Rachel Dreskin is the Executive Director of CIWF USA, otherwise known as Compassion USA. She spoke with ACE Researcher Maria Salazar on July 23, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) USA’s three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
The focus of our program in the U.S. is our direct engagement with the food industry to create widespread change. We do that by developing deep and trusting relationships with food companies. In the last year, we have made incredible progress across sectors in the food industry, but particularly with the producer sector, which historically has been very hard to infiltrate. It shows that companies are becoming more open and willing to see value in developing a relationship with us.
In the past two months, we have had extended meetings and visits with three of the top six broiler producers in the United States. There’s a lot of confidentiality surrounding the work that we’re doing with food companies, so we haven’t reached a point where we can make a public announcement with them. Just signaling that we are engaged in that level of work with the producers has been tremendous. I see it as an incredible sign of progress that we are making that is going to be essential to changing the food industry and moving to higher welfare standards for several species. Our visits with broiler producers have included tours of slaughter facilities from different producers, which have been closed off and secretive up until this point. To have food companies open up and show us the more sensitive sides of their businesses shows vulnerability, and they know there is value to them by being engaged with us.
They also see opening up to us as being essential. I was talking to a producer last week about how there seem to be lots of opportunities for us to partner in certain areas. The producer said that they don’t see it as just an opportunity—they see it as essential. They said that if they don’t have CIWF’s support and involvement they can’t do it. It’s incredibly exciting that we are getting to a deep level of engagement with people who are in control of the broiler industry and thus are in control of 95% of farmed animals in the U.S.
Another accomplishment is working with more companies on broiler commitments. In the past twelve months, we’ve worked with Hello Fresh and PCC Community Markets, which is the first retailer commitment out of Whole Foods Market. We’ve also worked with Subway on publishing its first comprehensive animal welfare policy. There have been some exciting public pieces that go along with that kind of work.
A big part of our time and energy working with the food industry is focused around compliance, which involves making sure companies implement the commitments on animal welfare. For example, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Sam’s Club have disclosed their significant progress on their cage-free egg commitments for the first time. That’s a tremendously exciting accomplishment that we’ve been able to share just a few months ago, but that’s been the result of several years of work and engagement getting massive industry leaders to the point where they can actually disclose their progress. Part of our work on compliance is making sure that the work companies are doing is publicly available. We have a tracking tool called EggTrack. We published our second annual report last fall and we’re gearing up to publish our third annual report this fall, which will include progress from McDonald’s and Walmart. Last year, we also secured an exclusive with Bloomberg covering our EggTrack report. This is also tremendously exciting because we want to make sure that the work that we’re doing around compliance is visible to different stakeholder groups, including consumers and, very importantly, investors.
What do you consider to be Compassion USA’s major strengths?
We have two main pillars of work at CIWF. The first pillar is direct engagement with the food industry to create widespread change through our food business program. The second pillar is our public engagement program, which focuses on sensitizing the market by inspiring consumers to demand better and compelling companies to do better by raising awareness around the devastating consequences of factory farming. One of our biggest strengths is that both of these pillars really complement one another. We have a very synced-up body of programmatic work that directly stems from and is guided by our organizational priorities and our impact goals. Everything is laser-focused around our strategy and our goals.
Business collaboration is another strength. If we’re going to truly shift the industry, the animal protection movement needs to build up relationships with the biggest players in the game. We need to be in the room with companies, and we need to have trust to enable them to set and meet commitments. Within the food business program, we also have scientists and technical experts on staff that underpin all of that work and give us credibility with the food industry. And of course, we have the public engagement team that is supporting corporate policy change.
What do you consider to be your organization’s greatest weaknesses?
One of the challenges we face is the confidential nature of our work, which we frequently talk about as a team because it presents a communication challenge for us. In many cases, it can take months or even years for behind-the-scenes work to become public. It can be a challenge for us to figure out how to communicate our progress with various stakeholders while a massive amount of our work is protected by confidentiality.
Another challenge for us is the limitation around size and budget. We’ve grown significantly over the past few years, but the reality is that we’re still quite small. We’re a fourteen-person team in the U.S. with a $1.6 million budget, and thankfully we’re in a position where we’re engaged with chief executives at multi-billion dollar companies. That being said, we need to scale our work and thus need more people and money to engage with more companies in a deeper way to create more impact.
What does Compassion USA do to create or revise its strategic plan, or what is the strategy if no formal plan is used?
We are a 501(c)3 charity organization in the U.S., but we’re also part of the global organization that is Compassion International. I sit on the global leadership team of the international organization as well. Starting with Compassion International, we set a five-year strategy for the global organization. From there, we develop country-specific strategies and plans for how we are going to implement that strategy in our particular regions. In the U.S., we do have a fair amount of autonomy regarding how we actually implement that strategy. We develop an annual operating plan, which is an extremely important part of our strategic planning process. In order to do that, we have two in-person retreats for the full U.S. team every year. We have one coming up in the fall of this year where we’ll be creating our annual operating plan for the following fiscal year. It’s a huge, full-team process where we dive deeply into our strategy and decide how best to move forward. It stems from the five-year strategy set forth by the international organization.
The annual operating plan includes our strategy as well as our specific goals for the coming years. The goals are truly embedded in every aspect of our work because we do have such a laser focus. Everything flows from that strategic planning process. Then we have biannual formal check-ins at each of our in-person retreats to see how we’re progressing against the goals set forth in our strategy in our annual operating plan. All team members also develop performance and development reviews every year, which they do in conjunction with their line managers. Each person within a team also has a six-month review of their performance and development where we review key performance indicators. That all stems from the five-year strategy and the one-year annual operating plan for the U.S. Individual plans and key performance indicators stem from that. My progress and the cumulative team progress are reviewed formally by the U.S. board of directors to ensure accountability against our goals. As the Executive Director, I make final decisions about the annual operating plan for the U.S., but the board also approves it.
Are there viable means of challenging those decisions from people on the team?
I’ll go into some more detail around how we develop our strategy. Our fiscal year starts on April 1 of next year, and we’re starting our annual operating plan process now. It’s a fairly intensive process and intentionally involves every person on the team. Within the next month or so, the heads of the teams within the U.S. will come together to talk generally about our strategy for the coming year. Then the team leads work with and seeks input from their teams to develop what they think their strategies should be for their respective teams. After that, we all come together in October and bring our plans to the table and have a discussion. That’s an additional opportunity for folks to say whether they agree or disagree with the strategy or if they want to challenge something. We have actually constructed those days so that there is ample time to make sure that everybody’s thoughts and opinions are heard. We pride ourselves on having an extremely collaborative process for this, which does take time, but that’s absolutely essential. I think if every member of the team feels truly brought into the process and feels that their opinions are heard, that’s when people are going to be most committed and give their best work. Even though I have the final decision-making authority for our strategy, subject to board approval, I do not pretend to be a subject-matter expert where other people have the expertise, so I rely heavily on them. I trust my team immensely to provide sound recommendations that will be integrated into our plan.
What’s the best decision you’ve made as a leader?
I think the best decision I’ve made as a leader is to have a great senior team in place. I’ll give a bit of background on the history of my role within the U.S. team. I’ve been in the Executive Director role since October 1, 2018, and before that, I was the head of our food business program, which is the focal program for our team. One of the best decisions I’ve made since moving into the Executive Director leadership role is to prioritize people on the team and ensure that they feel supported. We’ve also brought in some strong new folks in leadership roles. So we have had a very smooth transition in moving from our former Executive Director over to me. Of course, it would be best to speak with the team about this. Our success completely relies on the strength of the people who are on the team and who are doing the work. My role is to guide them but also to allow them the autonomy and support to do their jobs well.
What is the biggest mistake or hardest decision you’ve made as a leader?
Walking away from opportunities is often a hard decision, and it continues to be a big challenge. Being a fourteen-person team, we always have to make hard decisions and prioritize what we do and don’t do. Having a really strong focus on impacting the highest number of animals possible and maintaining our focus around implementing broiler commitments means that we have had to walk away from other opportunities. Food companies come to us all the time with proposals that don’t align with our focal areas, for example a massive project around dairy cows in their supply chain. Of course, we want to do that because there are all these cows that are going to benefit from doing that kind of work, but that also means pulling my team’s time and resources away from our area of focus. My heart wants to say that we’re going to work on this dairy cow project, but I know that we have to step back, assess, and say that we can’t embark on that at this point in time. It comes up frequently because of our engagement with the food industry.
Is there a decision you’ve made recently that you haven’t been able to follow through on?
There are a lot of opportunities like meeting with food companies, speaking engagements, and participation in events or panels that far exceed the people and the time that we have available. To my knowledge, we have not said yes to something that we haven’t been able to follow through on. It’s hard to say no, but we’re doing it more and more because we know that otherwise, we would not be able to prioritize, implement, or follow through.
How do you measure the outcomes of your most important projects or programs?
A central focus of our work is the food business program. The typical way to measure the impact of our programs is by the numbers of animals that are set or have the potential to benefit from policies and commitments. But after a commitment is made lies the challenging and often lengthy process of actually implementing those commitments. Our compliance program works with and holds companies to account during that implementation period because we, of course, don’t see an actual impact for animals until the commitments are seen through to fruition. Therefore, we also seek to measure the number of animals that are actually benefiting as those commitments get implemented.
We also have goals around the number of companies that we need to be engaging with in order to achieve those commitments; we have ways of prioritizing those companies. We don’t just say we’re going to engage with 200 food companies—we want to engage with the leading food companies based on their animal footprints, their egg or broiler footprint, or their market influence. We also have goals embedded within our compliance work, like with our EggTrack reports, around the number of companies that we aim to have reporting publicly.
Do you have formal self-assessments or retrospective meetings on major projects?
For the team, that is so important to us. It goes back to one of the first strengths that I mentioned for the organization: our incredible cohesion between the public engagement team and the food business team. We work across those departments on big projects–Egg Track is a great example of that. Another example is our campaign around spaghetti meat, which is a genetic muscular disorder in broiler chickens that causes the meat to actually have a spaghetti-like texture. We did a big exposé around this which the public engagement team led. As they were developing a video, communication, and supporter outreach, our food business team was integrated from the very beginning. They were figuring out how to send this message to food companies without jeopardizing any food business relationships. The technical team of scientists was involved in creating white papers that showed the scientific reasons why this disorder is now common in broiler chickens. We went through the entire process together by launching the campaign and relevant communications. Then we had a formal recap with the public engagement and food business teams where we reviewed what worked, how it worked, and what we could improve on. For every project that we do, we go through the same process.
Cohesion is one of the most exciting things about our team, and it’s important to me that we absolutely maintain the integration of our teams as we continue to grow.
What changes have you made recently as an organization? Have you taken steps to improve programs that were not very successful, or canceled programs to make room for more successful ones?
One of the first big changes in the past year was the change of Executive Director, which I touched on before. It did feel like it was a fairly smooth transition, and from my standpoint, the staff feedback has been very, very good. It was a priority for me that the staff didn’t have to miss a beat or take a break from their work.
We also introduced a new program to our portfolio after a lot of thought and consideration. This is our work around reducing the total number of animals in company supply chains. It’s a program that has two different pieces to it, but they’re working in harmony. On the food business side, we have the Friendly Food Alliance, which is where we are building off of the relationships that we have with companies. We aim to address protein diversification, reduce the total number of animals, and be able to create a methodology and means for assessing the impact of that work. We are engaged with several large food companies and public schools, and we also have formal partnerships with Compass Group and Bon Appetit. We’re also working with one of the largest global manufacturers—we can’t disclose the name at the moment—which could involve a partnership with a major retailer.
We are looking at strategies that companies can implement in order to reduce their total animal footprint. This is a natural evolution of our work and ties into the compliance work that we’re doing. As we’re working with companies to roadmap and execute the supply chain changes to higher welfare, there is a cost implication for their business. We are now having a conversation with food companies and saying, “Yes, there is an increased cost associated with moving to higher welfare, so as a next step we need to look at your protein portfolio more holistically.” If we’re looking at the number of eggs in their supply chain, a proportion of that will need to be moved to higher-welfare or cage-free systems, and a portion of that we consider removing or replacing from the supply chain. This can be a really important cost-mitigation strategy for companies as they look to implement their welfare commitments.
This is a natural evolution of our strategy, but there’s been a lot of thinking and shifting that’s gone on over the past 9–12 months. At first, we looked at this specifically around partnerships and piloted with a few companies, but we’ve shifted and are now looking at this in a broader light. We are having bigger conversations with some of the top meat companies in the U.S. and talking about what a sustainable protein portfolio looks like. Then we make sure we can drill down to the number of animals impacted, which is the measure that we are most keen on looking at. We have somebody on the team who is specifically focused on engagement with food companies and evolving our strategy.
We are also linking in with the global organization, CIWF International, and looking at forming strategic alliances with external groups. That includes other animal protection groups, but it also includes other groups that intersect, like human health and environmental organizations. For all these reasons, I would argue that this is kind of an evolution of our work, versus a completely new focus, but it’s a really exciting one.
We also have a public-engagement side of that work: a campaign called “Eat Plants For A Change.” Our messaging to the public and to our supporters is not just focused on supporting a shift to higher welfare, but it’s advocating for people to actually take animals off their plates. We do this by highlighting the benefits of doing that. This project has been in the works for a while now, and we’ve been talking about it for a couple of years. We have spent a lot of time in the idea and formulation stage of this, and we launched it just over a year ago. We take these programs really seriously, and we don’t feel like we can jump into and launch a massive program right after the idea. It’s something we have to think about carefully, but we do pride ourselves in making sure that we take a very thoughtful approach. The impact and measurement methodology is such an important part, so we’re forming a working group within the organization to make sure that we get it right and that it works for both food companies and other stakeholders. It continues to be in development, but it’s massively important and has tremendous potential.
At the end of the day, we are making so much progress with welfare commitments, but we also have to be really honest with ourselves about the sobering increase in the number of animals actually entering the supply chain. We can’t ignore that and can’t focus strictly on only improving the conditions. We must maintain our focus on that, but we also need to build a robust program within CIWF USA to address the total number of animals in our food system.
What piece of evidence would most change your approach to helping animals?
I’d say two things. We focus our strategy on how we feel like we can have the biggest impact, which we’ve assessed is currently through our corporate engagement program. It’s also through the numbers of animals, and for land animals, that brought us to broilers. We know what is needed to have a meaningful impact on those animals’ lives through the work of our technical team and scientists.
Starting with our focus on corporate engagement, I think about what our organization should be doing in terms of engagement on legislative change and, importantly, implementation of legislation. Some evidence that I’m starting to think about integrating into our strategy is the success of ballot initiatives like Prop 12 and Question 3, which we’re proud to have played a supporting role in, but we didn’t lead those legislative initiatives. Seeing the success of those initiatives and knowing that we have a successful program around compliance on corporate commitments makes me think that we should include work on ensuring legislative compliance as well, contingent on resources. That’s one potential shift or addition to our approach and strategy that I am thinking through as a result of the progress made on the legislative front. Compassion USA is well-positioned to do the compliance and implementation work.
There’s also a piece around the scientific and technical side. We are not married to an ask around improvements to particular species, like broiler chickens. The science right now supports that the changes we’re asking for—including breed change, more space enrichment, and improving slaughter—are changes that will meaningfully and measurably improve the quality of life for those animals. If there is science or evidence that comes up that provides an alternative but equally meaningful approach, then that info would inform our approach. At the end of the day, we are here to help animals. We continuously monitor and integrate into our strategy the science or evidence that shows us what we need to do to help the animals.
How would you describe your organization’s culture?
We place a huge amount of importance on open and honest communication, a collaborative team, and people who feel truly embraced by the organization. It’s also key for us to ensure that we have a family-friendly environment for people. It’s critical within the animal protection movement that we are welcoming as many people as possible who have the skill sets, are dedicated, and can make an impact in this area. We have a lot of people who are parents on the team. I’m the parent of two young children and we have several other members who have children. We value having a family-friendly culture and respect that people have other things going on in their lives, so it’s important that they feel supported.
We also have a strong anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy. We’ve heard from several of our top female funders who said that it was the strongest anti-harassment policy that they’ve seen in the protection movement. It’s great to get that feedback from them. We also make sure that we have benefits for employees like ample time off, and encourage them to use that time off to take care of themselves. I want people at work to feel like they can come in being 100% every day, and if they need some time to take a break and do something with their kids, they can do that. That’s how I feel like we get the best out of our team. Maintaining morale and making sure that people feel valued and supported are the necessary foundations for building an effective team.
Can you give an example of how your organization benefits from diversity programs, or from having diverse members?
Three of our five leaders on the U.S. team are female, and our former Executive Director was female as well. We don’t just say that we embrace female leadership, but we show that it’s important from the top of our organization. We are really trying to take religious diversity into account too. We changed Christmas from being a holiday that folks must take off to being a floating holiday. This means that if folks celebrate the holiday they can take it, but if not, they can use it for another day of their choosing. Columbus Day is another day that we consider a floating holiday because it can be seen as oppressive to people of color. These are very tangible things that we are trying to be conscious of. We’re making shifts to show the team that we’re not just saying we value diversity and inclusion, but that we’re translating those values to changes in our policy as well.
Tying into the inclusion piece, another tangible benefit that stems from being a family-friendly environment is our parental leave policy, which we’re really proud of. We have what I think is a generous policy with twelve weeks of paid leave, and up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave that has no gender restrictions. Anybody on the team who is welcoming a new family member whether through birth, surrogacy, or adoption, can take advantage of the policy. We also have a policy around business travel that supports our anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. A lot of our team is out meeting with food companies and external folks all the time, so it’s important that we have a formal policy and training in place to make sure that people feel comfortable and safe. If anyone finds themselves in a bad situation, they know what to do and whom to talk to in the team who are ready to jump in and work through issues.
We also have default policies regarding things like room sharing, which won’t occur without formal written consent and approval from human resources. We are really working hard to make sure that our position on this is translated through to very tangible practices and policies.
If you became aware of harassment taking place, how would you handle it? How does the process work?
Thankfully, we haven’t had any internal instances of harassment. If there were any reported incidences of harassment within the organization, my attention would go to it immediately and I’d address it with the people who were involved. The head of operations would be involved in that as well. I would also make sure to alert our global human resources team that this was going on. These are drop-everything-and-address-the-situation scenarios because there is nothing more important to me than the safety and comfort of the people on the team. If I were meeting with a food company, that would come second to addressing concerns from staff members in those areas. I know that the head of operations feels extremely strongly about this as well, so I know that I have full support from another senior member of the team. It’s within his authority to ensure that we are following these policies. If there are any instances where this needs to be addressed, they are addressed fully and swiftly.
How does Compassion USA fit into the overall animal advocacy movement? Are there ways in which it is supported by other groups?
Compassion USA is filling a very necessary role within the animal protection movement because we build positive relationships with food companies. This allows us to engage in candid and trusted conversations with food companies and industry groups, which is an essential part of unlocking progress. Other animal protection organizations complement this approach with their own. There is a strength that lies in embracing our unique offering to the animal protection space, as it’s extremely important that we are not engaging in duplicative efforts, and are really tapping into our respective organizational strengths.
What does Compassion USA do differently from other animal organizations? How does your organization stand out?
Generally speaking, the deep and positive engagement with the food industry is something that I’m really proud of. Engaging deeply with producer groups and industry groups is kind of our niche within the animal protection movement. Next month I’ll be speaking to the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee at one of the largest poultry producers in the U.S. We dedicate time and resources to working through challenges with producers by developing tools and hosting business-to-business forums. We are getting ready to host our fourth annual forum around broiler chickens, which is a time for businesses–including broiler producers, purchasers from various sectors, certifiers, breeders–to come together and have pre-competitive dialogue around addressing some of the roadblocks associated with moving to a higher welfare supply chain.
We need to foster relationships not only between Compassion USA and producers but amongst industry professionals so that we can facilitate this work in improving the lives of farmed animals. That translates to the work that we’re then able to do with food companies around implementation and reporting transparently around their progress. We also have set up a framework for companies to disclose their animal welfare progress, which is currently being utilized by companies like McDonald’s, Walmart, and Sam’s Club. We’re able to set up those frameworks for reporting because we are engaged deeply with the food industry. There’s a lot more that we want to do and expand into, but that’s a major strength of ours and a role that we are filling.
I fully recognize that other organizations play a role in positive engagement as well, and I think there’s room for more people who are able to have these kinds of relationships. It only makes us stronger. There are other groups like HSUS (The Humane Society of the United States) and ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) that do tremendous work in this area as well and maintain positive relationships with the food industry. The focus for us is to ensure that there is consistency with the work we do and what we are encouraging food companies to do. This isn’t only Compassion USA that’s doing the work, but this is the focus for our work and we have a unique approach to doing it.