Sebastian Joy is the CEO of ProVeg International. He spoke with ACE Research Associate Yzar Wehbe on August 2, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be ProVeg International’s three biggest accomplishments from the last year?
One of our biggest success was our internationalization. When I spoke with ACE two years ago, we were still the German vegetarian association and we were still in the process of setting up the international organization ProVeg. Since then, we’ve established branches in Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. What’s more, local organizations from the Netherlands and South Africa have decided to become part of our network. Other local organizations in Belgium and Brazil have also expressed their interest in joining ProVeg, but we need to pace ourselves in order to grow sustainably. Our goal is to become the EA-minded “Greenpeace of the vegan movement” and we are satisfied with the first year of the process.
Our corporate outreach activities have been successful as well, in particular our organization of the “50 by 40” corporate outreach summit, which had 160 participants from 35 NGOs and 30 different countries. The work is similar to what the Open Wing Alliance does, but we focus on meat reduction as opposed to welfare improvements.
We also successfully started our international lobbying campaign. Most importantly, we were invited to attend the climate summit COP23. Initially, we planned to attend for one week, but we were eventually invited to stay for another seven days. Global initiatives spend US$380 billion a year for climate change mitigations but as of now, almost none of that funding goes into reducing the consumption of animal products. Very few other groups address that discrepancy because they consider themselves animal organizations, while we focus on a range of problems. It is a huge accomplishment for us to be accepted into the climate change political sphere.
How do you measure the outcomes of your most important programs?
Over the past year, we have built up our science and research department. The department will evaluate our internal processes and make sure that every bit of information we publish is scientifically founded.
Currently, we are developing a metric called V-day, which is the equivalent of one person being vegan for one day. The idea is to measure how many V-days we get out of anything that we do. Admittedly the impact of some of our activities is difficult to measure, such as our participation in the climate summit or our organization of the “50 by 40” conference.
What do you consider to be ProVeg International’s major strengths?
Our most important strength is our strategic positioning and approach. While most employees and the three co-founders of ProVeg have been animal rights activists for many years, we don’t position ourselves as an animal charity. Rather, we position our organization as a multi-problem solver. Our vision is a world where everyone chooses delicious and healthy food that is good for all humans, animals, and the planet. We derive our “five pros” from this vision: taste, health, justice, animals, and the environment. It is important to include taste. I like to mention it first because it makes the message more attractive than listing only altruistic motivations. The multi-problem approach allows us to tap into resources like funding, partners, collaborators or networks that are usually not accessible to animal-focussed organizations. We also act more like a “good cop,” in comparison to other organizations.
Our focus on institutions rather than individuals is another strength—we call this approach “influencing the influencers.” It is somewhat connected to the first point because most institutions do not care about animals but are receptive to arguments regarding health or climate protection. For example, companies want to do better on their sustainability reports, while governmental organizations have incentives to invest in public health.
The third major strength is that we are an international organization. Even our name, which is derived from Latin roots, can be understood in a variety of different languages. We act more as a network than a hierarchical organization. Sometimes groups that already have a lot of experience and infrastructure in a given country will merge with us, as was the case with ProVeg South Africa and ProVeg Netherlands. By doing so, they can use our infrastructure, strategies and resources. I am confident that we have found the right balance between autonomy at the national level and providing services for everyone.
What do you consider to be some of ProVeg International’s biggest weaknesses?
Because of our “influencing the influencers” approach, our activity in a variety of different fields, and our focus on long-term impact, it is difficult to assess how many animals our actions actually save. This is why we want to introduce the before-mentioned V-day measure, although we will have to see how precisely it can be estimated. Another challenge is our funding. Many of our national branches are not yet self-sustaining financially. We want to help them to raise their own funds and to start revenue-generating activities.
We also need to focus on structuring our internal processes and developing routines. We’ve been growing so rapidly that we’ve neglected this a bit. We have to decide on all SOPs—for instance, we need to keep track of what decisions are taken on what level, what software we use, and how we implement the data protection regulations.
As an organization, do you have any specific goals for the coming year? Have your long-term goals changed since the last time we spoke?
Our overarching goal is to reduce the consumption of animals by 50% by 2040. All other goals are derived from this core mission.
For next year, we want to continue our internationalization. We plan to expand to the United States and China, where we are already active although we are not officially established yet. We are also in contact with groups in Belgium, Brazil, and other countries. We already have fairly concrete plans to merge with the Belgian organization EVA. We think that the merger would make sense because they are already engaged in similar activities as we are, such as fairs, food labelling, and corporate outreach. We also want to build up a business incubator to foster clean and plant-based meat innovations. It will be set in Berlin and we hope to launch it within the next three months. Furthermore, we want to introduce a re-granting program. We cannot sustainably grow much faster than we currently do, and we think that a re-granting program would be an effective way to support the global movement without opening new offices. Our grants will mostly go to organizations that have the potential to become national branches of ProVeg in the future.
What does ProVeg International do to create or revise your strategic plan (or set strategy, if no formal plan is used)? How often do you revise your strategy? How is the board involved in that process?
We organize “strategy days” once a year. Last year we held our “strategy days” in September but in 2018, they will be slightly earlier. All eight country directors as well as the department heads and the three co-founders—altogether about 20 people—come together in Berlin and spend one or two days discussing strategy. We talk about what was planned for the past year and what we learned from the implementation, as well as what we hope to achieve in the next 12 months. The strategy we develop also leaves room for opportunities that arise along the way. We would never pass on potentially impactful opportunities just because they were not considered in our yearly plan.
Our board in Germany has existed for quite a while, but legally it is only responsible for the German branch of the charity. We are still in the process of setting up boards in the other countries we are active in and are in the process of setting up an international board.
What would you consider to be the maximum amount of funding you think you could effectively use in the coming year?
We could easily put an additional 2 to 2.5 million euros to an effective use next year. A lot of our current funding is project-specific because large-scale donors are enthusiastic about individual projects, such as our business incubator or our expansion to the U.S. or China. However, we would also like to focus on other things that are crucial at this stage in terms of sustainability and long-term impact: increasing our relatively low salaries, investing in further professionalising internal structures and processes, corporate outreach, our China project, research, and political outreach.
Did ProVeg set a fundraising goal for this past year? If so, did you meet that goal?
In 2016 and 2017, we increased our budget by about €1 million each year. In 2017, we reached our fundraising goal in terms of the sum (€3.5m), but a portion of the money we received was restricted to specific projects. As a result, we invested in different areas than we would have had the funding been unrestricted. Our goal for 2018 is to raise a total of €5 million and we will probably and hopefully reach that goal.
If ProVeg International set specific goals for what you wanted to accomplish in the past year, to what extent did you achieve those goals?
In general, we were able to realize our goals. For instance, we raised the funds we planned to raise, established ourselves as an organization, merged successfully with other groups, and managed to establish ourselves as reliable partners in the climate change political sphere. We are now moving towards food innovation and securing the funds to launch our business incubator.
Are there any decision that you made recently that you haven’t been able to follow through on?
We have adapted our plans many times. As an example, we had originally planned to be active in the United States by the beginning of the year, but we decided to postpone the launch for a few months because we wanted to prioritize other things. We did not abandon the goal, but it took us longer to reach than we originally planned. We prefer to get everything sorted out over taking a premature step.
What changes has ProVeg made recently? For example, have you taken any steps to improve programs that you deemed successful? Have you cut any unsuccessful programs to make room for more effective ones?
We replicated our VeggieWorld fair in several countries, including the United Kingdom and in Poland. However, we noted that there are already many similar activities in those two countries, making the VeggieWorld’s marginal value limited. Consequently, we will not organize the fair again in the United Kingdom or in Poland.
Moving forward, what type of evidence would be likely to change your organization’s approach to helping animals?
Generally, the more convincing, reliable and relevant the evidence is, the more likely we we’d be to adapt our approach accordingly.
We are currently running a study funded by the ACE Research Fund regarding food labels. The aim is to learn how to further improve consumer acceptance of the products that carry our V-label—for example, by calling them “plant-based” instead of “vegan.”
We also changed our approach from targeting individuals to focusing on institutions, because we became convinced that the latter yields a much higher impact. Similarly, we used to focus on veganism, and now we’ve adopted more of a reducetarian message. Although most of us come from an animal-rights perspective, we have shifted to a multi-issue approach.
Is ProVeg International engaged in collaborations with other advocates or advocacy groups?
We have dozens of ongoing collaborations. At the “50 by 40” conference, for example, over 30 organizations were present. We are also active members of the European Vegetarian Union and the International Vegetarian Union. We co-organize events with the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, HSUS, and local groups. In China, we collaborate with an organization called GoalBlue. We organize our medical conference together with Charité, the largest university hospital in Europe, and also work with health insurance companies. We also run a government-funded program about climate change, which targets school meals. Like many of our projects, this program is run by a consortium of five or six organizations. Typically, when interested in a program, we get together with other groups and try to reach the funding goal together. We also collaborate with Beyond Carnism and the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy. We are considering a merger, so that both might become a ProVeg program or division.
How much time is usually allocated for the professional development of staff?
We have a training budget of €1,000-1,500 per person annually. However, our staff surveys showed that not all employees use that budget fully because they cannot always find adequate trainings. For that reason, we now offer more in-house trainings, such as workshops and talks by guest speakers. German law also grants every employee five vacation days per year specifically for professional training. We also encourage the use of the apps like Blinkist and Headspace. Another idea is to organize a meditation retreat for our staff. Recently, we invested $4,000 for a female leadership workshop in order to train our most promising female employees.
How do you integrate and encourage diversity practices within your recruitment and hiring process?
We are a very international organization with staff from over 20 different countries, speaking about 20 different native languages. Whenever we hire a country director, we usually make sure that the person is from the respective country.
We also adapted our application process and try to use objective criteria when hiring. For example, we recently introduced a universal cognitive ability test and encourage applicants not to include a photo of themselves, which is otherwise still common in Germany. The HR software we use is called Personio and we recently signed a contract with HireSelect, which offers personality testing using the Big Five. Melanie Joy and I are also certified trainers for the Myers-Briggs personality types and use the tool to see whether the candidate’s personality fits with the position. Although that system is not scientifically recognized, we do find it helpful in a variety of situations.
Our cofounder Melanie Joy also wrote an article series on privilege, inclusivity, and diversity in the animal movement. We organized informal reading groups and encouraged those in leadership positions to pay particular attention to the issue.
Can you give an example of how your organization has benefited from diversity programs and from having diverse members in their work community?
We are most diverse regarding the countries of origin of our staff. Each staff member brings experiences from their respective country to the table. We would not be as effective if we did not employ people from the countries we work in.
We recently hired our international director and we were intentional in selecting a woman for that role because we want to ensure a diverse leadership within our organization. She is from the Netherlands but has experience working in other countries. We also made sure that she has a different personality type than I do.
We also want to have people from different professional backgrounds. For that reason, we make sure to include people from the corporate world as well as long-time activists. While the average age of our employees is early thirties, we also have several employees over the age of 50. Finally, in terms of gender, about two thirds of our employees are female.
Many organizations are now working collaboratively with historically marginalized communities, and that has been benefiting them a lot. Is this applicable to ProVeg? Have you thought about this? Have you been doing it? And if so, have you benefited from that kind of outreach?
We’ll soon be active in almost ten countries across four continents. So we do work collaboratively across many cultures. From a global perspective, animal advocates from the U.S. have received a lot of attention and funding within the worldwide animal rights movement while people from countries like Poland, South Africa, and China have been rather neglected. So for us, working with people from all these countries is working collaboratively with communities that have globally been marginalized and neglected so far.
While we are active in many countries, we are still small in most countries, so we first would have to grow much bigger before thinking about how to include the various minorities in our work. In China, for example, we’ll have a small team so our first priority will be to target mainstream Chinese influencers and stakeholders with our message (while not spreading ourselves too thin trying to also target minorities within China like Tibetan people or people that don’t speak Mandarin).
Does ProVeg provide employees with a workplace that has policies and serious protocols to address harassment and discrimination?
Currently, we are in the process of implementing such a policy. We have also founded an internal diversity and inclusivity group. We also have a “Vertrauensrat,” or trust council, which consists of two elected employees. People can turn to this council if they feel discriminated against or are harassed. The council then brings up the issue with the organization’s leadership. I believe that this type of institution is not well known in the United States, but it is common for German employers. We are also in the process of creating an official workers’ council. Given our size, the council needs to be comprised of 7 people, so we are thinking of merging the trust council with the inclusivity group.
Melanie Joy also acts as our team psychologist and everybody from the organization can consult her. Finally, we have a code of conduct, which addresses discrimination, harassment and inclusivity as well.
Does ProVeg regularly conduct surveys or interview staff to learn about staff morale?
Once a year, all staff members participate in our survey. Three months ago, we also introduced the tool “360 degrees” with me, our CEO, and the COO. We are now planning to expand it to everyone in a leadership position. Furthermore, we use McKinsey’s organizational capacity assessment tool (OCAT) on a regular basis.
We are planning to have a culture workshop in order to define our organizational culture more closely. The workshop will be led by The Culture Institute in Zurich. Recently, we also implemented our updated salary structure, which is very transparent. We then assessed how people feel about it through a follow-up survey.
Finally, it is our policy that anyone from the organization can make an appointment with any of the top leaders.