Mahi Klosterhalfen is the CEO & President of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation (ASF). He spoke with ACE Researcher Maria Salazar on July 24, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be ASF’s three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Chicken welfare improvements
We had a breakthrough in the broiler work that we’re doing. We started very slowly and didn’t have much progress until we decided to apply a lot more pressure–now the victories are coming in rapidly. So we ran an Open Wing Alliance European campaign against Sodexo, which we won. We have more catering victories coming in, and the momentum has drastically changed since we decided to apply pressure.
Then we made further improvements for the 81 million laying hens in the KAT system, which is an assurance system used by every supermarket chain in Germany. They have about 40 million hens in Germany in that system, and in the Netherlands and other countries, they have another 40+ million. This system allows them to set their own standards that are above the law. So far, they have not set standards above the law, but we have made progress: First of all, we have made sure that the rearing phase is improved by reducing stocking density. There will be other improvements as well around feed quality, litter, light, air quality, and manipulable material. We finally wrapped up the rearing part of the improvements, which took longer than we expected, and we are about to make that public next month. The second part is working on improving standards for laying hens to benefit all 81 million hens.
The third accomplishment is the progress we’re making in aquaculture work. We officially founded an aquaculture welfare initiative in November last year, and we had many German retailers join from the start. Now we have all the German retailers on board, and we’re even going international. We have Aldi and Lidl, two of the biggest and most influential chains, that already joined with their international bodies. And now, we’re talking with GIZ, which is a foreign aid agency for the German government. They also want to join the initiative so they can help aquaculture producers in the developing world meet the standards for the German and the European market, and therefore help them with market access. So they think it’s a great win-win for them.
We are also pushing technological developments, which seem to be very important when it comes to improved welfare standards in aquaculture. We are in touch with several providers for systems for stunning, transport, and handling. We’re also working with a startup that uses artificial intelligence to monitor factors that are relevant to welfare that can be applied to basically all aquaculture fish species, such as water quality, oxygen levels, etc. It’s always a challenge because different species have such different requirements. Through the initiative, we made sure that this will be installed in three pilot farms, and then the benefits can be extended to the entire initiative, depending on how well the pilot program goes and what the costs are. Hopefully, we can spread this technology very fast so that fish can benefit from it.
We wrote a short description of our aquaculture work because it’s so complex and new; it’s not like our cage-free work which everybody is familiar with.
What do you consider to be ASF’s major strengths?
Focus on effectiveness
We’re always questioning our work and looking for ways to become more effective. One example would be the broiler work I mentioned where we realized we didn’t make much progress, especially in the last year where we only had two victories. We realized that the way we were approaching it wasn’t bringing the results we were hoping for. We decided to apply pressure, and that worked well, so now the victories are coming in. I think that’s a strength to realize when we need to change things.
After every project and campaign, we always do a post-mortem analysis. We’re building a database with our “lessons learned” so that every time someone starts a project, they can see what we’ve already learned from similar projects. This also highlights the ways we’re always looking to improve our work and learn from our mistakes, and to not be shy about making mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes all the time and that’s something to be open about and learn from.
The next strength is something we realized through working with ACE: We should figure out a way to have more international impact. We’re always looking to have an impact beyond the countries we work in. One example would be that we now have built the capacities to coordinate European broiler campaigns within the Open Wing Alliance. We ran the one that I mentioned: the Sodexo catering campaign for broilers. We are now in the process of planning the next campaign that many organizations within the Open Wing Alliance will join. The Humane League is very happy about us filling this gap because they have so many other things to do within the Open Wing Alliance that we figured we would be a good fit for coordinating these big broiler campaigns.
Another example of the international impact is the aquaculture work. We figured out from the beginning that we don’t only want this to be a German initiative. We got Aldi and Lidl as I mentioned, and we’re also reaching out to other retailers internationally to see if they will join the initiative. That was already built in when we thought about launching the aquaculture work.
The third example would be working with the REWE Group, one of the biggest retailers, and we convinced them to go cage-free internationally by 2025. They came back to us saying, “Okay, how can we implement this?” Now they want to work with us to implement that pledge in all countries they’re active in, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. They want to build a coalition of several companies who want and need cage-free eggs and convince the producers that are slow to react to switch their supplies to cage-free eggs. If we succeed, that would greatly help make sure that all the cage-free pledges that have been secured in the last couple of years in Central and Eastern Europe will be followed through on.
Another strength is the legal expertise we have. One example is our board member Hans-Georg Kluge, who is the lawyer for animal welfare and animal rights cases in Germany. While they were not lawsuits that ASF launched, Kluge had two huge successes recently that were almost impossible to win because in both cases, the court had made a terrible decision and there was no way to bring another case forward. Two German districts had ordered two hatcheries to stop killing male chicks. The hatcheries went to court to fight the order and the German districts hired Kluge as their lawyer. He succeeded at getting the cases through to the next stage, which was very difficult and unlikely given their case.
The other case was that the court of last resort had already made a bad ruling. They said factory farming is exempt from animal welfare laws, which would have been the worst case possible for German animal welfare legislative work. He made sure that the constitutional court in this state did not throw out our case right away, which they do with most cases. Otherwise, it would have been a total nightmare for animal law work in Germany. It’s safe to say that we are in very good hands legally when it comes to moving these things forward.
Someone like Hans-George hopes that if other groups try to do legal work, they get somebody top-notch because once a case is lost, it’s so hard to fix things. So it’s good to have him.
What do you perceive to be ASF’s major weaknesses?
I’d say one is that we can be a bit slow in implementing our plans. We often have too many projects going on at once and we’re not really generating the capacities we need to implement the plans quickly. One example is that since last year, we decided we wanted to expand to a third country, but we haven’t done that yet. We realized that things were just not moving forward and that we needed to shift gears. Our director of corporate outreach will therefore now only focus on international work, including managing the Polish team. We have a country director now so less management is needed there. The other focus she has is deciding where to launch next and implementing the launch, and we asked somebody else on the team to lead the German corporate outreach team. I think the general solution is to further reduce the number of ongoing projects that we have. We have made some progress with that but it’s not enough yet.
We’re also improving our project management. We did a culture workshop where we realized that we sometimes can be a little bit bureaucratic, and we decided to streamline our processes to become more agile. I have high hopes and we’re working on it, but it’s still a weakness.
Additionally, there are still some hiccups concerning me switching my role to being a real CEO. When I took over the organization in 2009, I was the only employee and I did everything. We’ve grown over the years and I’m still working on transitioning to a more classical CEO role that doesn’t micromanage. At a recent all-staff meeting, I told the team, “If I start to micromanage, please tell me politely to stop doing that.” And everybody was laughing, so they see the problem as well. But we are working on it and I’ve made progress. I’ve started to track my time and to see whether I’m doing things that staff members should do, or whether I’m actually doing proper CEO work. I’m looking at this constantly to make sure that I grow into my role as a more classical CEO.
What does the organization do to create or revise its strategic plan or to set strategy?
We have a process for developing our strategy. First of all, we have overall strategic goals: ending factory farming, reducing the production of animal products, and spreading vegan and vegan-ish lifestyles. Then, we have several pillars that we use to make this happen: working with companies or against them, doing legal work, working with consumers, and working with multipliers. These multipliers can be influencers, politicians, or other NGOs.
Then we have some internal issues, like always being a learning organization, having well-working structures, and growing. When the strategic planning starts we have overall questions that are: “Where and how can we generate the biggest impact in the next three years?” We have a three-year strategy. Then, “Are there any promising long-term issues that we should work on that go beyond the three years?” When I say we, I mean ASF as a piece of the puzzle and the global movement, so we’re always looking to where we can add the most value in the movement.
Based on this, I develop a three-year strategy together with our COO. We get input from the senior management team, then we get input, possible changes, and approval from the board. We present the strategy to the team, and we’ll have a Q&A session where they can give input for the next round of strategic planning. We are looking at this three-year strategy every year to see if we want or need to somehow set a slightly different course for the next three years.
Who makes the final decisions?
Final decisions are made by the board. I’m the president of the board, so I have two roles: as CEO I prepare the strategy, and then I vote on the final decisions. In the last round, to my surprise, the senior management and the board of directors were almost fully in agreement, so we only made minor changes and signed off on it. I had expected more pushback because we reduced consumer outreach and put a much stronger focus on corporate campaigns.
Do other people from the rest of the team have a viable means for challenging those decisions?
In the last round, we had a presentation of the strategy where we had a Q&A session. Then, we gave the Google Doc with the strategy to the entire team to comment. We had several questions, but we didn’t really have any challenges. But if there are challenges, they probably wouldn’t change the three-year strategy that we just finalized unless we see something major, and we have to make some bigger changes. Otherwise, they are fed into the next round for the next year.
What is the best decision you’ve made as a leader?
The best decision was to let go of more things. As I mentioned, I used to micromanage. Even today I received an email from a teammate—we were planning to ask chicken producers to sign up for the European Chicken Commitment. He said, “Hey, I can do that.” And my first reaction was, “No, that’s my task!” So this is just one example. But I told him to go ahead and do it. Realizing that my role needs to change with the growing organization, and then actually taking steps to make those changes, that’s been a good decision. That is challenging for me because I have to let go of some things I really like to do and that I’m good at doing. I have to grow into some other CEO tasks that I’m not used to and have to develop my skills. That’s a challenging but very good process. For the health of the organization, this has been the biggest realization and also the best decision to take steps to remedy.
What is the biggest mistake or the hardest decision you’ve made as a leader?
The micromanaging part comes to mind as well. Another one would be related to the broiler campaign. I wonder what we were thinking when we approached the broiler campaign in the same way we approached the cage-free campaign. In Germany, we’re basically done with cage-free work, but companies were not reacting well to us giving a friendly knock on the door saying “Hey, we’ve got this new ask, and it will cost a whole lot more. Could you please switch?” So we wasted a year by not doing this more aggressively. We fixed it, but in hindsight, I would have liked to realize it sooner.
Is there a decision you’ve made recently that you haven’t been able to follow through on?
Yes, one decision that’s not so recent is to extend ourselves to a third country. We’re in Germany and Poland now, and we always said there needs to be a third and fourth country, and maybe even more. We never had the capacity to follow through, but we’re working on that now.
How do you measure the outcomes of your most important projects or programs?
We set goals, and we use a system called the results staircase that has been developed by a German group that helps other NGOs become more effective. It’s a seven-step impact program that starts with the outputs—the work that you do—and it goes through outcomes and then actual impact. We are making sure that along this staged process, we have goals for the things that we want to do, such as talk to X companies about broilers and then get Y number of companies to sign up to the European Chicken Commitment. Then we rank these companies. We have a priority point system so a company can have 1–10 points, depending on their size, the amount of chicken they use, and the influence they have on the entire market. A very small victory doesn’t have the same weight as a huge supermarket chain. We want to make sure that we have the right focus. Within these targets, we do monthly check-ins to see where we’re at and to discuss whether we need to take any actions. We do that with the senior management team every month, and then the senior management team talks to their team at least once a month about where they are with their goals and progress.
Has the charity engaged in any formal self-assessments?
We do evaluations of our work and projects. We do self-assessments by doing post-mortems after every project, and we regularly critically examine our work to see if we’re on track and whether we need to make changes. But these are not very formal self-evaluation tools that we use.
What changes have you made recently aside from the broiler work?
We made quite a number of changes in terms of fine-tuning our structure. We now finally have one person that’s fully dedicated to HR work. Looking back it’s surprising that we never had at least one person doing that. The HR work was shared between the senior management team and the admin team. Now we have the opportunity to look more holistically at HR work: our hiring processes, on- and off-boarding, team development, diversity management, and conflict management. All those processes now fall under one position. Prior to that, our HR person used to be our fundraiser; she expressed the wish to change her job internally and to change roles, which we allowed.
That new role led to a gap in the fundraising space which we just filled last week with Bettina. That’s also a change. Bettina is the first person at ASF who is a professional fundraiser. Anne, who’s now the HR person, was basically self-taught, but now we have a professional fundraiser with lots of experience. We were a bit slow in getting there.
We have a new communications director who has a lot of experience, and the change led to gender parity in our senior management team. If you include our country director in Poland we have one more female senior manager than male.
A shift from consumer outreach to corporate outreach & campaigns
We also switched gears by reducing our spending and the amount of work we put into consumer outreach and we put these resources into corporate outreach, especially corporate campaigns. We decided to change our street campaigns team which used to do consumer outreach exclusively. We turned them into our own campaigns department that does mostly corporate campaigns now, and we also increased the size of the team. Now we have a lot of campaigning power that we can use.
Fine-tuning our compensation scheme
We’re now working with an external agency that specializes in consulting nonprofits. We realized we needed to fine-tune it after we saw a lack of clarity in terms of when somebody gets the senior title or not. We also realized we have a problem attracting highly-trained, experienced people with the normal salary structure we have now. It took a bit of convincing to get our two recent hires—one fundraiser and one webmaster—on board and to ask them to be patient with our compensation scheme because the market prices are much higher than our very static scheme. That’s going to change this year.
We have two equal opportunity commissioners now; that’s also a process we went through that we think is very important.
Solution for U.S. donors
Last but not least, because it comes up very often, we finally found a solution for U.S. donors who want to give to us but have limits on supporting lobbying work. We just opened a separate bank account so the money that goes into that account is just used for unproblematic work for U.S. donors. We use that to pay for corporate outreach, corporate campaigns, etc. and totally keep it separate from all the political work we’re doing. Now, it’s no longer a problem for U.S. donors.
Open Philanthropy, ACE, and other donors have asked us how we can solve this, and the solution turned out to be pretty simple, but it took us a while.
Have you cut off any other unsuccessful programs or made changes to the more successful ones?
The biggest change I briefly mentioned was that we reduced the consumer outreach portion of our budget and put it into corporate campaigns. I expected pushback because we have employees that really love our consumer outreach. We didn’t push it away entirely, but we decided to focus the work a little more. We cut off the part that wasn’t working, which was generating leads for our Vegan Taste Week, an online program that allows people to change their diet through information. We used to ask people on the streets to sign up for Vegan Taste Week, and we did get great lead numbers, but it took us a while to separate the online-generated leads from the offline-generated leads. Only then did we saw that the online leads were performing brilliantly—they had huge opening and click rates—and the offline leads were terrible in terms of opening and click rates. So we’re not spending any more of our money on that. We have some local volunteer groups that love talking to people on the streets and having them sign up for this program. We allow them to do that but we also figured we want to involve them more in our corporate campaigns. So this is the biggest change we made.
What piece of evidence would most change your organization’s approach to helping animals?
We take everything we learn into consideration, and we’re always ready to pivot or make more drastic changes. It’s hard for me to say what piece of information would change our approach. Once we have something that’s entirely convincing and we have proof, we’d stop our current projects and look for something else. We’ve grown into an organization that is not too attached to anything. The only thing we’re really attached to is generating change and impact. We’re fine with pivoting or changing direction and we want to be evidence-driven in our decisions, too.
How would you describe your organization’s culture?
I could give you a one-hour speech. We’ve just hired an external firm, called the Culture Institute. They focus on working with organizations on finding what the status quo of the internal organization is, and they use a great model for describing how the culture works. We went through that. First, they did an online survey for the entire staff. Then they had peer interviews with the biggest amount of diversity we could generate in our staff in terms of age, gender, roles, etc. so they could get a picture of our culture. Then we had a full-day workshop where we finalized the description of our culture together and found topics to work on.
A couple of things came up—as I mentioned, we realized we’re sometimes a bit too bureaucratic. We are a bit shy about speaking up and conflict is a problem for us. We figured that out, and the conductor of the workshop told us we needed to implement radical candor. We’ll have a one-day workshop coming up on radical candor to improve the situation, because it’s very important to us to bring in different views, find the best solutions, and not shy away from conflict. We’d like to see conflict as something positive if done in the right way. Hopefully, the radical candor concept will benefit us.
On the positive side, we figured out that we can be very effective. If the bureaucratic part is not too strong, we have a healthy mix of planning and being pragmatic. We further want to fine-tune that. Additionally, and this isn’t a huge surprise because he works mostly with for-profit companies, but the conductor said he’s rarely seen an organization that was so mission-driven and on board with what they are doing. That really drives us forward. We also have a healthy dose of scientific skepticism, where we ask ourselves every once in a while, “Are we on the right track? Do we need to improve anything? What’s going wrong?”
The workshop conductor also gave us a list of recommendations to further work on our culture. This is now an ongoing process for us where we do workshops or dedicate an entire day to clean up our rules, documentation, and processes. We decide what we can throw out if it’s not relevant anymore. We ask ourselves if it’s something we would redevelop today, or if it’s just old and in our way. This is now an ongoing process to improve our culture. I’m really happy we could work with this institute.
If we have things we need on an ongoing basis, we want to develop our own skills. But every once in a while we may just need some external input. Then we won’t shy away from hiring somebody, even if it costs a little bit.
Can you give an example of how your organization has benefited from diversity programs or from having diverse members in its work community?
First of all, I have to say that diversity in Germany and Poland looks different from, say, the U.S. If you look at people that don’t have white skin color in the entire movement in both countries, you can basically count them on one hand. We probably have to figure out how to improve that before we can change the staff situation. If you look at our staff pictures, we are all white. It’s not because we have something against people of color, not at all. We actually did have a refugee from Africa working for us through an internal government program. But when it comes to diversity, like skin color, there is only so much you can do in Germany and Poland.
Gender and age diversity are also important for us. We’ve come from an organization where all the decision-makers were white men. Now at least in terms of gender, we are on parity when it comes to the leadership positions. We also have different experience levels. We used to be a very young team but then we got some more experienced people on board, which has given us some different views.
If you became aware of harassment taking place in your organization, how would you handle it?
We have everything worked out in a written process. We already translated it into English for Open Philanthropy, and I’m happy to share it with you. We also did a full-day workshop on this issue for the entire team. The staff members that developed the internal policy also worked with external consultants. We also have a policy and a process on how we proceed if something comes up. This is all very German: written down, everything is codified into rules. We did have one case last year where we had to go through this process. As bad as it is when it comes up, we handled it very well by having a lot of conversations and making sure everybody felt protected and secure.
How does ASF’s work fit into the overall animal advocacy movement?
We see the movement as a whole. We want to help the movement succeed and figure out where we can help the most. We had one situation where we had a team member saying, “Hey, organization X is having so much success with that program, I think they’re getting ahead of us.” I told them: “That’s not something to worry about, it’s fine if other groups are ahead of us in certain areas. It’s not a competition. It can sometimes maybe a healthy one, but most of all it’s thinking about the overall objective and how can we as a movement succeed.”
I think the biggest role for us now, in the entire movement, is the European broiler work. We have many great organizations in the Open Wing Alliance, but we’re usually just in one or two countries and sometimes we want to tackle big targets like Sodexo. It’s just amazing when everybody comes together and handles a campaign against one company in many countries and hits it from every side. We now have built the capacity to do that, we’ve done it with the Sodexo campaign, and are planning to do it more.
Also, when it comes to internationalization, we’ve discussed internally whether we should look for countries that are great for fundraising. We’ve found that we’d rather look for countries where we can have the biggest additional impact. For us, it’s more about finding the gap that we can fill.
We cooperate with other groups in many ways. Internally, we developed a workshop on burnout prevention that we offered to other groups in Germany. The staff member who developed the workshop has given the workshop to other groups, so it’s great to see that we can help each other.
Specifically, in Germany, we started a roundtable for quality management in animal protection groups. We are discussing with other groups what we can do to improve the quality of our work. We formed a coalition, again in Germany, of groups that do political work. Before we had this coalition it used to be quite messy because every group was working on different issues. Sometimes groups were working on the same issues but didn’t have the same demands. Politicians would say “Please make up your mind because we don’t know what you want.” Since we have that coalition now, we have the same set of demands and we go to meetings with politicians together, along with other things like that. We also have position papers that we not only give to politicians, but we also give them to companies to show them that the entire movement is asking for the same things. We always look for synergies working together with other groups.
I also think it’s great that we are able to do some intersectional work, which happens in Poland. Our country director in Poland is very engaged in the LGBTQ and feminist movements, and she’s part of the Women’s Congress in Poland, which is the yearly feminist event in Poland. Every year, they have three main topics, and she was able to lobby internally to make sure that ecology and animal rights are one of the three main topics. She was allowed to write the position paper on animal rights for this Women’s Congress. The board there has now agreed to make the catering of the Congress 100% vegan. It’s tricky because the venue uses one set caterer that’s not very experienced in vegan catering, but it’s great to see that we can also help to work cross-sectionally in other movements to bring our issues forward.
What does ASF do differently from other organizations? What sets you apart?
Looking at Germany in particular, there are not a lot of groups that even do corporate outreach, so we’re filling a gap there. There aren’t really any groups that do legal work. We have some groups in Germany that have the right to sue, which is a very special new legal field. We are working with them so when they want to sue, they use our lawyer and we fund the entire process because those are usually small organizations that don’t have a lot of funding: We make the legal work in Germany possible.
A couple of things that I already mentioned come to mind, like self-evaluation, being flexible and able to shift our focus, and things like that. It’s not unique but it’s still not the norm. We hope to help make it the norm. So I’d say those are some differences.
We’re making some progress at working with animal protection groups that haven’t always been keen on cooperation, and we’re always lobbying them to work with us and other groups. We’re making progress there by forgetting about the ego side of the work. I wouldn’t say we’re perfect at that, but we’re getting there. Progress happens; the rest is not that important. Internationally, you don’t see a lot of big egos anymore, but it’s harder in Germany. After working with the Open Wing Alliance, my perception is that the groups are totally cooperative and they even have a Slack channel for victories. Whenever a group posts something, everybody cheers, so that’s great. That’s why I have the feeling that internationally it’s different.