ACE 2015 Internal Evaluation
This internal evaluation was written by ACE Research Associate Dee Perez shortly after joining the organization. For more background on the process, please see her blog post.
Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) grew out of Effective Animal Activism (EAA), a division of a UK charity dedicated to providing career advice called 80,000 Hours. 80,000 Hours is a part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, an organization that works to promote effective altruism. Effective altruism focuses on using evidence and reason to find the best ways to improve the world. 80,000 Hours member Eitan Fischer founded EAA after realizing that no other animal organization provided evidence-focused advice based on total impact. To fill this gap, he created effectiveanimalactivism.org, a resource for those looking to give effectively to animal advocacy groups.
During the fall of 2013, ACE revised its mission to finding and advocating highly effective opportunities for helping animals. This includes not only providing charity recommendations to donors, but also providing advice for activists and charities on how to be most effective through evaluating potentially high-impact interventions to help animals. In December 2013, Animal Charity Evaluators launched as a stand alone organization, separate from Centre for Effective Altruism.
As of this writing, ACE has been in existence for 18 months. During that time the organization has laid a solid foundation for continued growth, effectiveness and research. Research is intended to inform effective giving in animal advocacy and provide advice for animal advocacy organizations to become more effective in helping animals. ACE has expanded staffing, grown its operational funding, and reached several key benchmarks in their own growth. As ACE values transparency and self-assessment in the charities it evaluates, then it must also value transparency and self-assessment within ACE itself. This internal evaluation is an attempt by ACE to understand and reflect upon its achievements, opportunities, areas for improvement and effectiveness.
Areas of High Performance:
- In less than two years ACE has produced a high volume of research about animal charities and interventions. ACE has also produced extensive writing around their thinking, templates, information, blogs, newsletters, and more.
- Organizational funding has been increasing steadily.
- ACE has strong leadership and a high-functioning staff.
- The organization is establishing a good reputation in the effective altruism (EA) community.
ACE has established goals that are ambitious but attainable, and is on track to meet the goals and benchmarks.
- Some goals, such as influencing the movement of more money to top-rated charities than ACE spends internally, were met early.
Areas for Improvement:
- ACE will need to continue fundraising and grow the operational budget to continue to expand, to hire and retain staff, and to purchase necessary equipment, technology, supplies, etc.
- ACE should move away from evaluating the same charities repeatedly, and instead focus on evaluating new charities for the time being.
- ACE should increase evaluation of interventions to determine which are most effective and can be shared with animal advocacy groups looking for better ways to help animals.
- ACE should recommend that donors give to organizations that work to help, protect, and advocate for farmed animals in general, as this in line with their current thinking and could serve to funnel more money overall to farm animal causes.
- ACE needs to create a strategic marketing and outreach plan to help connect with the right target audience for their message.
Meeting the Goals Outlined in the 2014 strategic plan
Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) has published a year-end review for 2014, which outlines the major accomplishments from the year. Primary accomplishments for 2014 include: creating templates for organizational evaluations and intervention evaluations, refining methodology and maintaining transparency about methods, planning future research, conducting interviews with prominent people in animal advocacy, examining parallels between social justice and animal advocacy movements, evaluating international charities, and refining the process of tracking money moved as a result of ACE’s work. Overall the goals of the strategic plan were met or are being met. Many of the projects outlined, such as continuing evaluations, examining research topics, interviewing prominent figures and tracking influenced donations are ongoing and being refined into 2015 and beyond.
Top Goal #1: Move Donations to Top-Rated Charities
In 2014, ACE documented influencing 124 donors to give a total of $141,239 to our top charities. As of this writing (May 2015) ACE has already surpassed their goal of moving $200K to top charities in 2015. As a basic measure of effectiveness, ACE had determined that moving more than was spent internally was a long-term minimal indicator that their work was plausibly effective, so meeting this benchmark indicates that ACE is moving funds to top-rated charities in a cost effective manner. As 2014 was the first year as Animal Charity Evaluators, reaching the goal set for money moved was commendable.
In March 2015 ACE surveyed donors who had given directly to ACE during 2014. The total number of donors was small (n=83) and the number of responses represented fewer than half of the total donors (n=39). Because the number of responses was small, any conclusion reached should not be regarded as definitive.
Given that, respondents to the survey indicated that they used ACE’s recommendations to guide their giving: they chose to donate to ACE top-rated charities, though they’d never donated to them before. They chose to donate to farm animal organizations that they’d never supported before, instead of giving to their usual non-animal-related charities. Again, while the sample size is small it indicates that donors who use ACE value the recommendations and use them to influence both where they give and how much they give. It will be interesting to continue to survey donors and glean additional information about the giving patterns of ACE supporters.
Refine the process of tracking money moved by ACE.
In 2014, ACE organizational expenses totalled $90,554, and ACE was able to track $141,239 in donations to top charities as a direct result of our evaluation process. It is possible that ACE influenced more donations, but tracking donations made as a result of ACE’s research, suggestions, or impact is an imprecise science. One top charity was able to record how many donors visited their donations page after linking directly from the ACE web site, but another did not have that capability, so ACE can’t know for certain how many donors went directly to the sites of top charities and donated. If donors visited the recommended charity’s website at a later time but going there directly, rather than through ACE’s site, then ACE would have influenced their decision to donate, but would not know that unless the donor told them so.
Methods to track the movement of funds are largely anecdotal at this point, relying on the donors or beneficiary organizations telling ACE what contributions were made. ACE is working to improve methods of tracking donations, for instance adding a redistribution option to its website that will allow donors to give directly on the ACE website for redistribution to recommended charities. If this option become popular or well-utilized by donors it will help ACE track its influence more fully. Animal Equality, another recommended charity, will also be adding a checkbox to its donate page that donors can check if they were motivated to give by the ACE recommendation. Still, anecdotal information will likely be a significant source of giving information into the foreseeable future. Despite limitations of not being able to track all funds influenced by ACE, the tracked donations exceeded ACE’s operating revenue by more than $50,000. ACE had determined that moving more than was spent internally was a long-term minimal indicator that their work was plausibly worthwhile, but anticipated that reaching the goal might take some time.
The ACE website contains a report on the movement of funds and funneling of donations through ACE for 2014. This report indicates that donors were influenced to give to the top charities recommended by ACE because they valued the research, evidence-based recommendations, and scientific approach of ACE. Some donors were motivated to give to animal charities, when they normally would give to human charities, because of ACE recommendations. Some donors had never given to ACE’s top charities before, but were moved to do so by the recommendations. More importantly, donors state they would not likely have given to farm animal charities had they not followed ACE recommendations. This indicates that ACE research has at least some influence and built awareness for some donors interested in effective altruism.
Top Goal #2: Evaluate Animal Charities for the Purpose of Recommending the most Effective Charities
ACE is the first organization to focus on effective altruism in regards to animal advocacy, and so in a real sense is creating a new field of inquiry. To that end, ACE has developed a large volume of research templates, and published their thinking on how and why certain criteria were selected over others, and published significant information on the process of how causes are prioritized before ACE begins to evaluate specific organizations. In addition, ACE has undertaken examining of interventions, reviews of social justice interventions as they might parallel animal advocacy, interviews with prominent thinkers in animal advocacy, and more. Work of this type is difficult, uncertain and time-consuming. That so much work has been created in such a short time speaks to the competency of the leadership and research staff.
ACE’s website contains thorough explanations of evaluation criteria and our thinking on deciding upon the criteria. Templates for charity evaluations are clear and well-considered. Shallow and medium reviews are easy to find and well explained. Deep reviews have not been conducted, although one will be done over the course of 2015. The process of conducting a deep review will illuminate whether the process is beneficial and worth the investment of time and energy needed to complete such a review.
The templates seem appropriate, as they seek to understand the work being done by an organization, whether that work is effective for the mission, and whether the work is cost effective. Further, ACE seeks out organizations that are robust and agile, with an understanding and monitoring of success and failure, strong leadership and structure, transparency, and a strong record of success. Each point of review seeks to understand an organization and determine how well it functions. Shallow reviews largely rely on publicly-available information, which is noted in the reviews so that others may see the information. Medium reviews will generate information that is not available to the public, but the edited and fact-checked information is provided on the ACE website so that others may confirm the information. In its final recommendations, ACE attempts to make clear what makes one organization stand out, while another charity doing similar work may not receive a top rating by ACE.
While the process, conversations, and documentation gathered during charity evaluation are made public and explanations given, there are no rubrics for scoring or comparing organizations. It may be difficult to compare one organization to another. It may be useful, for both ACE staff and the public, to use rubrics in the final stages of making recommendations. This would make clear what makes one organization stand out from another, and would present the information and reasoning in an objective manner.
ACE explains in the Cause Prioritization documents that they have chosen to focus on charities that work to eliminate farm animal suffering as the animal-related cause that is most underfunded and has the most potential to relieve suffering, while also being highly tractable. The reasons for this are sound, although ACE should stay open to the idea of effective interventions on behalf of wild animals, as such interventions might provide an even bigger potential impact to relieve animal suffering.
Because people who work in animal advocacy tend to have strong affinity and empathy for animals, objectivity is often difficult to achieve or maintain. Having said that, it would seem from the published reasoning that ACE strives to think of animal advocacy in terms of effectiveness, tractability, and funneling resources where they will relieve the most suffering. These goals and priorities appear to have been reached through research, logic, and collaboration among thought leaders, both in effective altruism and animal advocacy.
Which Charities are Evaluated?
ACE has evaluated and prioritized various causes around groups of animals (wild, farm/food/ companion, research) and concluded that working to alleviate the suffering of farm/food animals is the most tractable, under-funded, and neglected cause available to help the greatest number of animals in the most effective manner. The reasons for this decision are sound and well-supported.
Regarding individual charity evaluations, ACE maintains a list of potential charities to evaluate in its annual evaluation cycle. Some charities approach ACE and request to be evaluated. ACE might benefit from developing a policy around requested evaluations that would either let charities know what charities are most likely to be evaluated or let them know what is generally required to receive a very positive evaluation from ACE. It might be possible for ACE to offer to evaluate charities for a fee (which could also create an earned-income stream for ACE). For some charities that are looking for information and feedback about how they can improve their work, ACE research templates can be used for evaluations as well as recommendations. This might prove valuable in helping animal advocacy organizations improve their work on behalf of animals, as well as create a potential revenue stream for ACE.
ACE has evaluated seven charities multiple times. Six of those were updates to medium reviews (mostly of top and standout charities), which take less time than conducting medium reviews from scratch. Still, one wonders why updates are conducted so often and if the time needed to conduct updates is less productive and valuable than focusing on doing new research, evaluating new and different charities, or investing time and energy into evaluating and sharing information about effective interventions on behalf of animals. ACE might consider re-evaluating organizations on a set schedule or rotation every few years, rather than year after year.
Top Goal #3: Evaluate Interventions Used on Behalf of Animals
It is important to note that the ACE mission statement also states that ACE will “find and advocate ways to most effectively help animals.” That means that ACE should also focus on identifying best practices, disseminating information, and supporting organizations in improving and increasing their effectiveness in reducing animal suffering. This might mean that ACE shifts focus, or maybe focuses 50/50 on effective methods for improving animal welfare, to help organizations doing this work rather than focusing on directing donations to organizations ACE considers effective. In other words, funneling funds supports people doing good work now. Sharing information helps other people do good work in the future, too, thereby possibly creating more overall benefit to animals.
While the evaluations of charities is well-thought out and thoroughly presented, less clear are the recommendations of interventions that are deemed effective. This is because ACE has published only four reviews of interventions, while many interventions have not yet been evaluated. Therefore, it is possible that some interventions will be revealed to be highly effective. If so, then this might mean that organizations using these interventions will be evaluated more highly, or more positively by ACE in the future than they would be viewed now, with the limited evaluation of interventions.
ACE’s evaluations of interventions are less persuasive than evaluations of charities. For instance, ACE evaluated leafleting interventions. ACE concluded that leafleting was a potentially worthwhile intervention. However, the body of the evaluation includes statements such as the following:
- it is not clear whether any real difference is due to intrinsic properties of the leaflets
- selecting locations for leafleting, assessing when a location has been saturated with leaflets, and recruiting volunteers or staff to leaflet are non-trivial problems which could potentially slow growth of a leafleting program.
- a great deal of anecdotal evidence is available, but it is difficult to coordinate this into an estimate of impact.
- There are a wide variety of dimensions in which the interior content of a leaflet can vary and currently little information about which persuasive strategies are most effective
The review effectively examines the shortcomings and variables in leafleting. Further, the nature of leafleting itself, i.e. handing someone a piece of printed material with little to no discussion or follow-up seems unlikely to result in significant or lasting behavioral changes, and, as stated, is difficult to follow-up with recipients of leaflets. Therefore, it appears this intervention is deemed “effective” because it is low cost and easy to do, but not necessarily because it results in significant or lasting changes that benefit animals. Some might feel that if an intervention is not actually benefitting animals, no matter how cheap or easy it is to do, it is not effective.
In a real sense, the foundation for ACE’s work is now laid and moving the level of difficulty of the work being done should plateau, as refining and monitoring the value and quality of work is in some ways easier than creating the work to begin with. However, all organizations must guard against becoming complacent and assuming that what once worked well will always work well. Continual monitoring and objectivity should be be an ongoing goal of ACE.
Other Goals and Priorities
The works produced and made available by ACE in the short span of two years is impressive. The website is dense with information about ACE’s thinking, processes and conclusions, as well as blog posts, interviews, reports, and much more. It seems that ACE is now ready to move from building the foundation of how and why they do the work they do, more fully into actually doing the research on both organizations and interventions. This is not to say that research has not been done so far — only that ACE is poised to grow and expand.
ACE strives for transparency and also values responding to questions and criticisms about our findings. To that end, staff and leadership answer and respond to criticisms, comments, questions and sometime rewrite documents or sections of the website in response to a comment from the public or Board. While this is commendable for an organization that values transparency, ACE should be mindful to balance transparency and responsiveness with the more important work of conducting and providing new research.
Areas of Concern:
Because ACE has selected farm animal charities as well as charities that advocate vegan lifestyles as the most likely category to be highly effective, organizations that work to relieve suffering for wild animals, lab animals, fur animals, companion animals etc. are automatically not regarded as being highly effective. This presents several potential problems:
- ACE runs the risk of appearing to only support vegan-focused or farmed animals programs, not including farm animal sanctuaries. This is a small group of organizations to start with, and even fewer are likely to be regarded as highly effective. At some point one might wonder why even bother considering animal charities with focuses other than farmed animals, as they are not likely to earn a top recommendation.
- To continue that reasoning, one might wonder why evaluate charities at all. If ACE believes that working on behalf of farmed animals is the best and most effective way to help the most animals, then they could choose to make a blanket recommendation to donate to only farm animal organizations, and eschew the need for individual evaluations.
- As ACE’s reputation and influence of donations grows, more animal charities will ask to be evaluated in hopes of earning a positive review or new donors. ACE must consider whether to entertain such requests. Failing to evaluate a charity without giving a reason; giving a poor evaluation; or knowing at the start that a charity will not fare well in an evaluation could all damage ACE’s relationships with animal charities.
While many of the goals set by ACE are obvious and reasonable, the value of some goals, such as evaluating international charities are less clear. As ACE seems to be primarily influencing charities and donations in the United States, and as there are hundreds if not thousands of animal charities in the U.S. that have not been evaluated, it is unclear why ACE is spending time and resources to evaluate international organizations. What might hold more value is to evaluate the interventions used by international animal charities to determine which are most viable, which prevent or eliminate the most animals suffering, and which interventions can be replicated in the United States. Sharing best practices from around the world could serve to reduce animal suffering in a more effective, efficient way.
What is going well?
The strengths of this organization are many. ACE is a fairly new organization, but has produced a tremendous amount of high-quality, useful, and impressive research, information, and thinking around animal advocacy and effective altruism. This is a testament to the outstanding skills and dedication of the staff and leadership.
ACE has also benefitted from strong leadership in its Executive Director and Research Manager for setting direction and developing the impressive information and research found on the ACE website. Staff unanimously point to the leadership and interpersonal skills of the ED as the driving force behind the accomplishments made to date. He led a successful transition from working as a project under the Centre for Effective Altruism to a stand-alone organization, and is guiding ACE toward growth and recognition in effective altruism and animal advocacy.
Further, ACE strives for transparency in their thinking and decisions. This inspires trust from those both inside and outside the organization. Self-evaluation and monitoring, constantly questioning assumptions, and reviews of past, present and future work are all fairly unique for a nonprofit, or any organization.
To date, ACE has not developed a marketing and outreach plan. In order to know whether communications and outreach are effective and targeted appropriately, a plan should be developed. As marketing is always a means to an end, not an end in itself, ACE should develop specific goals for outreach efforts with benchmarks for tracking progress and success. As a young organization, it is understandable that ACE does not yet have a thorough marketing plan that meshes with the strategic plan and projected growth of the organization. At this point, much of ACE’s information and plans for communication and outreach are anecdotal. That is not the most effective way to conduct marketing.
Some of the challenges to effective outreach and marketing for ACE are as follows:
ACE has developed some plans for branding, marketing and social media goals, but a full, formal and integrated marketing plan has not been created. Such a plan should be developed.
ACE reports, thinking, evaluations and research findings are all made available on the website. If marketing and outreach is effective at attracting the target audience to the website, and if the audience engages sufficiently with the published materials to gain knowledge, understanding and useable information, then ACE has reached the right audience for the right reasons. Again, data gathering and analysis is crucial to understanding whether ACE is providing the right information to the right people.
Website data analysis so far indicates that many visitors spend significant periods of time engaged with our website, which indicates that the “right” audience is visiting the site, but questions about engaging the “target audience” linger.
ACE has an informal understanding of the target market, but researched verification would help strengthen the way ACE reaches the target audience. For instance, some staff members at ACE believe that their primary audience is animal advocates, generally, while effective altruists, especially those with an interest in animal welfare make up the secondary audience. Yet, other staff members mentioned that effective altruists are the primary audience, and animals advocates the secondary audience. Without consensus internally, developing coherent marketing strategies is more challenging. These are very different audiences that will likely require very different marketing and outreach to connect with them effectively.
The general audience, animal welfare advocates, is a broad audience. ACE will face great competition in connecting with this group as they are already targeted by hundreds if not thousands of animal welfare organizations. This group would prefer more engaging marketing and communications. They respond to pictures of animals and stories about good work being done on behalf of animals. The ACE home page was recently redesigned to be more appealing to this audience, by including more pictures of animals, more accessible, engaging text, etc.
ACE’s other audience is effective altruists. ACE believes, and there is some evidence to indicate, that effective altruists are a highly-engaged, committed audience that are brand-loyal, and closely follow organizations that meet their needs for knowledge. EA audiences tend to actively seek organizations, discuss ideas and findings in depth, and give large donations when they donate. Some of the EA audience likely came to ACE when the organization was still part of the Center for Effective Altruism. From those beginnings, ACE likely connected with a core EA community, which has since been augmented through personal connections, outreach, word of mouth. Further, the EA movement has grown significantly in the last 18 months, and new supporters of EA have found ACE through affiliate organizations or internet searches. ACE must remain alert for opportunities to engage with this audience and stay very visible in case new converts to EA philosophy search for new organizations with which to connect.
ACE has so far taken a grassroots approach to marketing communications, using various social media outlets, the website, and electronic communications. These are all cost effective, but the constantly changing landscape of social media presents its own challenges. Currently social media outreach stands as follows:
Facebook: ACE has a goal of reaching 3,200 “likes” by December 2015 and currently (June 2015) has 2,132 likes. ACE seeks quality likes, i.e. people who really care about the message or work of ACE, as opposed to quantity likes, which can increase traffic to an extent, but not necessarily of the engaged, interested people ACE wishes to attract. In spring 2015, Facebook changed their algorithms for businesses and nonprofits so that commercial groups can’t get people to see posts unless the organization pays to boost the public views or followers shares our posts with their friends. As paying for increased visibility can be expensive and not result in high quality shares, ACE is now restrategizing to make the posts more engaging, thus more likely to be shared.
Twitter: ACE set a goal of reaching 1,000 followers on Twitter by December 2015, and as of this writing (June 2015) has 708 followers, nearly double the followers from June 2014. ACE has emphasized getting noticed, increasing postings, and creating engaging posts that resonate with our audience. Again, Twitter constantly changes their algorithms which makes staying up to date a challenge, but the marketing team appears to be using Twitter well.
Other Social Media outlets like YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn are smaller social media markets at this time. Google + isn’t yet a very popular or useful social media presence. LinkedIn requires that users actively search for a business or organization to find them, unless an organization chooses to pay to be more visible.
Many commercial and large nonprofit organizations do pay to make their presence more visible on social media. However, doing so can get very expensive, sometimes costing cost upwards of $10,000 per month, so is not a viable strategy for ACE. Less expensive outreach options may be available and should be examined and considered as part of a strategic marketing and branding plan.
Events: ACE staff members attend and table at events such as the National Animal Rights Conference, Vegfests in areas where staff members live and can attend easily, and the Taking Action for Animals (TAFA) conference. All of these events are likely beneficial, and allow ACE to grow their brand and become more widely known. These events attract the types of people that ACE seeks to engage, so these are probably efficient and cost effective methods of connecting with potential supports. These efforts could be more effectively examined if they were part of a marketing/outreach plan that meshes with the strategic plan, and utilizes data gathered from sources like Google analytics, surveys, etc. Without data, there is limited certainty about the effectiveness of attending events.
Google Adwords: As a nonprofit, ACE receives $40,000 worth of advertising on Google Adwords each month, and is using more than 90% of that budget each month. Adwords is closely parsed with Google Analytics to make tracking and projecting trends easier. ACE has not yet taken full advantage of the tracking/projection capabilities, but currently has an intern working to develop and set up reporting and tracking methods that will allow ACE to understand trends and important user and visitor data. This data will allow ACE to view and understand demographic data of visitors, learn where traffic originates, what organic searches led a visitor to the ACE site, and much more. This is crucial information for projecting trends, developing a marketing plan, targeting the intended audience, crafting the right messages, etc.
Should ACE focus more on wild animals/anti-speciesism/long term effects?
Because wild animals represent the largest group of animal populations, interventions that relieve or eliminate suffering of wild animals potentially hold the biggest opportunity for impact on behalf of animals. Our current understanding and intractability of wild animal issues make interventions difficult at this time, but ACE should always remain alert to opportunities, new research that increases our understanding of wild animal issues, and collaborate with, if not evaluate, organizations that primarily advocate on behalf of wild animals. Currently ACE does not recommend any wild animal organizations as top charities, and has focused evaluations on farm animal organizations. There is opportunity to evaluate organizations advocating for wild animals, identify effective interventions on behalf of wild animals, and encourage wider use of effective interventions and best practices.
Anti-speciesism seems to be at the core of the work and values of ACE, and yet little research, thinking or information has been produced in this area. The term anti-speciesism is not well understood, even among animal advocates, who do not always value all animal life equally. Further, some groups that promote anti-speciesism are seen as radical and some people are turned off by their methods. This presents PR challenges to be sure, but anti-speciesism is at the core of ACE values – all animal life is seen as equally valuable and important. Finding ways to talk about, write about, think about, and promote anti-speciesism could eventually help animals in all groups: wild, laboratory, companion, and farmed animals.
ACE has clearly put a lot of thought into why the current focus is on farm animal advocacy, and by extension vegan outreach. For now this is reasonable and well-supported. However, while the potential numbers of animals helped is huge, the organizations working in this arena are relatively few when compared to the number of organizations working on behalf of companion animals, or organizations that work for more general or broadly focused animal welfare advocacy, such as organizations like HSUS, ASPCA, PETA, etc. Because there are fewer farm animal-focused organizations than say, organizations that work for companion animals, finding farm-animal focused organizations that also work on things that have high mission effectiveness, are well managed, are self-reflective and transparent, are cost-effective but need more money, and have concrete plans for growth might prove to be a challenge. Such criteria also eliminate farm animal sanctuaries, as sanctuaries rescue small numbers of animals at a very high cost per animal. That means that sanctuaries will not likely ever receive top-charity ratings by ACE. Eliminating sanctuaries from the organizations that work to promote farm-animal advocacy makes the pool of potentially high-functioning farm animal organizations even smaller. Further, overcoming cultural tendencies away from a meat-based diet seems daunting. And finally, though this may not be a big concern, there is potential that ACE could be seen as only promoting farm animal interventions and vegan diets. This would be unfortunate.
ACE should embrace opportunities to expand research on organizations and interventions that promote anti-speciesism in general, by working to reduce or eliminate all animal suffering that is caused by people. This type of approach would positively impact animals everywhere including farmed animals, laboratory animals, animals in commerce, animals used for entertainment, animals in human homes, and wild animals. Such an approach is carried out by several organizations, including the Animal Welfare Institute, PETA, ALDF, etc.
Should ACE focus more on directing donations to farmed animals in general rather than specific charities?
In 2014, ACE considered reviewing 156 organizations, and wrote reviews for 54 organizations. Only 26 reviews were published for a variety of reasons, including that some organizations preferred not to have the review published, or were unable to provide sufficient information to complete the shallow review process. At present, of the 26 reviews published by ACE in 2014, only three are listed as top charities, and four as standout charities. This is a rather small number of endorsements, which means donations are being directed to just a handful of organizations. Each recommended organization employs different methods of doing their work, which implies that animals can be effectively helped through a variety of interventions. To that end, ACE might ultimately relieve the suffering of more animals by explaining that most work done on behalf of farmed animals is likely to have a bigger overall impact on animal cruelty than any other area of animal advocacy, and directing donors to support farm animal advocacy and interventions, exclusive of sanctuaries (which can only help a few animals for a high cost-to-value ratio).
Should ACE focus on providing advice to organizations and advocates?
Survey responses from donors, although representing a small sample size, indicate that they wish for more research on interventions. Staff, too, expressed a desire to do more research into interventions. There are several reasons for this:
- Evaluating charities is not compelling for some people. It is hard to explain in casual conversation why effective altruism matters and and how and why ACE works to evaluate charities.
- The work ACE does helps animals, but only indirectly. ACE helps people give money to organizations that help animals. Staff who are committed and interested in helping animals expressed a desire to promote effective interventions as a means to help animals, relieve suffering, and create better practices over time. Helping strengthen the work being done by animal advocacy feels more immediate to helping animals than does influencing donations.
- As charities recognize the potential benefits that an ACE recommendation can bring, they have begun turning to ACE for other expertise as well. Researching effective intervention strategies and sharing best-practices has the potential to raise ACE’s profile, help animal charities improve their ability to help animals and reduce, relieve or eliminate suffering on a greater scale.
Should ACE spend more time networking with academics?
Because academics, both professors and graduate students, need to conduct research for their own career advancement, networking with academics to encourage and support them in conducting inquiries into effectiveness of animals advocacy could prove valuable to ACE, the academics ACE works with, and to animal advocates worldwide.
Of course, connecting with academics will present its own challenges. The amount of time needed to find, connect with and educate amenable academics could be significant. Further, working with grad students imposes time constraints and limitations that might prove problematic. ACE must also consider that animal advocacy is not well regarded in many academic arenas, as the focus tends to be on social science. ACE may find it challenging to find academics willing to research animal advocacy issues, as tenure committees, graduate committees, etc., may not support or value animal advocacy, and might discourage or even prohibit academic inquiry into the field. Study in animal sentience, behavior and welfare is gaining ground and respect in some academic circles, but shifts in perceptions or values in academia never happen quickly.
Bios and pictures posted on the ACE website indicate the Board is cerebral, accomplished, and passionate about animal issues. The Board of Directors of ACE consists of five members, and one advisory member. It also appears, superficially, that the Board is made up of all white males in their mid-30s. More diversity in terms of gender, age, experience, interests, professional background and culture/ethnicity might move the Board in new, interesting or beneficial directions.
The Board members serve a maximum of a three-year term, and then must take at least a year off. If a member wishes to return to the Board after one year off, they may return for one more three-year term. This assures that Board members turn over regularly, and that new members are brought on regularly. The benefits of Board Term limits are many. For instance, organizations may be better able to attract active and involved members who are not able to make a long term commitment to the organization. Term limits allow busy executives and community leaders to serve the organization and bring fresh new ideas that they may not otherwise have been able to share had they been required to make a longer term commitment.
As of this writing (June 2015) two members of the Board are leaving and they will be replaced soon. This could change the make-up and focus of the Board, and at this point we cannot predict how that might affect the direction or operations of ACE. New potential Board members are currently being considered. For the current recruitment, a list of potential members was generated, and then initial screening began, consisting of discussions, emailed questionnaires, and reviews of potential conflicts of interest. That original list has now been narrowed down and the final candidates are being considered. These candidates will be invited to attend Board meetings to help determine the best fit for the organization. Because of these new members, the functioning, mood, personality, and direction of the Board may change slightly, but no major changes in policy, direction or mission are expected.
The ACE Board functions primarily in an advisory capacity. While the members appear deeply involved and caring about the mission and work of ACE, they are not involved in day-to-day operations. This is appropriate, as day-to-day work is the responsibility of the ED and staff. The Board members are highly accomplished and busy professionals. They do not have a lot of time to contribute to ACE, but they have consistently been present for Board meetings, and participate fully during each two-hour meetings. This is significant as some Boards struggle with attendance and engagement. This does not appear to be a problem for ACE.
The strengths of the Board are their intellectual contributions, their ability to synthesize information and strategize how ACE can achieve the greatest good and meet the organizational goals. When setting directions and strategy, they are realistic, interesting initiatives. There does not appear to be conflict within the Board, or between the Board and the ED.
The Board members all contribute financially to ACE, and this is important: it shows commitment to external funders and other donors, and because some members have contributed significant funds in the first years of the organization, the donations were crucial to the growth of ACE. Board members themselves provided 25% of ACE’s total operating funds in 2014. This was incredibly generous, but not sustainable over time. The amount donated by Board members in 2015 will be much less, which again points to the need for strategic fundraising.
With everyone, including the Board, working remotely, the Board can’t provide the “normal” support around fundraising, recruitment, events, and networking that can be expected from local place-based Boards. However, as additional funding for ACE is a need that everyone sees, the Board must become more active in fundraising. Additionally, the Board is not highly “outward facing” in terms of presenting a public face for ACE, but this is not crucial. Board members are not always highly visible. As the organization grows, there may or may not be a need for more public support and advocacy on behalf of ACE by the Board.
ACE is still a relatively new organization with a small staff. The current staff appears to work well together and be producing enormous amounts of high-quality work. The website content, thought processes, transparency and structures outline in both internal and public documents are all impressive.
Because everyone works remotely, there are certain challenges that the staff must negotiate. Working in different time zones and using electronic communications rather than face-to-face makes developing close working relationships a bit more challenging. It is also crucial to hire employees that are highly self-disciplined, self-motivated, independent but accountable, and able to work with little supervision. This is not a problem, just a unique situation that must be considered.
ACE uses the Google platform to stay in touch, as well as Asana for tracking projects. For new employees, orientations to these platforms would be useful as there is a bit of a learning curve for new users. It would also be helpful to orient new employees to the expectations, benefits, and pitfalls of working in a virtual environment to help everyone work most effectively and cooperatively.
Interns and volunteers are recruited through the ACE website and various volunteer recruitment platforms, with new interns coming on board every 3 or 4 months. ACE strives to provide high-quality learning experiences for interns, and also has the ability to offer stipends if needed, but prefers not to pay stipends if demand for positions is sufficient, as resources are limited. All internship programs are challenging, in that it can be difficult to train, supervise and get good quality work from students in a short time period. This is true with the ACE program, as well as for many other internship programs. Because the work of ACE tends to be cerebral and focused on research and writing, it is essential that interns and volunteers have the skills and abilities to contribute positively to ACE’s work. It can be a challenge to find interns or volunteers with high-level skills, as well as the ability and willingness to work within ACE’s rather unique structure. There is little to no opportunity for physical service, i.e. events, leafleting, animal care, etc. as is found in other organizations. Further, the virtual work environment of ACE requires more finesse in supervision, assigning and monitoring assignments and receiving deliverables than would be required in a face-to-face environment.
ACE does not have a clear list of tasks to be done by interns or volunteers, so tasks are determined, to a large extent, by the skills of the interns ACE selects. While ACE wants to expand and enhance the intern and volunteer programs, doing so is time-consuming. With the current level of staffing and workload, the program is likely to remain the same for the foreseeable future. Any growth in the program is likely to be slow.
The one unanimous need identified by staff was the need for more funding for ACE itself. ACE has been working to steadily increase funding since inception. In 2013, ACE took in $42,000. In 2014, funding rose to $170,000. This is impressive growth and continued growth is expected in 2015. Funding will likely present a continuing challenge, as is the case with most nonprofits. Unlike most nonprofits, through, ACE faces unique challenges because its mission is to promote donating to top charities over itself. With this in mind, fundraising appeals will need to be creative and targeted to reach the right funders and grantmakers.
Without adequate funding, hiring and retaining high-quality employees is more challenging; hiring additional staff to grow programs and outreach is not possible; and purchasing technological or other tools to support our work is inhibited. Staff also identified a need for tools like software or online subscription services that would make their work easier, but that ACE cannot afford at the moment.
ACE recently become a member of the Local Independent Charities of America, which, among other benefits, means ACE can use Give Direct, which allows the organization to receive the full value of donations made to us, without the subtraction of processing fees. For an organization on a limited budget, any maximization of funds is desirable. However, this is unlikely to provide the significant funding needed to increase staff, raise pay, and purchase supplies.
More effort on the part of the Board toward fundraising is important to achieving financial needs. Additionally, the Operations Manager is taking on some additional development work, but since that position only works 10 hours per week, it seems unlikely that significant development progress will happen without additional staff time. Perhaps hours could be increased to accommodate additional fundraising duties. The newest Research Associate is also a professional grant writer. ACE should consider how to use her skills to increase grant applications and funding in addition to her research work. With a small staff, people wear many hats. It would makes sense to take advantage of the full range of skills of an existing employee. Other development initiatives must also be considered, such a fee-for-service evaluations, events, membership drives, increasing monthly donations, bequests/endowments, major gifts, etc.
Most new nonprofits get by for a while with staff taking on pieces of fundraising, but work of raising money is time-consuming and specialized. At some point, ACE will likely need dedicated development staff to take on fundraising.
As the only organization focusing on effective altruism in animal advocacy, ACE has the potential to be a worldwide, highly-regarded, and influential organization. Charity recommendations could potentially move significant amounts of money toward relieving animal suffering in the most effective ways. This is good for for donors, animal advocates, and of course, animals.
ACE could also conduct more research and provide findings in effective interventions that help the most animals in the most cost-effective way. Such information sharing could position ACE as an expert in supporting organizations that are already doing great work for animals, but also help other organizations become more effective. Because so many organizations already ask to be evaluated by ACE, it makes sense that ACE would help those organizations that do not earn our highest ratings learn what they can do to become more effective. ACE could position itself as a leader in effective animal advocacy, rather than as just an evaluator of existing programs.
ACE currently recommends three top charities. The top charities use various methods of outreach, are transparent and open to change and adjustments in strategy when called for, and use funds effectively, among other strengths. Standout charities have similar strengths, but perhaps fare less effectively in one or two key indicators as determined by ACE. Currently, ACE either recommends an organization or it doesn’t, which means that a handful of organizations will receive funding through ACE supporters, and many others won’t. Perhaps once ACE evaluates more interventions for effectiveness, these can be shared with lower performing organizations to help them achieve more success. ACE might also work with organizations to help them understand how they could adjust to earn a higher recommendation, especially organizations that request to be evaluated by ACE. The incentive for the organization is potential funding moved to them, as well as doing better, more effective work on behalf of animals.
ACE should continue to seek organizations that work to help farmed animals through multiple means of outreach and advocacy, including humane education, undercover investigations, legislative and policy influence, vegan lifestyle promotion, and other methods that reduce or eliminate suffering for farmed animals. While individual organizations or particular interventions may have a small impact, the cumulative work of many organizations working on behalf of farmed animals is likely to have a large impact over time. ACE has the opportunity to support that work, and thereby may help reduce or eliminate more overall suffering than would be impacted by just a few select organizations.
Another opportunity for long-term, holistic reduction of suffering is through advocating for, education about, supporting, and evaluating charities that focus on anti-speciesism. Were humans to move away from speciesist thinking, then potentially all groups of animals (wild, captive, companion and farmed) would benefit. While certainly a long-range goal, any changes to speciesist attitudes will benefit animals now and in the future.
To broaden ACE’s impact, marketing, outreach and communications must reach the right audiences. In order to accomplish that, ACE should develop a marketing and outreach plan that relates to the strategic plan. ACE has begun to expand its use of Google analytics on the website and through Adwords to track visitor information and engagement. This is extremely valuable information that should be used to inform communication plans. Other opportunities include continued/increased blogging about topics of interest to our target market to create inbound marketing traffic; considering additional channel advertising; partnering with like-minded and complimentary organizations; providing testimonials from current ACE donors or beneficiary organizations, and the like.
As mentioned above, fundraising is an opportunity for ACE. Without adequate funding, all other activities will be negatively impacted.
ACE appears to be uniquely positioned at this time, and relatively well-connected with other animal advocacy and effective altruism organizations. ACE has a strategic plan that is regularly reviewed and updated, and strives for transparency and self-evaluation. Yet, as with any organization, potential threats exist.
Other organizations could be created that do essentially the same work or very similar work to ACE. This could dilute our potential impact, distract or confuse our donors and supporters, or overshadow the work ACE does. GiveWell appears to be starting investigations into industrial animal agriculture, which could overshadow our work, (but might also lead to beneficial collaborations). Other organizations that make charity recommendations such as Charity Navigator and Philanthropedia also evaluate animal welfare organizations, using different perspectives and measurements than those used by ACE. These evaluations may directly compete with our primary mission and work.
Because ACE makes recommendations about charities, there is a risk that an organization that did not receive a highly positive evaluation from ACE might feel they’ve been slandered or injured in some way by our evaluation. The ramifications could range from negative interactions to loss of collaboration with organizations, damaged reputation, or costly and involved lawsuits.
There is a risk that ACE’s quality of work, including their research and evaluations, could slip. Publishing poor quality reviews, evaluations, or research could damage their reputation and cause supporters to lose trust in ACE.
Not everyone see effective altruism as a positive force for good, and ACE’s focus on effective altruism might alienate certain groups or donors. Some groups, notably Charity Navigator in a 2013 article criticize effective altruism as being moralistic, hyper-rationalistic, and a top-down approach to philanthropy. As effective altruism is a relatively new focus within philanthropy, it remains to be seen whether it is a philosophy that will be widely embraced or utilized.
Animal Charity Evaluators, while a young and small organization, has accomplished much in its short history, and boasts many strengths. With a strong guiding vision, committed leadership, dedicated and skilled staff, ACE is poised for a successful and productive future. While all organizations face threats and challenges, ACE’s commitment to transparency, self-reflection and adapting to change should serve it well and contribute to growth and success in a changing philanthropic and animal-focused landscape.