Guest blog by By Ben Davidow, San Francisco
In Uncaged, 30 veteran activists share their top insights on how to effectively advocate for farm animals. The idea behind the ebook is that if you want to get better at something, find the people who are best at it and learn from them.
HRC’s Kathryn Asher kindly invited me to relate the key points from Uncaged. I’d like to share three insights. Three simple, powerful insights.
1. Make Modest Change Requests, Focus on the Highest-Impact Foods
Most veteran activists have had the greatest success encouraging people to cut back on animal products rather than to go vegan. Uncaged contributor Erik Marcus writes:
You'll seldom find people willing to make big moves overnight. But you'll often speak to people willing to take a small step, and then another, and then another.
You might think that an organization like Vegan Outreach (VO) that has the word “vegan” in its name would insist that people go vegan. Think again! If you look at VO literature it encourages people to take whatever steps toward veganism they are prepared to make. As VO Co-founder Matt Ball puts it, “We must focus on getting people to consider their first step toward compassion, rather than arguing for our current philosophy or diet.”
If we can’t get most people to go vegan overnight, what’s the best place to start?
The surprising truth is that chickens make up the whopping majority of farm animals. A typical American meat-eater is responsible for the slaughter of about 31 farm animals each year and 28 of those are chickens. Nope, that is not a typo: 28.
How can this be? Because chickens are so much smaller than other farm animals. Over 200 chickens must be slaughtered to get the same amount of meat available from a single cow. More chickens are slaughtered every 10 days in the state of Georgia alone than cows are slaughtered in the entire U.S. throughout the entire year. What’s more, chickens are likely the most severely treated farm animal.
In regard to the selective breeding of broilers, John Webster of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Medicine stated, “this must constitute in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
Farm animal advocates sometimes point out how problematic it is that the majority of resources devoted to helping animals go toward cats and dogs when farm animals make up nearly 99% of the animals exploited by humans. It’s similarly lopsided to focus as much on cows and pigs as we do on chickens when cows make up less than one third of 1% and pigs make up just over 1% of the land animals farmed for food. Chickens make up 95%.
Trailing behind chicken, the most suffering-dense foods are eggs and farmed fish. In Uncaged, and in his new book Veganomics, Nick Cooney makes the case for focusing on getting people to cut out chicken, eggs, and farmed fish, and especially chicken.
Focusing on the highest-impact foods like chicken won’t necessarily result in fewer vegans in the long run; it may actually result in more. Extensive psychology research shows that people who make a small change become more likely to make a similar, larger change down the line if encouraged to do so. Giving up chicken is a great first step and it has a surprisingly large impact: sparing 28 individuals from a life of cruelty, every year.
2. Good Outreach is a Two-way Conversation
Veteran activists tell us that effective outreach is not about preaching, but about non-judgmental conversation. Listening and asking good questions are far more important than winning arguments and scoring points.
Erik Marcus relates:
The best animal advocates let the other person do most of the talking, and are constantly focused on figuring out the particular values a person has that might inspire them to take new steps toward animal protection.
Good outreach is about question marks, not exclamation marks. Why is asking questions so effective? Three reasons.
First, questions let us figure out what matters to our audience. Jaya Bhumitra writes:
When people ask me why I’m vegan, instead of answering with a litany of reasons important to me (“It’s ethical! More green!”), I kindly reply with “Thanks for asking — are you vegetarian or vegan? Why not?” so I learn what’s important to them. By listening to how they answer, I’ll discover what they know already and if they have any misconceptions, and determine the best approach to further the conversation.
Second, asking questions lets our audience see things for themselves. Bruce Friedrich writes:
Socrates’ method of argumentation was to ask questions so that those with whom he was engaging would see that their current moral paradigms support his position...No one wants to support cruelty to animals, and yet anyone who is eating meat is supporting egregious abuse. So our best way of engaging with people is to help them understand that if they’re eating meat, their values and actions are not in alignment. All other arguments are a diversion from this central and winning argument, which should be framed as a discussion, not a diatribe.
Finally, asking questions rather than preaching makes us less judgmental. When we show less judgment toward meat-eaters they show less judgment toward us and a greater openness to our message.
Lisa Shapiro writes:
In my pre-vegan days I would think people like me (vegans) were nuts. I try to remind myself of this every day. People can usually sense the judgment and will immediately shut down or get defensive. We need to keep the focus on the animals and ditch the "we are better than you" attitude and come from a place of compassion in our messaging.
3. Take a Data-driven Approach
This insight is the most essential. The only reason it’s last here is that I imagine most people who read a blog like this will already recognize its importance.
A data-driven approach is our finest weapon when it comes to effective outreach. It lets us discover our assumptions and break through them. It takes us closer to truth.
Taking a data-driven approach primarily means two things.
First, it means we decide what messages and materials to use, what activities to engage in, and whom to target based on the best data we have available.
In Uncaged, Nick Cooney writes:
Companies have a financial bottom line, and every decision they make is based on whether it's good or bad for that bottom line. We need to be just as calculating. We need to look at the different advocacy programs out there and decide what uses of our time and money will let us help the greatest number of animals possible and reduce the greatest amount of suffering.
For instance, demographic data on vegans suggest that college-aged, Democratic, urban-dwelling females are a particularly good target for veg outreach. Does this mean that no male, octogenarian, Dick Cheney enthusiast in rural Nebraska would be open to a pro-veg message? Of course not! It just means we’ll achieve greater success on whole if we target members of the most veg-predisposed groups.
Where many advocates trip up — and I have been guilty on this count — is spending tons of energy trying to convince family members or friends to go veg. How likely is it that any given family member or friend will happen to be a member of the most veg-predisposed group? Not very.
Dawn Moncrief writes:
Friends and family are a relatively small group, and it takes more emotional energy to “persuade” them. Plus, such efforts are generally less effective and make relationships difficult and draining. Focus instead on people who show interest or openness to the ideas. This not only produces higher success rates, it increases our energy and morale instead of depleting them.
Data not only illuminate the most effective ways to spend our time but also our money. I’m guessing most of you reading this don’t work full-time for animal advocacy organizations. But perhaps you have some disposable income you can donate to animal organizations. How do you decide which ones to support? Again, an analytic approach comes to the rescue. For data-driven recommendations on which animal charities to support, check out Effective Animal Activism (EAA), a new organization that evaluates which nonprofits reduce the most suffering per dollar donated.
The second aspect of a data-driven approach is that we’re always looking to test our assumptions and collect more data.
While controlled experiments are best, we can casually experiment with different approaches and track the results in our individual efforts. If, for instance, you leaflet at multiple campuses, you can keep a journal or Excel sheet where you track how many people you reach per hour at different campuses and at different times of day.
To step this up a notch, attach a sticky note to each leaflet (or if you leaflet a lot, a small portion of your leaflets) encouraging people to email you for advice/recipes if they decide to give veg eating a shot. Set up a separate email address for each campus (you can have each account automatically bounce incoming emails to your primary address). This will let you (very) roughly track which campuses have a higher conversion rate.
Just as better tools for observing and measuring the natural world push science forward, better tools for measuring the impact of outreach let us find better strategies. We now have powerful tools that simply did not exist 5 or 10 years ago to track our impact. With Facebook, we can target precise demographics with online ads linking to videos that promote dietary change and gauge the response of different groups. With online A/B testing tools we can compare whether X or Y video results in more orders for veg starter kits.
Our movement is at a turning point. We are adopting a culture of experimentation and a collective appreciation of the power of data. The promise of a data-driven approach to advocacy is that every day is not only an opportunity to improve what we do but to improve the rate at which we improve. If we continue to move in this direction, our outreach materials and strategies in 5 years will be radically more effective than they are today.
I’ll close off with some inspiring words that Matt Ball offers us in Uncaged:
Because of the number of individuals suffering and the reason for this brutality, animal liberation is the moral imperative of our time. If we commit to optimal advocacy, we can bring about fundamental change. With our efforts, this century can be the one in which society stops torturing and slaughtering our fellow earthlings.
Note: If you’ve read Uncaged, I encourage you to drop me an email on how the ebook can be improved for its second edition, which will be out early next year. I’m at .
1. Marcus, Erik. Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money. Boston, MA, USA: Brio Press, 2005. ↩
3. Webster J. 1995. Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye Towards Eden (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Science, p. 156). ↩
4. I am not saying here that meat chickens suffer more on average than egg-laying hens. Rather, I am saying that if you take all the chicken a typical American eats, that amount of chicken is probably responsible for more suffering than all the eggs that a typical American eats. ↩
5. Burger, Jerry M. "The foot-in-the-door compliance procedure: A multiple-process analysis and review." Personality and Social Psychology Review 3.4 (1999): 303-325. ↩
6. Cooney, Nick. Veganomics. Lantern Books. ↩
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Ben Davidow is a web developer and farm animal advocate who lives in San Francisco. He also enjoys running, playing piano, and camping.