Leah Garcés is the President and Lucas Alvarenga is the Senior Vice President – International of Mercy For Animals. They spoke with ACE Senior Researcher Greg Boese on July 22, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be your organization’s three biggest accomplishments over the past year?
Garcés: The first one was putting out a three-year strategic plan, which not many organizations have done. I took over on October 1, and we spent three months doing a comprehensive organizational “revamp.” This involved bringing senior leadership together and creating a draft strategy for the next three years. This strategy is very detailed, and we specify the numbers of animals we estimate we will spare and improve the lives of. We also created a guiding coalition, in which each department nominated a couple of team members from their department to review the strategy draft and share their input and feedback. They met weekly for about 10 hours each week and had discussions within their department. They brought their ideas to the coalition so that we could refine the strategy that had been created by leadership, piece by piece until we got to December. The board then passed it in February. This is our firm and clear path for the next three years, and we are deeply proud that we created it together.
Another accomplishment is the impact center we’ve created. Lucas and I met in August before I was even on the payroll, and it was a dream of ours from then. By the time I actually started on October 1, it was well on its way. So we now have a strategy and an impact center. Based on the strategy, we could estimate how many animals were potentially being helped or how close we were toward achieving our goals. This is done live and shows up on a dashboard: staff input data into a database, which is available via our website for all of our supporters to see. It can be found at mercyforanimals.org/impact. I’m very proud of this. It’s not perfect—we’re continually refining it—but it adds transparency for our supporters and keeps staff accountable. It makes us feel proud when we’re exceeding goals and makes us concentrate on areas that aren’t going well to assess why this is.
Alvarenga: I think the most challenging part of this process has been to come up with the animal impact methodologies for all the different kinds of work that we do. We had a great call with Jamie from ACE to discuss how he estimates impact. This is something that we see a lot of other organizations do. They have different methodologies—most are not as public as ours. We decided to show how we estimate the impact because there are many ways to do it. We produced a clear description of how we estimate the impact for the different kinds of work that we do. For example, we show the reduction of consumption as a result of food policies, legislative work leading to welfare policies, and corporate animal welfare policies. These are the direct animal impact KPIs (key performance indicators), and we also have support KPIs which come from social media, PR, investigations, etc.
Garcés: I’m very proud of that work, and it’s continued to evolve. The third one was our McDonald’s work and the McDonald’s campaign. We came together across departments to produce a really powerful campaign. This involved our corporate engagement team doing a multi-faceted “on the ground” and online campaign. We brought together 25 celebrities into one video. That was huge. This blew up on really unusual media sources, like right-wing media. It was on Breitbart and Fox, and they were saying things like “Hollywood goes after chicken.” We also did billboards in north Georgia in Tyson’s growing area—Tyson grows for McDonald’s. We used a new tactic that we’ve never tried before. We wrote “Whistleblower, we want to work with you” on these billboards and we got a lot of positive media coverage in a rural area that usually hates us. Through the McDonald’s campaign, we understood a whole new set of strategies for raising the profile of chicken welfare, and it gave us a lot of new ideas. We haven’t yet succeeded in getting McDonald’s to move, but it was high impact in terms of the people we reached, in terms of social media impressions, and well worth the effort.
Thinking more abstractly, or generally, what do you consider to be MFA’s major strengths?
Garcés: One of our most well-known strengths is our large social media capacity. We have had over 2 billion social media impressions in the last 12 months. Another thing for which we are well-known is our undercover investigations. We don’t need to do a lot of these to achieve change, and we’re one of the few organizations that shine a light on that darkness and bring those images out. For this, we have a really strong legal team. I am so impressed by them and their capacity to look at ways to not just utilize those images but to think of lasting legal change like how to overturn an ag-gag law, for example.
There’s also our corporate engagement work. We have a great corporate engagement team. We still see corporate engagement as one of our most powerful tools in the toolbox to impact change.
I think that our international presence and our international team (outside the United States) are fantastic. We obviously have a strong U.S. presence, which is where the majority of our team members are, but we have an office of 25 people in Brazil, 15 in Mexico, one in Canada, and a few advisors in Hong Kong and India. We’ve just done extensive scoping studies about China and India to look at expansion. We’re happy to share these with you confidentially, but we did these hundred-page thesis-style scoping studies to see where we can have an impact and to explore how we can expand. We’re thinking not just there, but in several other countries in Southeast Asia, where a huge portion of the problem we’re trying to solve is. Lucas and I are senior leaders who both come from international backgrounds. So at the helm of Mercy For Animals are not just U.S.-centric or even European-centric people, but people who have seen and lived the fact that factory farming is everywhere and getting worse outside of these main countries. We have got a global mindset and are constantly trying to divert resources toward other places like India and China. That’s a battle for any organization.
Alvarenga: We have a very strong President. I would add that it’s the first time we expanded our board; they’re very experienced and bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives to the table.
Garcés: I feel really good about our governance and the direction in which it’s going. We also engaged Bain management pro bono, and they’re helping us with board governance. We’ve written board governance documents and an SOP (standard operating procedure). We doubled our board size, and we now have three-year terms requiring re-election. They had an onboarding process when the new members came on. None of them are staff, which I think is really important. I didn’t choose them, and I don’t have any ability to choose them. I serve them and they’re my boss; I believe very strongly in the board’s professional governance.
What do you consider to be your organization’s major weaknesses?
Garcés: One of the biggest challenges for anyone working in this sector is burnout. Fighting people’s desire to work relentlessly is a constant battle for us. The job we have is just enormous, and quite often it leaves you pessimistic about the world. We have people leave every month because they’re burnt out in this movement, and I think Mercy For Animals is no different. I don’t know if I have the exact answer on that yet, but we are very conscious of trying to carve out a culture that makes people take breaks and makes that acceptable.
Prioritizing is also always a problem. People think “This is a massive problem, I want to do everything everywhere.” That’s why the strategic plan was put in place because it’s difficult for people to choose what to do. If you have to make that decision every day it’s exhausting, so we just make it once.
Alvarenga: Something else that is a weakness but also a strength is the massive switch of leadership and mindset that MFA has gone through. It has been an incredible challenge. I think it has been very successful, but of course, we still face the results of a lot of decisions that were made in the past. Leadership has to be extremely skilled and know how to deal with different mindsets that were cultivated for many years beforehand. I think we do have a shadow to overcome but we have already come a long way.
What do you think is the best decision you’ve made as a leader?
Garcés: I’m very happy about the staff we’ve hired. Some of the leadership positions when I stepped into the role involved one person doing several jobs, so I broke those positions into separate jobs. For example, the previous General Counsel was serving as General Counsel, VP of legislative advocacy, VP of corporate engagement, and SVP of programs. So I made the decision to prioritize the creation of four jobs and giving people managers for those sections of work. We’ve been able to have a lot more accountability and impact that way.
Is there a decision or plan you’ve made recently that you haven’t been able to follow through on?
Garcés: Our Asian expansion plan. I wish we were four months further along when we hope to have secured funding. I wish we could just start recruiting the Managing Director, but I feel like it was important that we went at the pace we did. When we walked in, we had activities in Asia without a clear strategic plan. So I stopped all the work and said, “We’re going to take six months to do a scoping study and figure out what to do and what we can have an impact on.” Lucas led that and did a great job. Committees on each country put together actual, cohesive, comprehensive pieces of work. It’s just slow. Everything’s slower than I wish.
Could you talk about how you measure the outcomes of your important projects or programs? Do you engage in regular formal self-assessments? What does that look like? Do you have regular post-mortem meetings?
Alvarenga: Alongside our impact center page, which can be accessed publicly, we also built a “progress” page, visible only to internal staff. It breaks down the global goals by year and by country, so we automatically see exactly what progress we have made. For example, if the Brazil team got a corporate welfare policy commitment, they fill out a document and the information automatically uploads to the “progress” page, so with this tool, we know exactly where we are.
Garcés: It’s a dashboard, and you can see, visually, where you’re at on your goal per department, per country.
When you think of it on an individual level, everyone is setting their goals to match the strategic plan. There are strategic objectives, which are really programmatic, and there are what we call “foundational goals,” which are more about the environment we’re creating internally and externally to be successful. Individuals then set their goals at the beginning of the year using our cloud-based HR system Namely, which we use for everything from time off requests to payroll and performance management. Team members can also add and view goals and record their progress. Speaking of payroll and performance, we de-linked pay and performance this year, just like Google did. The book Work Roles talks about how important it is to de-link these two to allow for truly productive and open performance conversations that help team leaders and team members address poor performance, offer and ask for effective support and guidance, and celebrate successes together.
Instead of an annual performance review, we now have “quarterly conversations” where we review and set goals, discuss how things are going, what the team member needs, if they met their goals, and any obstacles they encounter along the way. It’s not as though as if you don’t meet a goal you don’t get money. It’s more like, “What do you need to achieve your goals? Let’s have a separate conversation about that.” In the quarterly conversations, we refine the goals if necessary. Team Members have to do three things: look at their job descriptions, look at the organizational goals, and then set/reflect on their personal goals. You see where the gaps are and make sure you’re refining them each quarter and having a conversation with your team leader about them. There’s both a self-assessment and a team leader assessment in preparation for a one-on-one conversation during which you discuss together how you’re moving along those goals and why. For the first time, we’re also planning on testing out a 360 degree feedback in Q4, which is where you get feedback from a selection of people who you work with throughout the organization and throughout the year—your peers, your leaders and team members reporting into you. Our new people operations leader, who used to work at Whole Foods Market, where they used 360s very successfully, has extensive experience with those and swears by them for personal and professional growth, so we are excited to give them a try.
To get back to goal setting, everything cascades down from the strategic plans. Your department, your country, and your personal plan are all supposed to feed into the same goals. You should come to work every day knowing what your piece of the machine is.
What changes have you made recently, and can you talk about what that process was like? Have you taken steps to improve programs that you find less successful, or cut off any unsuccessful programs to make room for more effective ones?
Garcés: When I stepped into the President role at Mercy For Animals, there was a lot of work to do. Most importantly, we had to create an inspiring and achievable long-term strategy with clear and measurable goals and objectives to help us realize our vision and hold ourselves accountable. Once that was in place, we had to review our organizational structure against that new strategy and eliminate some positions/create new departments to create alignment and put some resources towards our new goals and objectives. Because capacity-building is one of our three key objectives, along with legislation and corporate, we had to create a new department for it. We had some version of it before but it was mainly volunteers. We reassigned some staff and essentially stopped allocating a large amount of resources that had previously been spent on advertising to individuals. We had a whole department set up like a customer service team for people who wanted to go vegan. Instead, we reallocated those resources to a new department focused on plant-based corporate engagement and institutional change. This change signifies our shift from individual to institutional impact.
We are still doing investigations, but we now do them with the purpose of leading to legislative or corporate change in the strategy. The purpose is still to bring these images out into the public, but we have to think very strategically about how, why, and what the end goal is for each of the investigations. It was a big job to explain to staff and to donors that we’re not doing the customer service and vegan advice anymore. Instead, we’re doing institutional and corporate, plant-based advice. Now we have a new department, and we diverted a huge amount of resources to it.
Alvarenga: Before Leah joined, MFA expanded very fast in a very short period of time. We went from 20 staff to almost 100 in just a year and a half. We started expanding internationally. Back then, we had each department lead the work in each country. When Leah arrived, we switched this and undertook a comprehensive scoping study to understand the opportunities of working there. Instead of making the decisions primarily at the international level, we are creating a sustainable, empowered, and solid structure in each country to have experienced team members to make decisions based on what will work best considering the culture and the specific opportunity in their countries. We’re also putting more weight on the experts in each region, which had not been done so well in the past. That’s a huge switch for us to become more effective in countries that are very neglected by the movement, especially many Southeast Asia countries, and most importantly India and China.
How would you describe your organization’s culture?
Garcés: Still in transition. We went through a lot of changes this year. This was the year where we steady the ship. That’s how I see it. We’re coming up to October, which will be a year for me as President. The culture now is steady and strong, but waves are still coming and they always will. But we’re more equipped to deal with the waves. When I stepped in, there was a lot of emotional baggage and a lot of distrust of leadership. It was a giant Mount Everest situation to build trust with the team. It has been a priority for me and for the other leaders in the organization to build that trust, accountability, and vulnerability. We spend a lot of time doing “Ask Me Anythings” with all staff, where they get to ask me anything they want. I also send out regular newsletters talking about my thinking and what we’re doing. I meet with most teams on a monthly basis, where they have face-to-face time with me at some point during departmental meetings. I think the most fundamental thing we’ve shifted is trust in leadership. It’s increasing every day.
When I came in, we also increased staff leave from 12 days to 20 days in the U.S. office. We’ve intentionally had our leadership team model what time off looks like. If leadership says you have 20 days, and then they never take the days off, nobody else takes the days off. Culture is always being built, changed, and shifted. It’s a moving target. I feel like now we have a healthy culture, but I’m always trying to improve it. It was important to engage everyone in the guiding coalition. We have to say “Hey, this is not just my problem to fix, we have to fix it together. I’m not going to just write a strategy and you have to follow it.” Everybody has to buy into it. We’re trying to create real co-ownership of our successes and failures. Failure is great, it’s fine. Taking risks is good. Reflecting and redefining our goals is what we’re trying to do.
Alvarenga: From a non-president perspective, I see that Leah is really switching the mindset of the organization. In the past, we had very few people at the top making all the big decisions in the organization, with more than 100 staff around the world. Leah made a lot of efforts to build a strong senior leadership team to empower our leaders in each department and region to be making the best decisions to meet our global goals.
Tell me about your organization’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Has your organization benefited from diversity programs, or from making efforts to have diverse members of your work community? If so, how?
Garcés: You’re talking to two Latinx people. I’m half Colombian and Lucas is Brazilian. Our leadership is majority women. I think we have made a lot of effort to change our recruiting process. For example, when we write job descriptions, we only list the required qualifications that are truly required. We don’t add things that are desirable. That’s a very important, studied point to get more people in marginalized groups to apply.
We post the starting salary range with every job, that’s an important part of diversity recruitment. We also don’t expect candidates to come to us. We are acutely aware that the animal rights movement is essentially made up of privileged white people. To get a more diverse pool, we are actively recruiting them. We have a recruiting manager who is combing LinkedIn for people who have the qualities and care about animals. The person might say they’re vegan, they’re a person of color, and they work at Chicago Bank. If we need a finance person, we’ll go after that person.
We also did training with Breeze Harper. We did three webinars with her so the whole organization had diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Then we looked at things we could do next based on her assessment of us, so her workshops will lead to other programs. Lucas just spoke of Melanie, our Senior Vice President of People Operations. She’s designed a DEI training and strategy moving forward. I think it’s an ongoing battle. There’s a lot of challenges when you work in a sector that pays less than you can make somewhere else. People have loans; if you got your college degree because you got a six-figure loan, you’re always going to have to think about how to pay for that. We’re nowhere near overcoming that, but we’re doing all right.
If you became aware of harassment in your organization, how would you handle it, and what are the mechanisms in place for people to come forward with that?
Garcés: We have a couple of pathways. We have an anonymous third-party portal that goes straight to people operations, and I’m made aware of serious incidents on a need-to-know basis. When a complaint is issued, it’s immediately reviewed and investigated, and there is a policy and procedures in place for investigations for both the person(s) complaining and the person(s) accused. I’ve been through a few incidents soon after I started when we had to investigate—it has to be done extremely professionally and taken very seriously, no matter how small or large the grievance. You also have to be careful of legal issues around this, and the legal team is usually involved as well. Depending on the findings of an investigation appropriate next steps, from disciplinary action all the way up to termination, to mediation and/or coaching, are taken. It highly depends on what kind of harassment we’re talking about and of course the results of the investigation. Sometimes we are dealing with true misunderstandings based on unconscious bias, and we appreciate the opportunity to address those and help our team members grow.
Sexual harassment is a whole other category. We have a no-tolerance policy for this. Given our history, it’s of course always on our radar. We haven’t had anything like that since I’ve been here. But we’ve had misunderstandings based on unconscious bias. I think that’s how I would categorize them. The opportunity to get people in the room and truly listen to each other is a good start and a great potential learning opportunity.
How do you view MFA’s work as fitting within the overall animal advocacy movement? What are the important ways you support or are supported by other advocates?
Garcés: Our corporate engagement work is critical. Our strategy is engaging with companies who want to engage with us, and if they’re asking for help we will help them. But if they’re not willing to admit something’s wrong, we will highlight them through a public campaign. Some of our public campaigning is really critical for putting pressure on companies. We don’t have any restrictions there where other organizations might, so we can run the biggest, largest, hard-hitting campaign we want if we feel that that’s the most effective way. We also have the flexibility to sit down with the company to discuss the best way, and sometimes we do that as well. The flexibility in our corporate outreach strategy is unique. We have investigations in our back pocket, which not everybody has. We’re willing to do that. It’s risky, it’s hard, and it’s expensive, but companies know it’s an option, so we bring that to the table uniquely.
Then we have our fantastic international strategic work. As Lucas said, we’re empowering regions and individual countries to have an impact. We’re hiring strong Managing Directors in each country. We just hired one in Mexico and we hired one in Brazil after we promoted Lucas. The next step is to hire our Managing Directors in Asia. You empower them: you get a really good person, give them the highlights of what they need to do, and let them decide how to achieve that locally.
So I think we bring international and corporate expertise, as well as investigations. We’re a very collaborative organization now; we don’t need to take credit, and we want to work together. We know that this is a big global job. One of my quarterly goals was to bring organizations together, to brainstorm and create a coalition mindset. With everything we do, we think about how to make our resources go as far as possible. We want to think about who can do what’s best, where, and not double up or compete. Our competition is factory farming, it’s not each other. That collaborative culture is something that I do think we’re carving out and bringing to everyone.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention now?
Garcés: I’m an effective altruist; I go to EAG (Effective Altruism Global). So is Lucas. This is our jam. We love to think about impact and how to make the most out of the money we have in front of us. We really reshaped the organization over the last nine months. The thing I worry about is that people have been looking at us and thinking “What are they doing?” because we’ve been in this “reshape” mode. But we’ve been putting in all these operations, systems, culture, and management so that we can steadily move forward and make an impact, and we have the internal environment to do that.