The following is a summary of a conversation that took place as part of our evaluation of The Humane League. Aaron Ross is the Director of Campaigns at THL. Aaron spoke with Allison Smith, ACE’s Director of Research, on July 23, 2015.
Aaron’s role as Director of Campaigns is to oversee all of THL’s international and corporate campaigns. This includes campaigns that engage large corporations in order to make their purchasing policies more animal-friendly, for instance by getting rid of intensive confinement practices or by adopting institutional campaigns such as Meatless Monday campaigns with school districts and colleges. Until recently, most of their campaigns were on confinement issues, especially with regard to eggs, but now most of the institutional campaigns they’re doing now are meat reduction efforts, often with institutions where they’ve already worked on confinement issues.
Aaron has been with THL since its founding. His role has changed significantly over the years, and at times has included outreach, humane education, and campaigns. For a while he was the office director for the Maryland office, then the co-director with Kate St. John. Recently his work has shifted to include more campaigns work, which is now his exclusive focus.
Prior to working at THL, Aaron was doing animal activism in his spare time while working in construction and landscaping to support himself. The activism he was doing then was similar to what he was doing with THL at the beginning, including doing outreach and giving talks at community events. Before working for THL, he worked on a variety of different animal issues, including animal testing and animal use in the circus. This continued into the early years of his work with THL, but in the past five years or so they have shifted focus to work exclusively on helping farmed animals, the area where THL believes they can do the most good.
THL has expanded the scope of their corporate campaigns within the last year, targeting much larger corporations than they had in the past. Before 2014, they had done some corporate outreach, but were mainly focused on individual universities and campuses. This year, things have changed, especially with their food service campaign. In the beginning of the year they got Sodexo, Aramark, and Compass Group to develop animal welfare policies, and after that they decided to focus on much larger companies rather than single universities. A successful campaign at a large company can sometimes take less time than outreach at a university, and the resulting policy changes help a lot more animals than university campaigns help.
The campaign staff has also expanded this year. Before, Aaron and David Coman-Hidy worked on campaigns, with occasional assistance from other staff. Now Aaron runs the campaigns department, and they’ve hired four more people to work with him, including one in Mexico.
Campaigns in Mexico
Based on the success of the US campaigns, and especially the food service campaign, they decided to hire someone in Mexico to spread their campaign work down there. One reason was that some of the food service companies that they won campaigns against in the US also work in Mexico. The Mexican corporate campaigns are the same type of campaigns they do in the US, trying to get companies to phase out the use of cruel farming practices, specifically extreme confinement practices.
They work with some companies that they have worked with in the US, such as Sodexo Mexico, but also with some other companies, such as Grupo Bimbo, the largest baking company in the world, which is based in Mexico.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Corporate Campaigns
One strength is that they’re not afraid to be aggressive if they have to. They are willing to do anything it takes to win a campaign. This has enabled them to win campaigns very quickly compared to other advocacy organizations which are not comfortable being aggressive to corporations through publicly drawing attention to their practices.
The biggest weakness is that this style of aggressive campaigning can also lead some companies to avoid associating with THL. However, this has not been as big of a problem as it could be; it’s a problem with some campaigns but not others. Some companies that they have been very aggressive with, like Sodexo, have still invited THL to meet with them after the campaign is over. Also, when THL does aggressive campaigns, this does not seem to cause problems between the companies they target and other animal organizations; if anything, it makes companies seek partnerships with other organizations more quickly. Typically, THL will launch a campaign, and then the company will go to another animal advocacy organization and try to partner with them to do a press release.
Changes Based on Experience
During the past year, THL has learned that when they’re unsure whether a plan is too aggressive or not aggressive enough, it’s better to err on the side of being more aggressive. Companies tend to take a lot of time to start working with THL when they are friendly. When THL is more aggressive, companies respond to them very quickly and more readily make suggested changes. As a result, THL has started erring on the side of being more aggressive in order to get quicker results.
Decision to Add Campaign Staff
THL found that hiring their first additional campaign staffer more than doubled the amount they were able to achieve with campaigns. With more campaign staff they can go after more companies at a time and complete campaigns much more quickly.
Training new campaign staff has gone smoothly. The training is minimal, and new hires are able to start contributing quickly. New hires for campaigns start with things like basic research while they’re getting used to other aspects of the job, and since there is a lot of research to do their transition is productive.
Effectiveness of Corporate Campaigns
It seems like these campaigns are highly effective, because they get lots of victories involving very large corporations, which means that a lot of animals are affected compared to the amount of time THL spends. With individual outreach it would probably take much longer to affect that many animals. However, outreach also leads to other things like education and possibly large impacts through people who become important decision makers. Another benefit of campaigns is that winning a campaign also puts pressure on other companies to make similar changes.
The most successful of THL’s recent campaigns is probably the food service campaign. They won victories at Sodexo, Aramark, and Compass Group (the world’s largest food service provider) which led to battery cages being banned in each supply chain. Then, the companies started competing for the best animal welfare policy. Sodexo made a comprehensive policy addressing numerous cruel factory farming policies, which prompted Aramark to adopt an even stronger policy that included exploring plant-based options, issuing a public statement that plant-based options are healthier and better for animals and the environment, and launching an all-vegan restaurant that they can put into any university where they work. These victories allowed THL to go down the list of top food service companies in the US and get over 35 of them to commit to banning battery cages.
THL also recently won the Cheesecake Factory campaign which they’d been working on for a couple of months,the first big restaurant chain they’d gone after since Au Bon Pain in 2013. The Cheesecake Factory agreed to stop using battery cages, phase out the use of gestation crates, and address some other issues in their animal welfare policy. THL is also in talks with some other casual chain restaurants, so they hope that the success with the Cheesecake Factory will set a precedent that makes those campaigns easier.
Campus Based Campaigns
Shift to Campaign Focus
THL is no longer doing cage-free campaigns at individual colleges and universities. Almost all of these schools will stop using battery cage eggs because of their food service campaigns.
They are working with individual schools on meat reduction programs, adding vegan options, and Meatless Monday programs. THL has had a few victories at universities, which leads to them reducing the amount of meat that they serve and gets them to promote Meatless Monday and plant-based eating. THL has had more success with school districts, including the Baltimore public school district, The Philadelphia public school district, and the Boston public school district. Philadelphia and Baltimore have reduced the amount of meat they serve on Mondays and are also doing education about health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. Boston has agreed to go 100% meatless every Monday.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Meatless Monday seems mainstream and is accepted by the public. It allows the public to reduce meat consumption without doing something perceived as extreme, such as veganism. When THL gets an institution like a college or school district to participate, that causes a lot of people to reduce their meat consumption and opens the door for education.
The weakness of these campaigns is that they take a lot of time and volunteer participation. They meet with the school district, but they have to demonstrate support from the community, which involves gathering signatures and convincing decision makers that the community will respond favorably to the program. The process usually takes about 3 or 4 months. However, this effort seems worthwhile given the impact a successful campaign has.
Decision to Pursue Meatless Mondays at Universities
THL hired Rachel Atcheson as a campus coordinator, and she’ll be working directly with students at over 20 universities. Along with facilitating other programs, she’ll be helping students run Meatless Monday campaigns at their universities. Student organizers will gather Meatless Monday pledges from other students, using them as leverage to get the schools to do meat reduction programs in their dining services.
Last year, they started thinking about hiring a campus coordinator, both for the impact they could have on campuses and as a way of training a lot of high quality activists at the universities and building them into a network. THL decided that this seemed like a good use of resources, and they have the funding, so they’re moving forward with it. The program will be starting this fall.
Effectiveness of Campus Campaigns
A lot of the campus programs will be similar to those run by local offices, such as leafleting, and will probably have similar effectiveness.
The big difference is that being able to engage with these students as part of THL and train them as effective activists will have a different kind of impact from other programs. Getting a university to make a change is good but not as good as getting a large company to do the same thing.
Aaron doesn’t know how to compare the impact of training new activists versus more immediate impacts like the outcomes of corporate campaigns or convincing people not to eat meat.
Follow-up on Campaigns
THL meets with schools and school districts after they’ve finished campaigns. For instance, they met with Philadelphia public schools last year and got them to commit to a Meatless Monday program. They followed up with them this year to evaluate the progress and try to push them to going 100% meatless one day per week. They’ll remain in contact with all the school districts they’ve worked with to make sure they are following their commitments, provide any resources they need, and to keep pushing them towards going 100% meatless once a week while offering more vegan options.
Originally THL was under the impression that Philadelphia would be doing completely meatless meals once a week. When the program was implemented, THL noticed that they’d only gone partially meatless. When they met with the school district, they said they were slowly working towards their commitment, but didn’t want to shock kids by taking meat off the menu all at once. This was disappointing because THL’s original impression was that they’d change more quickly than they really did, but they’ve been encouraging the district to keep making progress toward the goal of being 100% meatless on Monday, which it does seem like they eventually will do.
Direction of Expansion
They chose universities that the campus coordinator will be working with using multiple factors. The student they would be working with was an important factor; they put out ads for students to apply to be campus members of THL and did an interview process. They expect the benefits of working with students that performed very well to be substantial, leading to greater effectiveness on campus and allowing THL to train effective and committed activists.
Future of Meatless Monday Campaigns
THL thinks that their large corporate campaigns in the food service industry might not have been possible to win if not for the victories they’d already had at individual universities. They’re hoping that the same thing will happen with Meatless Monday: once they have lots of individual accounts doing Meatless Monday programs, they might approach the food service companies directly about doing company-wide policies. If that happened successfully, they wouldn’t need more individual campus campaigns. It seems like this would require more school accounts than just the schools the campus coordinator is currently working with, so it might happen after they expand that program.
The Humane League Generally
Strengths and Weaknesses of Organization
One strength is that THL is nimble and willing to change its approach if they can have a larger impact. Another is that THL is a very friendly and fun organization, which draws people to it. Finally, they have the flexibility to be very aggressive in their corporate campaigns if they need to be.
Their largest weakness is that they could use a bigger network of supporters and that a lot of people don’t know about their victories. Aaron thinks this is a branding issue, which they are currently trying to improve.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Leadership
The work environment is very friendly and supportive. Aaron thinks their work environment is very healthy. Senior leadership is also very organized and disciplined, as well as being fun and approachable.
Aaron can’t think of any weaknesses among leaders at THL.
Strengths and Weaknesses of THL Staff
The campaign staff is incredible. They juggle a lot of tasks and do them all very well, and Aaron is impressed by that. They’re energetic and outgoing and make friends with everyone.
Again, Aaron can’t think of any common weaknesses.
Changes Aaron Would Like to See
Improved branding would be good, but THL is actively addressing this now. Aaron also wishes they had more funding, but their funding has also been increasing in recent years.