Matt Ball co-founded Vegan Outreach and served as the group’s Executive Director for more than 20 years. As Executive Director, Matt built the organization into a leading animal advocacy charity, with revenues and assets approaching $1,000,000 and thousands of active members around the world. Under his leadership, activists distributed more than 22 million booklets exposing the treatment of farmed animals, and promoting compassionate, thoughtful living. These booklets convinced countless people to adopt more humane diets.
A globally-recognized authority on animal advocacy, factory farming, vegetarian diets, and applied ethics, Matt has presented at and written for many forums over the past two decades. He is the author of many essays and several books, including: The Animal Activist’s Handbook (2007) and The Accidental Activist (June 2014). In 2005, he was inducted into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame.
Why booklets? Why not demonstrations, or protests, videos, or advertisements?
Oh, we did demonstrations, protests, banner holdings, letter writing, public fasts, media stunts, civil disobedience, etc. I could tell you all the lessons Anne (founding Vice President of VO), Jack (President of VO), and I slowly learned over the years, but the direction we ultimately pursued came about from a full evaluation of our ultimate goal: a vegan world.
In more realistic terms (in the timeframe of our lives), I want to reduce suffering as much as possible. The use and abuse of animals for food is arguably the greatest source of unnecessary suffering in the world, so the way to achieve our goal is to get as many people as possible to start making changes—and expand and maintain those changes—in their food choices.
The question then becomes: how can we get people to change their diet such that they cause less suffering? It is a non-negligible change for most people, but in general, there is an approximate bell curve of people’s willingness and ability to change—from Uncle Dick the hunter who swears he’ll never change, to cousin Jane who loves animals and has never really liked meat, with the majority in between.
We need to reach those on the right-hand side of the bell curve in such a way that we reduce as much suffering as possible per dollar donated and hour worked. For the reasons I discuss in the Advocacy for Maximum Change section of A Meaningful Life, the target audience is generally students—high school and, especially, college.
At the time Anne, Jack, and I were really working to start VO in the early 1990s, we realized we needed something more compelling and constructive than a banner or a chant. The internet wasn’t a “thing” yet, so a booklet was the sweet spot between a shouted slogan and screening a movie for the relative handful of people who would be willing to attend.
The work of building a vegan world is a numbers game—we have to reach a lot of people to be able to influence the most receptive people on the right-hand side of the bell curve—especially those who aren’t willing to seek out information, or who don’t happen to come across and click on a link. As we do this work and society changes, the curve will shift, but it will still be a numbers game. Leafleting—at least in the range we’re currently able to pursue—is one scalable way to reach a significant portion of the right-hand side of the curve.
The idea of specialize and network is also relevant—efficiency and effectiveness comes from focus. Given our limited resources, efficiency is very important in having the biggest possible impact.
You’ve classified some of your methods as utilitarian. Why do you take that approach?
As mentioned above (and discussed in Letter to a Young Matt), after I went vegetarian and got involved in activism, I took the “everything and anything” approach to animal advocacy. I cared about words, philosophy, “consistency.” I wanted to be “right.” It was only after I developed a chronic disease that I came to understand that what we’re doing isn’t a game. It isn’t an argument to be “won.” Activism isn’t a forum for expressing my opinions or demanding my personal desires.
Rather, suffering is real. Suffering is the bottom line, and reducing suffering as much as possible must be the singular goal. To choose the best tactic for reducing suffering as much as possible, all other considerations need to be set aside.
Even though it can’t be exactly quantified (and this is a real, ongoing concern), reducing suffering provides a specific metric by which to set goals and measure progress. Without this clear bottom line, we’re left without any rational, defensible means by which to choose our actions. Just consider the alternative: no matter how compelling or immediate another campaign might seem, there will be more suffering in the world if we do not pursue utilitarian goals.
I now know, first-hand, that I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to have lived and leave the world with more suffering than if I had made different choices.
Lots of people are in favor of reducing animal suffering but consider veganism to be an extreme step that they’re unwilling to take. How do you involve those people?
In his interview with Vegan.com’s Erik Marcus, author Jonathan Safran Foer explained the two motivations for his book Eating Animals: To be useful (not thorough), and to get new people to focus on the first step, not the last.
This is a perfect summary of my view as well. The optimal advocacy tools—booklets, videos, food samplings, etc.—are explicitly focused on getting people to take the first step toward helping animals. And then the next step. And to be able to maintain and expand those changes.
This is just our current view, however. When Anne, Jack, and I started, our focus was obviously much more along the lines of “vegan”—the name “Vegan Outreach,” our first main booklet Why Vegan. It was all about veganism, not about getting as many people as possible to take steps that actually help animals and reduce suffering.
The use of the word “vegan”—vs. reaching the most people—has been an issue over much of VO’s history. As we evolved in our thinking, we considered changing our name (for a second time; we started out at Animal Liberation Action). Two things stopped us. One was a study showing companies that changed their name had a significant drop in support / share price; this was relevant for VO, as our then-supporters were pretty much all vegan—and very pro-“vegan”—and very against the change. Second, in our survey of supporters about a possible name change, Peter Singer noted that it was very useful to have a “sane” vegan group as a part of the overall animal advocacy movement.
VO receives a lot of anecdotal feedback from people who have changed their diet as a result of your efforts. How do you know that VO is being effective? Does VO have any intention of trying to quantify results?
You are right about the feedback!
Given the stark facts, it could be argued that the biggest problem the animals face isn’t the lack of people going vegetarian. Rather, a more significant problem is that the majority of people who do go vegetarian stop being vegetarian! It is much worse for the animals if someone tries to go vegetarian, doesn’t feel healthy, goes back to eating meat and tells everyone about their experience. (Discussed more here.)
But even worse than failed vegetarians are all the people who give up eating big mammals and instead eat many more birds. (Math and sources here.)
These indicate a few of the problems faced by those who seek to quantify advocacy effectiveness. To truly understand the impact of any particular tactic for the animals, we need an accurate measure of the full net impact (i.e., how everyone changes their diet, not just the self-selected vegetarians who answer surveys). But we also need a measurement of results over a long-enough timeframe so as to capture failed vegetarians, as they can more-than-offset any short-term created vegetarians. (Not to mention evaluating effectiveness in a way that allows apples-to-apples comparisons with alternatives, capturing opportunity costs, scalability, etc.)
And, of course, honesty is an issue—both from the evaluator and within the evaluator’s mind. We all want to believe the best of our ideas and work, which leads us to be severely biased, both consciously and unconsciously.
What role do you think research will play in the future of animal advocacy?
I obviously hate to say it, but I think research will not play as significant a role in the future of animal advocacy as it could or should. This is not just because of the difficulty of getting honest, statistically-significant, meaningful, long-term, prescriptive data. Rather, it is because there are relatively few individuals who are truly motivated by maximum impact.
This is just human nature. And we hurt animals when we ignore human nature.
Research results—regardless of if they are honest, relevant, scalable, significant, and universal—may shuffle the relatively few dollars from a handful of strict utilitarians, but they won’t change human nature. If we want to do our absolute best for the animals, we have to work with people where they are—members and the public alike—rather from where we want them to be.
But don’t you think that the more utilitarian-minded individuals are growing in number? For example, ACE has recently seen more individuals and organizations take an interest in measuring their impact. Shouldn’t we make at least modest efforts to measure and improve our work?
It is absolutely true there has been a shift in advocacy focus. There has been a complete change in the animal advocacy movement since Anne, Jack, and I started Vegan Outreach, since I wrote “Veganism and Activism Reconsidered.” In 1995, the magazine The Economist did a cover story on animal rights, which noted that in the United States, the movement focused on fur and vivisection. Thankfully, that is no longer the case—much, much more of our time and resources go to the ~99% of animals who suffer and die to be eaten.
And yet, even if there is a relative increase in the number of utilitarian-minded individuals, there is no way to be sure they will give their dollars based on research that is honest, relevant, scalable, significant, and universal. Few people, if any, have the time and/or ability to fully evaluate “studies” that claim to show effectiveness. This leaves utilitarians in the same place as non-utilitarians: vulnerable to manipulation by people telling them what they want to hear.
This is not to say I’m entirely pessimistic. But even with the significant and important change in animal advocacy focus, the groups that focus partially or exclusively on the ~99% of animals who die in the US each year raise most of their money with high-profile, short-term campaigns—investigations, rescues, celebrities, gatherings.
So it is true: the focus of advocacy in the US, as a whole, has changed surprisingly, significantly, and quickly for the better. But we can only be as successful as possible if we understand and work with human nature.
What are some ways you maximize return on investment?
The first way is by having the fundamental purpose explicitly stated: to reduce suffering as much as possible. Not just “help animals” or “promote veganism,” but to reduce suffering as much as possible. Fulfilling this mission obviously and inherently requires striving to maximize return on investment.
Second, as part of pursuing our stated goal, we know we have to keep learning, evolving, improving. We read, study, consult, and review widely and regularly.
Maximizing returns means efficiency, and that means not trying to be everything to everyone. I know I’m a part of a larger movement, and make decisions based not only on my strengths and the current state of society, but also based on what other organizations and individuals are currently investing in and pursuing. In other words: specialize and network. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and I don’t want anyone else to have to reinvent the wheel. I want to be part of the wheel, driving progress forward.
As far as I know, every animal advocacy organization other than HSUS has used VO’s booklets in the past 20 years—from PETA and Farm Sanctuary, The Humane League and FARM, to UCONN Veg and activists working informally in small groups or on their own. (And many HSUS people have used Vegan Outreach booklets in their personal advocacy; HSUS’s Josh Balk was our leading leafleter the first semester of Adopt a College.)
Your work has been to raise awareness about the truths behind animal agriculture. How close do you think we are to the point where people are already aware? What happens next?
These are excellent, important, and ongoing questions.
The first depends on defining “aware.” When Anne, Jack, and I started Vegan Outreach, factory farms were basically unknown, and vegetarianism wasn’t considered a realistic alternative. (More than 20 years ago, when Anne and I were holding a “Stop Eating Animals” banner, one woman asked, “Who eats animals?”)
For a majority of Americans today, this is no longer the case. The level of awareness, though, is nebulous and incomplete. When they get a booklet or see a video, many people say they had no idea, or had no idea it was so bad.
But yes: things are noticeably different today. Today, much more than 20 years ago, we hear from people who say, “I was thinking about going vegetarian,” “My friend (sister, uncle) just went vegetarian,” or “What good timing getting this [booklet]—I just saw a video about this and was wondering what I could do.” (And, going back to question 4, activists regularly hear from people who had tried to be vegetarian previously.)
Ongoing societal change could potentially lead to changing advocacy tactics: As more and more people are interested—at least on some level—in making new choices, and technology advances and becomes more pervasive, opportunities for outreach—such as Facebook ads—become more attractive.
However, we need to keep the broader picture in mind, asking what are the optimal tactics for any group or individual to pursue within the entire advocacy ecosystem. If other groups are saturating Facebook with ads, then another group shouldn’t spend donors’ money just to be considered “new” or “modern” or to “create buzz.” I obviously wouldn’t argue every animal advocacy dollar must go to printing and distributing booklets, any more than I would argue every dollar should go to online ads, feed-ins, or campaigns. Those concerned with reducing suffering as much as possible should focus on maximizing returns, giving donors the biggest bang for the buck, considering every relevant aspect of the current state of the world, including the actions of other individuals and animal advocacy organizations.
Yet it is possible that by being less focused and efficient, a group could reduce more suffering; i.e., it is possible an organization could do less efficient activities some donors might find more exciting and inspiring, providing more resources for our overall work. A $2 million group being 60% efficient can do more good than an $800,000 organization being 90% efficient.
Your general focus has been to raise awareness in a certain demographic of people who are more open to change (often college students). How can organizations and individuals reach the vast majority of the population who are more prone to following the norm?
As discussed previously, many of us focus on students for the reasons specified in the “Maximum Change” section of A Meaningful Life. For the foreseeable future, outreach to younger people will provide the best opportunity to help animals—the “biggest bang for the buck,” if you will.
In general, the older the audience, the less open they are to new ideas, and the more health concerns are a motivating issue. This has been the cause of immeasurable suffering. Even though many vegans are quick to embrace and promote any and all claims that sound vaguely anti-meat, concerns for health have led to billions and billions of chickens suffering immensely—many of them actually suffering to death before taken to slaughter.
I’ve spelled out the potential downsides of certain forms of the health argument in different articles. If we want the net impact of our advocacy to help animals rather than please a subset of vegans, we have to focus on birds, as Ben Davidow shows in this graph.
And we have to focus on chickens in a way that the general public (not current vegans) will react to positively. Just because many vegans happily and wholeheartedly accept negative health claims regarding consuming chicken doesn’t mean the general public will. The way to focus effectively on chickens is not to turn away from the cruelty argument, but, as needed, couple it with other issues; e.g., bacterial contamination—a message that is both honest and backed up by the message meat eaters hear from the general media.
By this logic, shouldn’t advocacy material solely focus on chickens and fish, and never mention other animals?
From a first-order utilitarian calculation, this would seem to be the only defensible message. But we have to keep in mind that we’re not out to make the optimal utilitarian case; rather, we are trying to create maximum change so as to reduce suffering as much as possible. This is not done by logic, but by opening new people’s hearts and minds. People aren’t motivated by utilitarian equations, but rather by emotions. Given that most people have a significantly greater emotional affinity for mammals, the path to maximum change requires using this connection as a “foot in the door” to get people to consider the plight of farmed animals.
Furthermore, we have to keep in mind the preferences of donors and leafleters—not only in booklet content, but in what is featured in enewsletters, blog posts, etc. A relatively small percentage of animal advocates are driven by utilitarian calculations.
If you were to start over in your advocacy career, what are two or three things that you would do differently?
I wrote two books (The Animal Activist’s Handbook and The Accidental Activist) and only covered some of this!
1. Be very careful with what you believe and choose to present to the public. There aren’t many honest sources of information, and, as humans, we’re quick to believe what we want to believe, and dismiss anything else.
It would have been hard for me to learn this 25 years ago, because I was the epitome of this problem. I was singularly concerned with defending myself / my veganism, rather than actually pursuing effective advocacy to help animals. I believed, and parroted, everything and anything that seemed remotely pro-veg or anti-meat.
Unfortunately, this continues today, with many vegans focused on what makes them feel justified and/or popular with other vegans. For example, Ginny Messina, RD, checks studies promoted by various animal advocacy groups. When she actually reads the anti-red-meat papers (this one, for example), some of these studies also say eating chicken is health-neutral or even beneficial! Think about that—animal advocates promoting studies that show eating chickens is beneficial, just because the study showed negative consequences for red meat.
2. Realize we are going to win. It won’t come about from some vegans demanding others go vegan. Rather, we will create the new world we desire through continued constructive and realistic outreach that helps more people take the first steps to help animals. And then the next steps. And to maintain those changes.
Change is occurring and will continue to occur through outreach that is psychologically sound, based in the real world, and integrated into our capitalist society. And then we build methodically on every step and change the world piece by piece.
On a related note, what are two or three lessons you have learned from other animal advocacy organizations?
The money you have for advocacy is partially determined by how how you make your members feel (high-profile stories, individual animals (mammals), media coverage, celebrities, personal stories, pro-vegan / anti-meat stories). As mentioned above, it is entirely plausible that by being less focused on efficiency, and more on being “popular,” an individual or organization can do more net good in the world.
On the flip side: be grateful, every single day, for being able to work with thoughtful, focused, dedicated, selfless individuals.
What are ways we could do better at creating leaflets or other first-step materials? Or have we reached the point of diminishing returns?
Eric Herboso says
Humane League Labs is currently doing testing on better language for leafleting.
It’s unclear if we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on leaflet optimization, but I can say that I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point of diminishing returns on intervention research in general. There very well may be significant improvements possible on first step materials; as we continue to study further, I anticipate that ACE will be able to give out better recommendations.
It sounds to me like Matt is saying research on effective animal advocacy, like the work ACE, The Humane League (Labs), and Nick Cooney are doing / have done won’t have much of an impact.
He wrote, “Few people, if any, have the time and/or ability to fully evaluate “studies” that claim to show effectiveness.”
And I agree – I’d consider myself a utilitarian, but I barely have enough time to read anything.
That’s why we need these groups like ACE to do the research for us and summarize the key results/orgs/techniques of advocacy we should focus on.
Interesting to hear such pessimism in the first answer, then such optimism in the second!
The claim that “there are relatively few individuals who are truly motivated by maximum impact” is bizarre to me…though maybe that’s just because I am one of those strange few that are.
But I agree with the observation that “we have to work with people where they are…rather than from where we want them to be”.
The takeaway for me is that, in researching and developing more effective approaches, we must include human nature and psychology as considerations. That doesn’t mean research is less important — just that its scope should be wider than it might initially seem.