Leah Edgerton: Strategic Considerations for Effective Animal Advocacy

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 read it on effec­tivealtru­ism.org.

The Talk

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


Edge1

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?

Singer

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.

Edge4

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.

Edge5

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.

Edge6

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.

Edge7

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.

Edge8

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.

Edge9

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.

Edge10

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.

Edge11

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.

Edge12

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?

Edge13

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.

Edge14

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.

Edge15

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.

Edge16

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.

Edge17

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.

Edge18

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.

Edge19

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.

Edge20

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.

Edge21

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.

Edge22

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.”

Edge23

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.

Edge24

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.

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