David Coman-Hidy is the President and Andrea Gunn is the Executive Vice President of The Humane League (THL). They spoke with ACE Senior Researcher Sydney Heiss on July 18, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are THL’s three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Coman-Hidy: It’s tough to think of three single specific campaign victories. We think about our accomplishments as three different buckets. First, there are campaign wins or corporate policies, which are pretty diverse internationally.
In the U.S., there’s Prop 12, which is probably the biggest achievement that we were part of in coalition with a bunch of groups. This year, the industry has reached about 20% cage-free in the supply chain. We have secured 134 broiler commitments.
Internationally, the Open Wing Alliance (OWA) secured 32 global cage-free commitments this year and last year. In Japan, we have 25 cage-free commitments. In Latin America and Europe, there are literally hundreds of cage-free victories. A lot of those were secured by OWA partners, so, while we’ve supported the groups and helped to catalyze their campaigns, it’s hard to gauge exactly how responsible THL has been in each victory. And in the U.K., there’s been big progress getting KFC and a bunch of other companies to make broiler commitments, plus there’s been huge cage-free progress.
The next is the training and support of other organizations. The single biggest way we do this is through the OWA, where we’ve distributed about $820,000 in grants to 24 groups in the last grant round, and another $300,000 or $400,000 last year. Our THL OWA staff put on a global summit a few months ago in Poland. We started doing regional training summits all over the world: Latin America, Africa, and Europe—and the first Asian one is coming up. We’ve put numerous resources and webinars together for the members of OWA. A lot of the welfare commitments secured by OWA groups have happened because of the support we’ve given.
Finally, in Mexico, the U.S., and the U.K., there’s the continued grassroots outreach and organizing—this would include social media too—expanding our reach with pro-animal welfare messaging, vegan messaging and so on; and recruiting and training new volunteers. Those three areas are where we’ve seen the most success in the last year.
What do you consider to be THL’s major strengths?
Coman-Hidy: The number one thing is not as tangible: the fact that we have high morale on staff and really strong bonds between our staff and, in particular, the leadership team. This allows us to tackle challenges and big projects together and successfully. I honestly think that’s one distinctive thing that gives us a big advantage.
In terms of more tangible things, our network of grassroots activists (in communities and on campuses) and the Fast Action Network (our online activists around the world) allow us to build the power needed to be influential in campaigns. Our network gives us a big advantage.
We have a willingness to change our approach as needed to be effective. In the past, we’ve shared how we took a year to do Meatless Monday campaigns, but we have more recent examples. We haven’t won the McDonald’s campaign yet, so we started launching several side campaigns to build momentum. We’re preparing for enforcement of Prop 12 and welfare commitments. We’ve pivoted to ballot initiatives, both in Massachusetts for Question 3 and in California for Prop 12. Every year, there are multiple times where we decide we need to move resources to a certain area that will be more effective, even if it’s not the most convenient thing for us to do. We’re nimble, tactically, and focused on creating real changes for animals on farms, growing the movement, and building an army of people who are invested in our strategy.
Finally, another thing that we are unusually strong in is a collaborative approach. In the U.S., I think we’re one of the most collaborative groups in that we instigate a lot of collaboration between groups: We set up meetings between the group leaders and we proactively make sure our strategy fits well with the strategy of other organizations. We have organizational and leadership goals tied to collaboration; it’s something every department is responsible to think about and act on. Around the world, the OWA has been one of our biggest successes in the last few years. Most of our biggest wins have come from working in unison with now dozens of groups on many campaigns.
Gunn: I have two things to add that tie into the high morale. One important piece is that our staff have a lot of trust in the leadership team. We’ve also invested a lot of time and energy in talking about work-life balance and preventing burnout. This is the topic at all of our retreats. We’re not perfect, but when compared to other nonprofits both within and outside animal rights, I feel we’re making big strides in encouraging this, such as asking people not to work weekends and nights, disable work-related notifications on phones, take significant vacation time and unplug on vacation, etc.
Do you consider the work-life balance and trust to be the keys to fostering THL’s high morale?
Gunn: No, I don’t think so. Actually, I think the morale came first, perhaps along with trust, because Dave has been a kind and warm leader from the beginning. We all get along here, and our staff is excited to meet every new employee who joins. We have had a strong culture from the start that we’ve actively worked to maintain as we grow. The positive relationships and sense of belonging lead to trust. And, while it came later, I’m sure the focus on work-life balance has also helped with morale.
You’ve mentioned your willingness to shift focus, depending on what evidence is out there. What type or piece of evidence would most change your approach to helping animals?
Coman-Hidy: There are many levels at which you can ask that question. At the highest level, you could ask, “At what point would working on these incremental corporate campaigns no longer make sense?” For that, it’s hard to know exactly what evidence would persuade me. Obviously, if there was conclusive scientific data that it was bad for animals or something—which I think is very unlikely—that would be an obvious reason to make a change. But beyond that, I think a more appealing program would have to appear, and we’re always scanning for that kind of thing. I feel convinced that such program doesn’t exist yet. For example, major breakthroughs in food technology, where it’s very clear that replacing animal products is within our grasp and something our organization could meaningfully support. Or, at a certain point, a shift towards political work will have to happen if we’re serious about winning. We’re already becoming more aggressive with ballot initiatives and we’re pushing to do more ballot initiatives in the future, and THL we’ll keep putting resources towards that. On the highest level, that’s the answer.
Within the campaigns themselves, it’s frankly more art than science in a lot of ways. Working in coalition with organizations, things have to be group decisions. There’s no study out there that’s going to tell us when the right time is to make certain calls on the broiler campaign. Instead, it depends on the opinions of the experts, the best campaigners in the movement. Not just THL, but all of us have to think about and decide on what makes sense here. It’s not really a satisfying answer, but oftentimes, that’s the best we can do since we’re kind of on the frontier here.
What would you consider to be THL’s greatest weaknesses?
Coman-Hidy: I think the single biggest challenge or weakness is being very internationally distributed and remote. We work across so many cultures, especially with the OWA, and in so many time zones. I think it’s a double-edged sword. It’s the reason we have this big influence and we’re able to achieve a lot around the world. On the other hand, it brings a lot of challenges as well. The normal challenges that come with a remote organization are project management and figuring out how to best communicate efficiently without having this huge drag coefficient, how to manage projects, how to manage people’s bandwidth when there are so many different projects happening.
Some practical considerations as an international organization—for example, issues with communications strategy—are also difficult. For example, branding wise: when it comes to Mexico or the U.K. or Japan, where does the decision-making begin and end between “headquarters” versus the other independent charities? We want to be a professional, coherent organization, but we also don’t want to have so much bureaucracy that it prohibits autonomy from our independent charities. This is one thing we continuously have to be thoughtful about. If we were a smaller group or working in one country, it would be much simpler.
On top of that, I would say we still have a real lack of diversity on staff. It’s a problem across the movement of course, and it’s something we haven’t solved yet. We’ve also had some problems with recruitment. It’s not very difficult to recruit for organizing activist jobs or entry-level office jobs; there are tons of young people now who are really competent and who want to get involved. However, it’s more difficult for some specialized professional skills. For example, it took us about a year to hire a PR Director and finding a Copywriter has also taken a long time. It’s hard to find value-aligned people, and even though we don’t have extremely strict standards for value alignment, we do look for people who will be a good culture add and who also have those good professional skills. That has been a headache for us because the positions that are hard to fill tend to be very important to the organization.
Gunn: I think remote challenges are pretty obvious, like people feeling isolated. We’ve done a lot to combat that, but it’s just one of those things that happen when all your colleagues (and at our organization, friends) don’t live near you.
What kind of things do you do to combat the challenges of remote work?
Gunn: We do a lot. Right now we’re still doing an annual all-staff retreat, though we are getting to a size where we need to discuss whether that’s feasible because it’s very expensive. A big part of our retreat is fun and bonding. We offer a schedule of staff-led activities like trivia and board games during down-time and short energizing activities throughout programming to keep the energy up. We also have departmental retreats that don’t have a set cadence; they happen whenever it feels needed. Some teams host them every year, and some teams will host them when they feel there is a need.
We also have regular video meetings for staff to get facetime with each other, such as all-staff calls, department calls, and ice breakers. The ice breakers are 15 minutes before each all-staff call and are optional. We have a few additional initiatives that our culture committee has put together. For example, there’s one called “TeaHL Time” which is like tea time, with a few time blocks throughout the week where people get together and chat in breakout rooms. The U.K. team is doing the same thing. They’re invited to TeaHL Time, but they actually do their own version every single day.
We do a lot of other fun things; our staff members have uploaded dozens of custom emojis that are really goofy, like a dancing avocado. We also have a just-for-fun channel. People have a really good sense of humor on Slack and in general. We encourage people to use video meetings for every get-together. We also encourage people to meet up with others in person if they’re traveling to their communities.
Coman-Hidy: I think all that is a pretty pervasive part of our culture. We do lots of little things that add up. I would also say we now have a number of hub cities where we don’t have offices but where a number of our staff live. For example, in New York, there are 10 to 12 people who live here, and it’s the same in Philadelphia. Some folks are isolated, but most people have staff relatively close to them. I see all of our New York staff pretty frequently—we get together and socialize.
Also, I would say we’re very flexible with the budget for when people want to work together in person or go to conferences, even when there’s no direct linear argument about them needing to be at the conference. Especially for newer staff, if they haven’t connected with the movement or other staff as much, we really encourage them to go to the Animal Rights Conference, the Reducetarian conference, or whichever conference.
Gunn: Another thing I can think of is Stephanie Frankle, our Culture and Engagement Specialist, does a new hire orientation where she talks about the challenges of working from home and offers solutions to our new staff.
What do you do to create and revise your strategic plan, or to set strategy? How is the board of directors involved?
Gunn: Right now we have a three-year plan that’s broader, and then we have an annual plan that’s more specific. Every year, we have evolved our process to make it better. I’ve actually been speaking with several other organizations in the last couple of weeks to learn how they do their planning. As a theme, I’m noticing that no one has figured out the perfect way to do it. We’re all adapting. Two years ago, we brought in a consultant from a prestigious consulting firm who has been lending her time, volunteering to help groups in the movement. She’s actually since joined our board. She led a two-day workshop with all of our international leadership where we defined our strategy and our plan using the processes she had from doing this professionally. We defined our strategic priorities for three years and for one year, and then we set organization-wide goals, team goals, and individual goals that connect to the priorities. We essentially duplicated the process last year, but this year we’ve realized that fully resetting our overarching priorities should be done less frequently and we’ll be shifting to doing that every three years, with annual goal setting in between. All of our department heads and international leadership will attend this year’s goal-setting retreat.
Coman-Hidy: Typically, the board doesn’t participate in the retreat, but we take what we put together and share it with them for feedback.
Gunn: We also work with the board to develop a longer-term five-year plan, and then we get input from the leadership.
Is the one-year plan something you update yearly or is it based on the three-year plan?
Gunn: The one-year plan is updated yearly and it is based on the three-year plan. However, the overarching priorities of the one year plan won’t change, only the goals that fall under it. We’ll do new goals every year, and we will reset our strategic plan every three years.
Coman-Hidy: Prioritizing departments and programs within our strategy is more art than science as well, and is best when we consider the long term rather than the short term. We consider what will create the biggest welfare changes and campaign victories, what will build the movement, and so on.
For example, for Prop 12, we decided to put the maximum amount of resources that we could towards that, even though it wasn’t initially part of the strategic plan, because when we set the plan we didn’t know whether the ballot initiative was happening for sure. We made that decision because we knew it would go a really long way towards our longer-term priorities.
With the OWA, we have seen fast results and campaign wins, but also huge value training for the purpose of long-term capacity building. With something like the OWA, where the impact on our priorities is obvious, we basically want to max out our spending until we hit diminishing returns. So, we’ve been drastically increasing our grant-making and growing the positions in the department as quickly as possible.
Something like grassroots recruitment in the U.S. is perhaps less obvious from a numerical standard. That’s where we have to think more intuitively and long-term, considering where we want to be in 10 years, where we want to be able to do ballot initiatives, etc. We have a pretty diverse set of strategic thinkers on the leadership team looking at these questions, and everything has to be pegged back to the major, long-term priorities.
Is there a final decision-maker for the strategic plan?
Coman-Hidy: We generally make decisions through consensus. I don’t mean a dogmatic organizing philosophy, but rather, we like to talk things through until we’ve reached an agreement. Obviously, there are exceptions, like when people involved in the decision are extremely specialized (General Counsel, Technology Director, Graphic Designer, etc). On a smaller scale, within projects, we assign one project manager as the decision-maker. We define all of the roles within the project using a system called MOCHA, which stands for: manager, owner, consultant(s), helper(s), and approver. The owner is the decision-maker with support from the manager and approver.
Gunn: When we’re actually setting the strategy, it is really important to us that everyone on staff feels like they have some input into it. We’ll get insight from them, like, “How can we build on the goals next year?” Then, the leadership team will come up with a framework then go back to the teams and say, “This is what we’re thinking. How can we actually make this happen?” Obviously, if we just set it and give it to them, they’re not going to have as much buy-in, and we might have some blind spots in terms of what is feasible, or what the team needs or wants.
If someone on the team disagrees with something, is there a way for them to challenge it?
Gunn: That’s partly why we include them in planning: It gives them a chance to speak up about things that they might know more about than we do. For example, we could set a goal in our strategic plan to grow our active volunteer base to x number. Then, we’d go to the team that’s building the volunteer base and ask if it’s feasible, and they’ll consider their community or region, other competing priorities, etc. That helps us make more informed decisions as a team. It’s always a discussion—it’s not like one person gets the final say.
Coman-Hidy: We’ve also had a history of editing goals. Often the biggest gripe would be setting an unrealistic goal (because we are still new to it), so we’re open to adjusting on the fly. We know that when we set goals at the beginning of the year, something unexpected could arise that leads to a change mid-year.
Gunn: Unlike the corporate world, where goals are set to get people to work harder, we have this problem of trying to get people to work less hard (and prevent burn out). So we will often see people setting very ambitious goals that we need to coach them to scale back.
What is the best decision that you’ve made as a leader in the last year?
Coman-Hidy: I think broadly deciding to restructure internally was the best decision. The most long-term, impactful aspect of that is our new international leadership team. Before, we were structured like the U.S. and subsidiary groups. Now that Mexico and the U.K. are independent, we want to lead the group collaboratively, with folks from all the countries where we work and a few other strategic leaders on staff. We’re also expanding our board, changing the board composition, and making the board more active as part of the strategy. In the long term, these changes will be good for the overall success of the organization.
Gunn: When we first started the project, we were calling it a restructure. After doing more research, we realized it was technically a reorganization because it was focused on meeting structure and internal processes. There were no lay-offs.
What are some tough calls or mistakes you’ve made as a leader in the last year?
Gunn: When we were going through this reorganization, we went through a period where a lot of staff and managers were spread really thin. We had a lot of managers with way too many direct reports (up to 12).
I was the leader of this project, and I don’t think I did as good of a job communicating about it as I could have. We realized mid-way through that people thought there were secrets. Since we hadn’t been explaining the reorganizing project, people were coming up with their own ideas about it. Luckily, that was solved pretty easily; it was pretty minor. We just sent out a memo that explained the project in detail and talked about it more on an all-staff call. But, I think my failure to explain it in the beginning caused some questioning and tension that didn’t need to be there.
Coman-Hidy: For me, the biggest mistake has been that I still am managing too many people and that I’ve let that number grow over time. There’s always been a good reason for that happening: I manage senior leaders who tend to need less support and folks whose focus areas are broad and related to my strengths. In the midst of the reorganization, I didn’t want to change anything else, and that has been taxing on my time as a leader—I’m probably not always focusing on the highest priority things because I’m managing so many people. That’s something I’m working to address shortly, but I do still look back on it and regret it; I should have moved that up on my priority list. It’s something that’s very easy to just put off one week after the next.
Are there any decisions that you’ve made recently that you haven’t followed through on?
Gunn: I can’t think of anything that we haven’t followed through on, but there are things that are taking longer than expected. One is our reorganization. Dave and I thought we’d adjust his direct reports by now, but we keep pushing back the deadline. Another is a project called BREAD (Better Resource Engagement, Accessibility, and Discoverability) that we’re just now launching. We were hoping to have it all solved by the end of the year, but it will probably take much longer than that. We were also planning to work with Encompass this year to develop a plan to improve equity, inclusion, and diversity. They sent us a proposal, we sent back feedback, they sent a revised proposal, etc., and the process is taking longer than we thought it would (it’s no one’s fault, we’re just trying to be thorough on both ends).
Coman-Hidy: Because of the more rigorous strategic planning process, I think we’ve become a lot more thoughtful and cautious. Back in the day, it would have been very easy for one of us in leadership to say, “We should do this new thing,” and then just call people and start doing it, especially five years ago. That wouldn’t happen anymore.
Gunn: As an organization, we’re trying to get better at planning for the long term and setting more realistic deadlines, partly because of concerns regarding bandwidth and sustainability that stems from that. So I think actually slowing things down is sort of net positive, except for maybe reducing Dave’s direct reports.
Coman-Hidy: There have also been a few projects, like the rebrand and new website, which are precisely the kind of things you expect to take 18 months longer than projected, and they were done before all the deadlines, so overall things have been going very well.
How do you measure the outcomes of your most important projects?
Gunn: When we do our goal setting, we very intentionally set metrics. I’ve done a lot of training with staff, pushing them to think of good metrics even when goals are qualitative. It’s still a work in progress; some staff understand it better than others. Everyone has individual and team goals that have built-in metrics. Metrics could be as simple as the number of broiler policy victories, or could be something like, “We develop training that’s well-used and user-friendly and leads to people understanding the content.” And then, when we’re reporting on progress, we follow through on the ways we say we’re going to measure it.
We’re not as consistent at measuring the outcome of projects. One of the biggest initiatives that we’ll want to focus on internally in the next year is training staff on project management. Only a few staff are really strong in this area currently. We’ve talked a lot about the importance of setting goals around a project, and our communications and tech teams do that well and reliably. Our other teams aren’t as reliable at doing that, but they still debrief projects to discuss where we succeeded and what challenges we faced. Not every project has a goal at this point.
Coman-Hidy: A lot of what we’re doing, luckily, is very measurable. For example, with campaigns the result is binary. It’s very easy to set numeric goals and know if we’ve met them or not.
Do you typically do a post-mortem retrospective on projects when they’re finished?
Gunn: Our campaigns team does post-mortems pretty regularly, but most of the other teams will do a more generic debrief. We expect every project to be debriefed. We have a debrief meeting template, with discussion over what went well, what didn’t, why, and what we could do differently next time.
Have you done any formal employee-level and organization-wide self-assessments?
Gunn: We require progress reporting on all of the goals we set. Individual goals are reviewed monthly, while team goals are reviewed at least quarterly, but some teams do them monthly. We also do organization-wide goal progress reports every quarter. We have this all built into our operating rhythm—we make sure that we review the progress of all our goals and have a discussion about what needs to happen next to ensure the goal is achieved.
Coman-Hidy: A lot of these goals aren’t as simple as reporting whether or not we won a campaign—many are qualitative. One of our 3-year priorities is having a smoothly-running organization. So, people will report back on any issues they’ve had in the last quarter.
Gunn: We also do a bi-annual employee engagement survey, which is essentially an employee satisfaction survey, and we have goals set around that. Those aren’t organization-wide goals; they’re internal leadership goals because we don’t want to put pressure on the staff to generate high satisfaction scores or exaggerate the truth. If something is wrong in terms of satisfaction, it’s the responsibility of leadership, not staff.
Are there any other changes you’ve made recently?
Gunn: With our reorganization, we defined THL’s theory of change and trained our staff on it. We created a new framework for our supporter network in the U.S. called the Changemaker Network. We’ve also added a fellowship program, which is a paid program to improve accessibility for people who want to intern. We’ve changed our campus outreach program to a student alliance, and we’ve hired a training specialist to strengthen and consolidate all of our training. Michelle, who used to be our Vice President of Development, is now overseeing all programs and development as Senior Vice President of Programs and Development. We also hired a new Senior Director of Development under her.
We completed another round of pay increases to bring our staff compensation in line with benchmarked median salaries. Last year, we underwent a compensation analysis with a consulting firm, comparing THL to nonprofits with similar-sized budgets (expanding beyond the animal rights sector). We planned to incrementally adjust salaries and our compensation bracket until THL was in line with the 50th percentile, but we were actually able to bring everyone up within the 50th percentile last year. We’ve also added new benefits: THL is contributing half of vision and dental insurance premiums for all of our staff in the U.S, and we added life insurance, pet insurance, and an employee assistance program. All of this is in the U.S.
Coman-Hidy: As I mentioned, we changed the leadership team to no longer just include the senior U.S. people, but instead become an international group. The board development and expansion is a big project right now. We only have four board members currently, but we put up an advertisement to recruit people, and we are in the midst of interviewing a bunch of good folks. We want to get to seven board members, and we’re actively trying to have a diverse set of skills on the board. Previously, the board was not super involved, but as we’re now a much larger organization, we want to follow best practices and have a board that is involved in the right ways, with a lot of skill and value being added.
We got the U.K. team registered as an independent charity. The incorporation of The Humane League Mexico as an independent nonprofit is complete, and we are now working on the final steps in getting it operationally independent. The rebrand, of course, is really big. We have a new website, new logo and brand, new communication standards, and a lot more rigorous and structured ways of talking about the organization and training people to have a much more consistent message and brand. That was a huge project that basically everyone on staff was involved in.
Are there any programs that you cut this year because they weren’t effective?
Coman-Hidy: The reorganization of programs was a big change to how we’re organizing people on the ground. We didn’t cut anything out, but we’re taking a different approach. I think that’s probably the single biggest change. We gave more to OWA in the budget than other things because we saw it as effective.
One very minor thing is the online ads. We get earmarked support for those, and the funders are giving us a little bit more leeway to experiment and try out more effective things.
Gunn: The campus outreach program has evolved. We used to hire 60 students who would be with us for the year and get one-on-one mentorship and training. Our expectation was that they would take their training back to their campus club. This year, the program has evolved into the fellowship program and the student alliance. The student alliance is much more like an OWA model, where instead of recruiting individuals, we’re recruiting campus clubs and there’s no term limit. Part of the issue with the campus outreach program was that after the year ended, we no longer had a direct impact on that club; the student we had mentored might graduate, and we’d have no contact with the club to know whether they were engaging in effective advocacy or something else. Another challenge was when somebody wanted to join THL’s campus program, but was not on the leadership team of the club, they had trouble influencing what the club was doing. The new student alliance connects us with the club leadership and gives us continuity with the club regardless of each students’ involvement. The fellowship program is now THL’s one-on-one mentorship program, which has fewer people who are paid (typically $2,400 for 20 hours per week over one semester).
How would you broadly describe THL’s culture?
Gunn: The culture at THL is positive and strong. This is something that we’ve always invested a lot of time and energy into. At this point, we’re at maybe the best place we have been in terms of culture. Our staff are excited that we are a more professional organization and understand the shifts that come with that (for example, we don’t say we’re a family anymore). People get along well, we haven’t had any major issues, and the vibe is positive.
Coman-Hidy: We have a friendly and supportive culture. People put a lot of emphasis on caring for each other and being thoughtful about how we talk to each other. Because of that, there are many friendships amongst staff. We’ve professionalized a lot, but have tried to keep meetings (and Slack) relatively informal in terms of being friendly with each other, not being super buttoned-up, and taking the time to ask how the other person is doing and what they’re up to.
How often do you assess THL’s culture?
Gunn: We have the official employee engagement survey that we do twice a year. We may shift to once a year because we realized we can’t necessarily act on all of the feedback that quickly. If we do shift it to once a year, we want to still have some formal way that people can give feedback in between the survey besides telling their manager or HR directly. We survey staff for their feedback regularly; we do a feedback survey after our all-staff calls, after all of our retreats, and whenever we make a big change. I’ve also done an internal communication survey in the past, and we did a survey before our rework. We also have other ways that we check in on more specific things, like focus groups, team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, etc.
Are you partnering with Encompass to implement a diversity program?
Gunn: That is our intention, and we’re almost there. Our respective attorneys are currently finalizing the contract. We reviewed proposals from a couple of different organizations, and we’re pretty happy with what Encompass offered. We had a great meeting with them at the Animal Rights National Conference and discussed their proposal and our goals. The proposal that they put together looks into the culture deeply to find any ways that we’re not as inclusive as we think we are and then coaches us to shift that so that when we do hire more diverse people, they will feel welcomed and part of the organization. It probably will take years before we see the demographics of our staff composition significantly change.
Is diversity one of THL’s weaknesses?
Gunn: When we asked on our most recent employee engagement survey if THL demonstrates a commitment to valuing diversity, 83% of staff agreed. We have an equity inclusion committee that has created great resources and offered several trainings for staff, we brought in an outside expert to do a diversity training, and our staff and leadership take inclusion seriously. However, our actual staff makeup is primarily white. We have, however, improved in terms of age diversity over the years. We used to be mostly 20-something year-olds with a few people in their 30s, and now we have a wider range of age demographics on staff. Part of the issue is the candidate pool; very few diverse candidates apply in the first place, and that we’re also hiring for mission alignment. We have an employee on the People Operations team dedicated to recruitment and she’s built in hiring best-practices to reduce implicit biases like removing non-essential qualifications that could prevent marginalized applicants from applying, conducting blind job skills test, and diversified hiring teams,
That’s part of what motivated the creation of the fellowship program and campus program (now student alliance); we want to find people in college and bring them into the movement, instead of just assuming that there are people out there who already know about animal rights, are great candidates, and are eager to gain a full time animal rights job. This is also a part of our organizing model; we don’t just want to be tapping into the same network, recruiting friends of friends. We want to really be expanding our reach and trying to find people in different communities. Our new organizing model is still super new, so we haven’t done a ton of work to improve diversity yet, but that definitely will be in the plans after we formalize our training.
Coman-Hidy: We’ve been interviewing for the National Director of Organizing position who will oversee all of the grassroots work. A lot of our interview questions ask about what their strategy would be to address increasing diversity.
Gunn: In our interviews for any job, we try to ask at least one question about diversity and inclusion.
How did THL achieve success in diversifying the age of its team?
Coman-Hidy: I wouldn’t say it was purposeful.
Gunn: A couple of years ago, we hired Jyllian Shepard to be our HR Manager. She has since moved into a more specialized role as our talent acquisition lead. She has brought a lot of knowledge about recruitment and is familiar with other platforms (like LinkedIn), whereas we would previously post positions on Facebook and Idealist. She’s being more strategic about posting, so that may be part of it.
Coman-Hidy: As we’ve become a more serious organization, people further along in their careers are interested in our salaries, prestige, and track record. Working for THL is no longer like running away to the circus with a bunch of kids.
Gunn: We also have better benefits than we used to.
If you became aware of harassment taking place in the organization, how would you handle it?
Gunn: Every complaint is taken seriously, investigated, and, if found credible, appropriate disciplinary action is taken, up to and including termination. We have very well-trained operations and legal teams, and we recently brought on a new director of people operations. All of our staff are regularly trained on discrimination and harassment in the workplace. No matter what, even if the person says, “Don’t tell anyone,” we immediately report it to HR. Then, our operations team takes it from there. Our Vice President of Operations Rachel Huff-Wagenborg takes harassment extremely seriously. Rachel attends continuing education and trainings on handling harassment and discrimination complaints that are taught by respected sources like SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) and employment counsel. Rachel collaborates with the general counsel to ensure all employment laws and regulations are followed.
Coman-Hidy: Whenever there has been an HR issue, that has been handled by Rachel and Wendy Watts, our General Counsel. They take extremely copious notes and are very thorough in talking to everyone involved.
Gunn: We also have an anti-retaliation policy. When we’re dealing with issues of harassment, confidentiality and protecting the privacy of the person reporting the complaint—or, potentially, the person whom the complaint is against—is really important.
Coman-Hidy: Because of the nature of our organization, the more salient issue is probably donors and volunteers. Many of our staff are frequently exposed to people outside the organization. We have strong policies for our events and fundraisers in terms of what to do if a donor/volunteer/vendor acts inappropriately. That’s where a huge percentage of the risk lies. If someone is acting inappropriately, we want to make sure that a fundraiser on staff doesn’t feel any pressure to just deal with it as part of the job. We’ve made it extremely clear to our staff that that is not the case. We have options including shifting donor relationships to someone else on staff, including myself, or barring offending donors/volunteers from our events or terminating a relationship.
How does THL’s work fit into the overall animal advocacy movement?
Coman-Hidy: This is a complicated question because we do a lot of different things and we’re in a lot of different areas. In the U.S., we do aggressive campaigning and corporate outreach, and put grassroots pressure on companies, specifically working on a narrow set of welfare campaigns. We also have a specific focus on building a grassroots network and training activists, which sets us apart from other organizations working on welfare campaigns. We don’t do investigations. On top of that, we lead a lot of the facilitation of the coalition. It’s not just that we’re always willing to lend a helping hand, but we actively set up the calls, get everyone organized, and put together the agenda for the in-group meetings. We have departmental goals about making those things happen and making sure everyone is aligned.
In the U.K., it’s different because it’s a much smaller movement. There aren’t eight groups working together like there are in the U.S. We still work really well with all the groups in the space, like Compassion In World Farming and RSPCA, that are the “good cop” organizations there. In the U.K., we’re more of the aggressive grassroots group, similar to in the U.S. We also work a lot with Animal Equality in the U.K. They do investigations, and we do corporate campaigning. So it’s very similar to the U.S., just on a different scale.
Mexico is probably our most collaborative organization. That organization right now is quite small with only a few employees, because they’ve only recently become an independent nonprofit organization, but the team will expand over time. Right now, a huge percentage of their time is spent facilitating the work of other groups in the region, not just in Mexico, but throughout Latin America. Ana Ortega, our Managing Director in Mexico, has hosted multiple collaborative group meetings to get everyone on the same page and work on things like the egg standards that the Mexican government is putting forward. A huge amount of the output in Mexico is hidden and obfuscated in the output of the other groups in Latin America, particularly the smaller organizations working in other countries that are mentored and supported by our staff. Finally, the OWA does grant-making and provides resources and regional trainings. They mainly provide support funding and help organize around global campaigns.
Gunn: We try to focus our efforts and our staff where there isn’t already a lot of work being done, specifically within OWA. We hired staff in Japan, partly because there wasn’t a whole lot going on there. The team in Japan has had to be very nimble in terms of figuring out how to be effective. Their approach is so different from what we do in the U.S. because of the culture; they tend to work more with companies as “good cop” unlike how we operate in the U.S. and U.K. Maho Cavalier, who leads the team in Japan, recently facilitated a meeting between egg farmers and industry experts and traveled with a bunch of them to the U.K.
Coman-Hidy: She brought them to visit a bunch of farms in the U.K., which is something you’d expect from a group like the RSPCA rather than THL.
Gunn: Just like Ana in Mexico, Maho has also been really focused on collaborating with organizations and bringing everybody together.
What does THL do differently from other animal organizations that makes you stand out?
Coman-Hidy: We have a specific strategy that we closely follow, and we are quite disciplined about basing our decisions on that strategy. We are incredibly collaborative in a sincere way that sets us apart, not in an opportunistic way to advance our strategy, but because we really are invested in the growth of the movement. We think long-term, about where we want to be in five years or in ten years. Those are our biggest advantages that set us apart. We also have high morale and we set a good standard for prioritizing running a functional group, and not burning people out, but building up our employees over time.
Gunn: Also, when people come to work here who have worked in the animal rights movement, they say THL is very organized. The focus on sustainability is really the key though. We’re focused on sustainability, not just in terms of our programs but also with people: we put people first and don’t just cycle people through jobs.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Coman-Hidy: One other thing that I think sets us apart is the focus on best practices from a leadership perspective. It’s very unusual in the animal rights space for folks like me and Andrea, who basically had total control in the U.S., to move in the direction of expanding the board and making them more powerful and sharing the strategic decision-making with independent nonprofits. Those aspects are very unique and make us more sustainable, but are quite unorthodox.