Sebastian Joy is the CEO of VEBU, an animal charity in Germany that is expanding internationally under the name “ProVeg.” Joy spoke with ACE Research Associate Toni Adleberg on July 26, 2016 and September 28, 2016. The following is a summary of their conversations.
VEBU’s Greatest Strengths
One of VEBU’s strengths is that, while they are devoted to helping animals, they do not explicitly frame themselves as an animal charity. They promote health, global food justice and the environment as well as animal welfare. Joy thinks that not being seen as an animal charity makes them more credible with the public and the media to spread a pro-vegan message. VEBU can adapt their messaging to address a broad variety of individuals or institutions in order to facilitate change. For example: VEBU has been invited to speak at the European Parliament on the positive impact of a vegan diet on climate change; the federal association of health insurances consulted VEBU on the health benefits of a more plant-based diet; the German meat congress invited VEBU to give the keynote speech about the future of meat, etc. Reaching a variety of important stakeholders with adapted messaging also allows VEBU to cross-sell animal welfare, i.e. to promote ethical considerations toward animals, to stakeholders that originally approached VEBU because of other reasons.
VEBU has a strong track record of leveraging donations by getting funding from sources outside of the animal movement. For several projects they received funding from the EU or German government to promote plant-based diets. Often, the government provides about 75% of the funding if VEBU provides the other 25%. This allows VEBU to quadruple donations and to effectively increase the monetary influx into the animal movement and reduces fundraising cannibalism within the movement.
VEBU attracts and connects with many different partners, including caterers, food industry, NGOs, and health insurance companies. They have a strong track record of influencing the influencers, opinion and market leaders, in each industry, like the Compass Group, Charité Hospital, and BioFach.
Many of VEBU’s programs are innovative and at least partially revenue-generating. Examples include their Vitamin B12 fortified toothpaste, the medical conference VegMed and the VeggieWorld fairs, which occur in nine cities and are largely financially self-sustainable. Caterers recompense the training they receive, and companies pay an annual fee for using the V-Label to certify their vegetarian and vegan products.
VEBU’s Greatest Weaknesses
Individual fundraising is relatively challenging for VEBU because of their positive, rational and institutional long-term approach. Individual donors are more likely to donate to more emotional interventions like undercover investigations or screening of graphical videos.
Organizational Structure of VEBU
VEBU’s paid staff consists of approximately 50 people, 40 full-time equivalents. About 13 of them are full-time volunteers paid through a German government program. There is a board that oversees VEBU’s activities but it is not involved in the everyday work. VEBU’s leadership is exercised by Joy and three department heads as well as a part-time, unpaid President.
VEBU’s Biggest Accomplishments From the Past Year
VEBU has secured basic funding to expand their most cost-effective interventions into four new countries. Internationally they act as ‘ProVeg’ and VEBU is planning to turn into ‘ProVeg Germany’. They chose to expand to Spain, France, Poland, and the UK after analyzing 40 countries in detail. In a first step, they expand to countries in Europe that are geographically and culturally close to Germany. They already have experience working in some of these countries; for example, they’ve held VeggieWorld in Paris and it was a huge success. They are already building their new bases, hiring native people on the ground who can take VEBU’s interventions and build them in the new countries.
Additionally to their expansion to the four countries mentioned above, VEBU has also internationalized several of their interventions. The medical conference VegMed 2016 explicitly appealed to an international audience, VEBU hosted the first International Vegan Law Symposium this year, VEBU will take over the international coordination of the Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale 2017, etc.
Influencing the Business Sector
VEBU is behind the “V-Label” in Germany, which as of now designates about ten percent of all German food products as vegan (6000 products from 400 companies). This not only makes life easier for vegetarians and vegans, but also helps promote veganism. The established direct contact to several hundred companies also serves as a ‘foot in the door’ technique to convince companies to develop new vegan products.
VEBU has worked with meat companies to help them develop plant-based products. As a result, Joy was invited to speak at the German Meat Congress, where he argued that meat companies’ business models will become obsolete if they do not start producing plant-based products.
VEBU is also active in training caterers to supply vegan options. This past year, they renewed their contract with Compass Group, the largest contract foodservice company in the world.
VEBU is active in media outreach and reaches about 20 million people per month. They release between 80 and 100 press releases per year. Due to their strategic positioning, VEBU is a credible partner for journalists in all matters regarding a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
In February 2016, VEBU organized a campaign called “La Table Suisse” as a joint project with Beyond Carnism. They produced a video about a fake restaurant in Switzerland that allegedly serves cat and dog meat. The campaign reached more than 10 million people.
A few years ago, VEBU initiated the VeggieWorld fairs, which have since expanded tremendously. Each event attracts on average between 12 and 15 thousand people. Five fairs were held in different cities in Germany in 2016 and the concept has been expanded into Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France. In 2016, VeggieWorld Paris was booked and attracted a lot of media attention; another one will be held this year.
Influencing the Civil Sector
VEBU seeks to maximize their impact by “influencing the influencers,” like NGOs and the government. The fact that meat production contributes to climate change is a cause that’s largely neglected in the German political discourse. Even environmental NGOs tend to recommend eating chicken instead of beef, rather than advocating a plant-based diet. VEBU is working to change that; they are a member of the Climate Alliance Germany, a consortium of over 100 NGOs, including World Wildlife Fund Germany, Oxfam Germany, and others. VEBU drafted the section on nutrition for the alliance’s Climate Action Plan 2050, recommending that German animal agriculture be reduced by 50% by 2050. This is now the official recommendation to the German government, which all members of the alliance support.
Studies have shown that many Germans cite health concerns as a reason for not shifting towards a plant-based diet. To address these concerns, VEBU organizes a biannual conference called “VegMed” together with Charité, Germany’s leading medical research institution. The last VegMed took place in April 2016 and more than one thousand people participated in the three-day event. This year, the conference also had many international speakers, including Neal Barnard of PCRM and Michael Greger of Nutrition Facts.
Above all, VEBU is focused on their international expansion. They do not plan to expand much further in Germany. VEBU hopes to become an an international pro-vegan organization with a focus on effectiveness.
VEBU will soon change their mission statement to include a 50% reduction in the global consumption of animals and animal products by the year 2040 as their main goal.
Need for Funding
Last year, VEBU met their goal of increasing funding by about $400,000. Next year, they hope to increase their funding by another $400,000-$500,000, though they could effectively absorb up to $1.1 million to build up their presence in Spain, France, Poland, and the UK. They would use unrestricted funding up to $1.1 million to implement their most effective interventions like media outreach, vegan fairs, vegan community building and corporate outreach in those four countries. Restricted funding could be used for specific interventions or countries.
While they have current plans to expand to four new countries, they would consider expanding further if they got the funding.
Cooperation with Other Groups
VEBU works with Beyond Carnism, the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Greenpeace, Foodwatch (a consumer protection organization in Germany) and Deutsches Tierschutzbüro, among other groups. They meet informally with Animal Equality Germany. They are in contact with Nick Cooney of Mercy For Animals and Bruce Friedrich from The Good Food Institute. There is funding available in Europe for organizations to connect with each other internationally. VEBU has participated in that program and sent staffers to other organizations for a couple of days, as well as hosted activists from other countries.
VEBU cooperates with the Albert Schweitzer Foundation and Berlin-Vegan (a local group) to organize the largest vegan summer festival in Europe (Veganes Sommerfest Berlin), which will take place in August 2016 and where 55 to 60 thousand participants are expected.
Together, VEBU and the Albert Schweitzer Foundation developed a ranking of fast food and supermarket chains, whereby the former concentrated more on the fast food, and the latter on the supermarket companies.
VEBU also cooperates with the German-speaking effective altruist community, which is receptive to animal causes. VEBU provides them with office space for weekend meetings.
Why does VEBU advocate for vegetarianism and reducing meat consumption in addition to veganism? Why not advocate for veganism alone?
Wherever possible, VEBU highlights and communicates the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. For example, all recipes and nutritional information they publish are vegan. However, it also seems strategic to support behavioral change in the many people who are already willing to decrease or eliminate their consumption of meat. Based on a recent and representative study conducted in Germany, 41% of meat eaters can imagine themselves eating less meat while 21% can see themselves becoming vegetarians. Only 1% can imagine adopting a vegan diet.
VEBU’s advocacy strategy is based on what will have the biggest impact, according to the best studies and data available. Instead of “making (a few) more people vegan,” VEBU’s motto is “make (many) people more vegan.” While VEBU is grateful for any additional vegan, their bottom line is not the number of vegans in Germany or elsewhere but the overall reduced consumption of animals and animal products.
Another reason not to focus on veganism alone is VEBU’s strategic approach and proven track record of influencing major institutions. For example: VEBU successfully lobbied Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam and many other important NGOs in Germany to officially demand from the German federal government to reduce livestock in Germany by 50% in order to protect the climate. Focusing on veganism alone would not have lead to this success.
VEBU focuses mostly on the promotion of veg diets rather than other ways of helping farmed animals, like humane reforms. Do you worry that this means you’re missing out on high-impact campaigns?
VEBU’s goal is to reduce the consumption of animals and animal products to the greatest possible extent. They do acknowledge the benefits of humane reforms in terms of reducing animal suffering in short-term and in some cases increasing prices and thus reducing demand for animal products. However, they are also concerned about the problem of morally licensing the consumption of “humane” animal products in the public. While humane reforms can improve the quality of farmed animals’ lives, VEBU seeks to decrease the quantity of lives affected through corporate outreach, education, lobbying and other high-impact interventions.
As there are already many organizations working on humane reforms, VEBU believes that focusing on their proven interventions to reduce the consumption of animal products is the better choice from a global perspective. They believe that efficiently expanding the most cost-effective of their interventions into many other countries will generate the highest impact for the animal movement as a whole.
Some would argue that the development of animal-free foods will be the key turning point for ending animal farming. What role does VEBU play in facilitating these technologies?
VEBU has already been playing a key role in the development and dissemination of animal-free foods for years. They do so by cooperating with and thereby influencing the key players in the European food industry. Their main tools for corporate outreach are the V-Label and VeggieWorld.
The V-Label certifies food products as vegan or vegetarian, so that consumers can make informed choices. In Germany alone, over 5000 products of over 400 different companies are currently labelled with the V-Label. Next to many food producing companies, Germany’s largest supermarket chains are on board; they certify their in-house brands with the V-Label. This means VEBU has a foot in the door with many industry leaders and have been able to push producers of animal products to offer more vegetarian products and to veganize existing vegetarian offerings.
Since VEBU started working with the “Rügenwalder Mühle,” one of Germany’s biggest meat producers, the company has spent 44 million euros on advertisements for their meat-free products. They recently announced the goal of switching 40% of their total production capacity (25,000 tons/year) to vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives. VEBU has also been working for many years with Katjes, a popular and well-established producer of fruit jelly. Last September, Katjes announced that all their products are now vegetarian, i.e. free from gelatin. They were the first major company in their market sector to do so.
VeggieWorld is, to VEBU’s best knowledge, the largest vegan fair in the world. It is a platform for producers to present and sell their latest and greatest products and for consumers to taste the latest trends ahead of time. It is held annually in 5 different cities in Germany and in three international cities. 2017 will see the expansion to 5 new international locations. VEBU is also present at and cooperating with other fairs in Germany. At BioFach, the world’s largest and leading b2b organic trade fair, VEBU organizes a 6,000 square foot “vegan wonderland.”
Since 2012, VEBU has supported vegan start-ups by holding workshops for people who want to start vegan businesses or offer vegan services. As a result, cafés, shoe shops, and restaurants were opened, nutrition consulting services were started, vegan shoelaces were developed, and cookbooks were published. Veganz, now Europe’s largest all vegan supermarket chain, was one company that VEBU supported in its early stages.
VEBU’s lobbying department makes sure that the legal situation for animal-free foods becomes more favorable and facilitates the further development (official denomination of animal-free foods, labeling, taxation, etc.).
Why doesn’t VEBU spend more time protesting and engaging in confrontation?
Many of VEBU’s programs are geared towards influencing all important stakeholders of society, which even includes representatives of the meat industry. Their main method is seduction. They show these influencers how attractive veg products are in terms of taste and environmental impact and long-term sustainability for their bottom line. This approach has proven to be quite successful so far. This is not to say that VEBU doesn’t apply pressure tactics during negotiations behind the scenes, but usually it’s not necessary to make such tactics public.