Jack Norris is the Executive Director of Vegan Outreach. He spoke with ACE Researcher Kieran Greig on July 17, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are some of Vegan Outreach’s biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Vegan Outreach doesn’t focus on large victories but instead focuses on small victories that add up over time. Each year we hand out about 2 million booklets to students at about 1,500 schools, and that is probably our biggest ongoing, annual accomplishment. This spring we conducted our first virtual reality (VR) tour where showing VR to 3,879 students at 45 colleges. We have a small campaign team that has had success getting restaurants to add vegan options (especially regional and local pizza chains—one example is Delaware North at Los Angeles International Airport). Not long after we launched a campaign to persuade Morningstar Farms to make more of their products vegan, they removed animal ingredients from three products. Again, these campaigns are more about lots of small successes compounding.
How are the outcomes of some of Vegan Outreach’s main programs measured?
They’re partially measured through anecdotal reports of people telling us they’ve changed their diet, as well as observations about increased interest from conversations, leaflets, and VR. We’ve tried to measure the impact of our booklets by doing online surveys using Mechanical Turk. With studies on that platform we determined that for every 75 booklets read, one person becomes a single week vegan, which means that they don’t eat any animal product more than once per week.
We’ve completed three pilot studies of leafleting, and this past spring we launched a much larger version. We found that there is either a very strong survey bias (as in giving the survey to people causes them to reduce their animal product intake over the next month) or people are just answering randomly to get the gift certificates we offer for taking the surveys. There was a trend for leafleting to reduce animal product consumption, but the control group also showed enough change that we couldn’t measure a statistically significant difference. These studies seem to have too much noise and we’ll probably disband this specific effort because of its relatively high cost and failure to produce quality evidence.
We recently hired a research and assessment specialist who has a masters degree from the University of Michigan. She has experience in research on social work projects and interventions.
We have a new series called 10 Weeks to Vegan, which we recently revamped, where we send one email a week showing people how to become vegan or reduce their animal product consumption. We want to assess how effective that is and whether we can refine it—for example, by changing the way that it’s promoted. This should be easier to assess than leafleting because we have a captive audience, and those taking the surveys aren’t receiving a gift certificate and thus have no incentive to game the system.
We know about the Faunalytics study that showed that VR had an impact on short-term diet change, so we’re moving more of our efforts towards virtual reality outreach—but we can’t do that completely, for logistical reasons. Also, because one of Vegan Outreach’s primary goals is to educate this generation of college students about speciesism, we don’t want to abandon leafleting which reaches many more college students than we can through VR. Vegan Outreach has always taken a longer-term vision of what we’re trying to accomplish, by trying to create constituencies of animal advocates and vegans that public policymakers can use for policy change. To measure long-term change we’ll need to see how well veganism is being embraced by society. The ways to measure this progress are crudes—such as mentions in the media or Google analytics—but they’re the best measures we have given that we don’t have surveys of how people’s opinions have changed over time. Faunalytics is now doing some work on this and we’ll hopefully be able measure more of this long-term change in the future.
What do you consider to be Vegan Outreach’s major strengths?
We’re pretty scrappy, in that we do a lot on a small budget. Our work is well vetted in that we know how much outreach we’ll be able to accomplish and so we’re never investing a lot of money into something that won’t get off the ground. I think what we do is fairly scalable and that we can add new areas relatively easily, given more funding.
Our programs are not vulnerable to changing social media algorithms or spin by the media. We also reach people in remote areas and communities typically not reached by vegan advocacy. We try to hire people of color whenever possible, both to increase diversity in our organization and the movement at large, and because they’re more effective at doing outreach to other people of color.
What do you consider to be Vegan Outreach’s major weaknesses?
It’s very difficult to measure our impact beyond anecdotal reports. Another difficulty is that our outreach positions require considerable traveling and being away from home for most of the year. These positions require that people be outside on their feet all day long, often in poor weather conditions. All of this means it’s hard to retain people for a long period of time, apart from a few exceptions (people who can withstand the lifestyle well). The average length of time that a touring outreach person works at Vegan Outreach is about two years.
As an organization, what are your goals for the coming year? Have your longer-term goals changed since our last evaluation?
In the past we’ve measured our success by how much activism we’ve done, but now we have switched to focusing on how many signups we get for our 10 Weeks to Vegan series. Our goal over the next fiscal year (July 1 through June 30) is to obtain 50,000 signups. We had a quick analysis showing we were on pace to get about 10,000 organic sign-ups without doing any special promotion, so our new goal is to increase that by five times. The other goal is to assess 10 Weeks to Vegan to see if it’s helping people change their diet and their attitudes.
What does Vegan Outreach do to create or revise the strategic plan (or to set strategy, if no formal plan is used)? How often does that happen, and to what extent is the board involved in that process?
We have an executive committee of seven or eight people who meet every two weeks. At least once a quarter, we go over and reassess our goals. We have a spreadsheet of all the different goals we have for different departments and for the organization as a whole. That’s usually in conjunction with the quarterly board report that I present to the Board of Directors. We meet pretty often and change our goals as needed. We see which we’ve accomplished and which we haven’t, and which we need to work on harder.
How do you see Vegan Outreach’s work fitting into the overall animal advocacy movement?
To start, there’s what I touched on earlier—about creating a constituency of animal advocates for public policy initiatives. Another way is that we provide materials for grassroots activists to do vegan outreach in their communities. We have a series of booklets that can be ordered, and we’ll give them out at no cost if people can’t afford them.
What is the maximum amount of funding that you think Vegan Outreach could use effectively over the next year?
Our vice President of college outreach and international expansion (Vic Sjodin) is always interested in expanding to other countries; that’s mostly limited by funds. We have to find advocates in those countries who are interested in doing this type of outreach and who can take it on as a job, rather than just in their spare time. So there’s two prongs; we have to find the people who want to do it, and then we have to have the funds. I think we could easily make use of half a million dollars over the next year to expand into different countries. This fall we’re doing a tour through Peru and Ecuador, and we’re hoping to find people on the ground there. Those countries aren’t so large, so we may not even need a full-time person year round.
Vic is looking at Brazil, and possibly China, where he’s in touch with some activists. In the past we thought that China was a hard country to penetrate with our type of activism due to free speech concerns. However, Vic is now more optimistic that we can do our form of grassroots outreach there. We usually do a tour of the country with a local activist and get a feel for what what it’s like—then we work on starting small and seeing how it goes before expanding. For example, Vic first toured India with many Indian activists helping him out. He then met someone while there who he hired. We then expanded the program significantly, and we now we have eight employees in India (most of whom started this year). We used a similar strategy in Mexico.
There is also a lot of potential in the U.S. to do outreach in cities where there traditionally hasn’t been much veg outreach and roughly every extra $75,000 we raise can be used to hire a community events person and do events and tabling in one of these cities and the surrounding region for a year.
Did Vegan Outreach set a fundraising goal for this past year? If so, did you meet that goal?
Our budget was $2.4 million and our fundraising goal is to always match our budget. I think that as of May we were pretty much on track, but May is a good month for us because we did our our mid-year fundraiser. After looking at the the June financials I can say we had a $33.5k deficit for the year (although it won’t appear that way on our 990 due to our fiscal sponsorships).
Do you expect Vegan Outreach’s funding situation in the coming year to differ significantly from the past few years?
We’re in a difficult year in the U.S. because the tax laws changed and nobody knows for sure what the impact on donations will be. They’re raising the standard deduction significantly, which people use for tax-deductible donations to nonprofits. We won’t know until at least November what things are looking like, so we’re concerned about that. However, none of our large donors have told us that they won’t be able to give because of the tax law.
If Vegan Outreach has set specific goals for what you wanted to accomplish in the past, to what extent did you achieve those goals?
We usually achieve what we set out to do, in terms of leafleting routes and schools. We always hit our target numbers very close to what we expect. You never know what’s going to happen with the weather, that’s the biggest factor. There’s also a burnout factor—some people get halfway through the semester and decide they can’t do it anymore. It’s very hard to hire someone quickly to take over their tour. But we know ahead of time that weather and burnout are going to happen, so it’s never a significant surprise.
We had a target of doing 15 vegan mac and cheese, or similar food contests, where local chefs join us in creating vegan versions of common comfort foods and then inviting the community to try it. Mac and cheese is a really big deal in the U.S. and so the contests usually reach a lot of non-vegans either from attending the event or through media exposure. For example, our South Carolina outreach coordinator was on a local television program in Charlotte, North Carolina this past weekend talking about vegan mac and cheese and it was very positive coverage. It looks as though we’ll be able to accomplish our goal of 15 food contests this year.
Our short-term goals are are quite concrete and not terribly “pie in the sky,” other than trying to get worldwide veganism at some point.
Are there areas in which Vegan Outreach has not accomplished its goals?
I was hoping for a larger participation rate in our leafleting effectiveness study, so I’m pretty disappointed about that. I was very optimistic that we would be able to measure the impact of leafleting. While we saw some positive trends, the statistical meaningfulness is going to be too low to be accepted by the effective altruist community, which is understandable. While I had been optimistic, I no longer thing it’s possible to measure the effectiveness of leafleting without introducing too much survey bias. What I’m hoping to do now is to measure our leafleting impact by having a tracking URL on the back of our booklets that will show us which 10 Weeks to Vegan signups came from people getting the booklets. That way we’ll be able to at least get a minimum idea of who was interested enough to sign up. So that’s going to be the new way I think we’re going to assess it.
Is there a decision you’ve made recently that you haven’t been able to follow through on?
In the spring of 2016, we were having a lot of success receiving mentees for our vegan mentor program through Facebook posts and ads. We were able to obtain a new mentee for about .30 per piece. We were having a hard time keeping up with the demand and so I decided to pay a Web Developer to automate the program with the intention of putting more substantial funding into obtaining mentees via social media ads.
Over the course of the next year, the costs of receiving a new mentee went up to as much as $5.00 per new mentee. Due to this increase, we greatly slowed the progress of the automation and still haven’t finished the application, though we’re fairly close. Our intention is to finish the application which will make it much easier to assess the program to determine how much of a difference it’s making for people and if we should spend further funds on promoting the program.
What changes has Vegan Outreach made recently? In particular, have you taken steps to try and improve programs that seemed less successful or cut programs that you thought were less successful in order to make room for more effective ones?
We’re always trying to improve. For example, we had a booklet called “Your Choice” and we got the sense that it wasn’t effective (to the extent that we can measure that through online surveys and anecdotal reports) so we switched gears and moved to the “What is Speciesism?” booklet. We do that type of update with many of our booklets. Sometimes messaging can be good at one point in time, but a few years later the time has passed for that sort of messaging. That may very well happen with the “What is Speciesism?” booklet. Right now, we think that’s a really good message to put out—but in five years we might not. In five years, we might think leafleting colleges is no longer a valuable thing to do. At some point in the future, I hope that it becomes something we don’t need to do any longer.
We revamped our 10 Weeks to Vegan series quite substantially because we thought it could be more effective. We previously called it “Vegan Serial” and after a few months we thought the name wasn’t working well so we needed to change it.
We’re about to launch a sign project where we put up small signs around college campuses through a company who contracts with colleges to place signs. We’ll be testing three different messages to see which work the best. If that turns out to be a a cost-effective program, that’s something that we could probably use quite a bit more funding for. But right now, we don’t know if it’s effective.
Our move towards doing more VR is based on research that shows VR is effective. It’s a tough call because you reach fewer people with VR than with leafleting. It’s also much more costly to set up VR with colleges. You have to have people calling the colleges and trying to set it up and it’s just more time-intensive. When you leaflet you just show up—there’s no prep. That said, we don’t really know which of the two is more cost-effective.
What evidence would be required in order to change Vegan Outreach’s approach to helping animals?
I hope there will be a day when leafleting is no longer needed. To some extent, we run on the motivation of our outreach people. When our outreach people feel like they’re not doing any good, then that will be time to reassess. Generally our outreach people feel like they’re making a strong impact. Since their jobs are difficult and they don’t make a lot of money doing it, I feel like their attitude and feelings about what they’re accomplishing are good markers for whether we’re continuing to be effective or not.
If we were able to measure leafleting and it showed that it was not effective at all then we would stop the program. In leafleting there are many layers of what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not just trying to accomplish short-term diet change; we’re trying to accomplish attitude change. If I felt like there was no reason to provide people with information about why they would want to go vegan—because everyone knows it and telling them one more time isn’t accomplishing anything—then that would be the time to say that there’s no point in leafleting any longer. The same thing goes for virtual reality or any vegan advocacy. However, I don’t think we’re at that point now.
When we go to new countries where there hasn’t traditionally been as much vegan advocacy as in the U.S., many people can’t believe what we’re telling them, because it seems so crazy to treat animals that way. Then you move through the different phases of accepting that this is how animals are treated and that it’s possible to change your lifestyle to not support that anymore. In the U.S., I think we’ve gotten to a point where on college campuses, the dominant feeling is that being vegan is a good idea but it’s too difficult. That has changed from previous decades when people mostly just didn’t believe that animals are treated that way—or they were anti-vegan, thinking it was silly in addition to being too difficult. The attitudes have changed drastically from what it used to be in the 1990s and early 2000s when there was more of an anti-vegan sentiment.
I don’t know that we’ve detected any anti-vegan sentiments in either Mexico or India. Both of those cultures seem to have embraced our form of outreach quite significantly, and this is one reason why Vic has been so excited to go to more countries.
But the day our programs are no longer needed, I’ll be happy, relieved, and ready to shut them down. Hopefully it’s just a matter time before we can do that.
Is Vegan Outreach engaged with more formal collaborations with either other advocates or other advocacy groups?
We sponsored the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition for many years, but as of June 30th they are now their own organization. They had gotten so large that it was good for both groups. We’ve fiscally sponsored others—such as veg-fests—and we continue to do that. Those are the only official connections we have.
We use other groups’ booklets and in some countries we have used Animal Equality’s VR. We have an agreement with them so that we both get credit. We work with other groups when it makes sense; nothing terribly formal.
In what informal ways is Vegan Outreach collaborative or cooperative with other advocates and other advocacy groups?
One thing we try to do is provide help to people in other countries by providing literature. For example, we did a Bulgarian translation of one of our booklets and gave some advice on distributing it. We helped with a booklet in Hebrew for Israel activists (Anonymous for Animals in Israel). They printed it a few months ago and have told me it’s going well. Vic recently did a college leafleting tour with activists in Sweden which was very successful. They now use our adopt-a-college website for listing the Swedish colleges and recording their numbers.
We also joined with a group called “Nearly There.” They came to us with the idea of approaching companies that have products that are almost vegan. When the animal products are not a substantial part of the product’s ingredients, we’re hopeful we can convince the company to remove them. For the last six months we’ve been working on some campaigns with Nearly There. One involves trying to get Morningstar Farms to remove eggs and other animal products from their burger that Burger King uses. If that works out, then the Burger King burger will be vegan and we can promote it.
We’ve also sponsored a group that does a Vegan Chef Challenge in Sacramento, and they’re now becoming a formal part of Vegan Outreach.
How much time is allocated for professional development of staff? How do you approach professional development?
We’ve been looking into online courses to give staff for professional development. Until now it’s mostly just been sharing articles and webinars. I listen to two weekly podcasts about how to create a better workplace and how to be a better manager.
How do you integrate and encourage diversity practices within the recruitment and hiring process?
We’re always on the lookout for activists of color who we think could be a good fit for working at Vegan Outreach. We currently have a number of people of color among our U.S. staff and we’re always hoping to hire more. The “About” page on our website makes a point of saying we look to hire people of color and to promote women and people of color.
Can you give any examples of how Vegan Outreach has benefited from diversity programs?
With more diverse members you can reach people from diverse communities who otherwise might not be as receptive to our message. When white people go into a community of color the people tend to be very friendly. However, we have evidence to suggest that behind our backs they’re saying that they don’t appreciate that approach. So when we hire people of color they can do outreach in these communities much more effectively. We hired Elizabeth Ross as our Director of Community Events and she made significant changes based on her knowledge of diversity programs.
Does Vegan Outreach provide employees with a workplace that has serious policies and protocols in place to address harassment and discrimination?
Yes, we have our harassment and discrimination policy on our website, linked from our “About” page. We have a designated set of individuals within Vegan Outreach who people can go to and speak with if they’d like to stay anonymous from the rest of the organization. The chair of our board is very active, and she’s a designated person.
Does Vegan Outreach regularly interview staff or conduct surveys to learn about staff morale or about the work climate?
We haven’t done surveys yet, but it’s a good idea. I read about doing that somewhat recently and so we’ve been talking about implementing a survey.
In our yearly performance reviews we ask people if they have any input on how we can make things better for them, and they know that there are designated people they can talk to if they’re having a problem with their supervisor (or anyone else).