great question. Certainly we want our main goal to remain moving money toward charities that we think are effective and that are not ACE. As a meta-charity, we don't want to take more funding from the movement than we think we are adding. Therefore, most of our fundraising efforts go toward fundraising for our recommended charities and for our Effective Animal Advocacy Fund.
However, we do have to operate ourselves. We have a small budget that we try to use very effectively. One thing I would say, particularly to members of the EA community, is that ACE has a pretty good platform to move gifts toward our recommended charities and toward our EAA fund. It's easy to say, “Give money to them” — much easier than for them to say, “Give money to us.” Last year, in fact, we exceeded our gifts-influenced goal by almost $2 million. We’re doing well with that number.
But ACE fell short of our own operating budget fundraising goal last year. We tend to rely on the EA community to fund ACE. That's because mainstream donors don't tend to generally understand the value of a meta-charity, so we look more toward the EA community for donors who understand the nuance and service that an organization like ACE can give to our movement. So, in general, I would say most of our fundraising efforts are focused on supporting our recommended charities and our Effective Animal Advocacy Fund, but within the EA community we make a stronger pitch for ACE because we think that we're more likely to find donors who understand the value of our work influencing funding for other organizations.
Nathan: Okay, next question: Which interventions do you think are the best right now? Which less well-studied or newer interventions do you think could prove to be competitive with them?
Leah: Based on our current prioritization framework, we think the most effective interventions are those that are focused on reducing farm animal suffering. That's because we think it's a cause area that is large in scope, highly tractable, and relatively neglected. So within the cause area of farm animal advocacy, we look for organizations that are working to speed up the development and commercialization of plant-based and cell-cultured food products. We also support organizations that are seeking to secure corporate commitments to improve animal welfare on farms. Also, we look to support groups that are leading outreach efforts in neglected regions.
In terms of specific interventions, those tend to be policy work, working with corporations and institutions, and doing campaigns to support animal welfare laws at national and international levels. We also place focus on supporting groups that are doing more research, so that we can help answer this question better in the future. For example, one of our standout charities is Faunalytics, which is also doing research on effective animal advocacy.
Nathan: You mentioned plant-based and cell culture-based meat substitutes. That's one of the things that I'm most excited about and fascinated by as well. But one thing that I saw recently that left me feeling a bit confused on the topic was the collaboration on the effects of not eating meat that was published on Slate Star Codex, which I'm sure everyone already reads, and needs no introduction. This was an adversarial collaboration, meaning that someone committed to the idea that we shouldn't be eating meat agreed to work with someone who thought it was okay to eat meat. They wanted to explore the net effect of eating meat and see if they could publish something that both researchers agreed on.
They concluded in their analysis that animals that are raised for consumption, but are not factory farmed (including cows and pigs living under average conditions), do have lives worth living. That led to a counterintuitive conclusion, at least from my perspective, that by not consuming those animals, in a sense, you harm them because they won't exist if there's not consumer demand for them to exist. So they came out strongly against eating chicken, but were actually in favor of eating these other meats.
I’m interested in your take on that. I don't know if you have an official stance on it, but does your work engage with that question or would you have a perspective on agreeing or disagreeing with that analysis?
Leah: Yeah, that's a really great question, and obviously one that depends a lot on your moral framework. At ACE, we aim for our work to be as broadly appealing to people of different moral frameworks as possible. To that end, we have three philosophical commitments:
Beyond those, we don't take a stance, so we wouldn't have an official stance on that.
Nathan: Also, in that analysis they have a coefficient for how much value they assign to a given animal relative to a human. I think they try to provide some sort of neural correlate basis for that, but it becomes a gut feeling of a cow being worth a certain percentage of a human life, a chicken maybe less, and a shrimp even less. Does anti-speciesism mean that you would reject that kind of analysis entirely? Would you say, “We’re not going to play that coefficient game”? How do you interact with that kind of thinking?
Leah: By “anti-speciesism,” we basically have a commitment to taking an individual's interests and well-being seriously regardless of its species membership. That certainly leaves open the option of weighing sentience or the capacity to suffer differently. There is some wiggle room to understand anti-speciesism in different ways. Some people understand it to mean the complete abolition of humans’ use of animals. Some people understand it to mean treating preferences with the same level of consideration regardless of species membership.
Nathan: Got it, cool. That's a very tough question that puzzles me greatly. Well, we have just one more question for you. This has been really great and I thank you so much for participating.
The last question is this: What are some questions within the EAA movement which you think are amenable to being forecasted?
Leah: That’s a good question, and one I hope that we will see some new research coming out on. I asked our research team to come up with some questions that might be forecasted. Here are some of the responses I received:
Nathan: Awesome. Well, thank you very much, Leah, for joining us today and participating in this Q&A. I know you said that the questions we didn't get to from the “ask me anything” post in the EA Forum will be answered by the team in text form.