The following is a summary of a conversation that took place on April 4, 2014 as part of our medium depth investigation of Vegan Outreach. Jack Norris spoke with Jon Bockman, ACE’s Executive Director.
1 year and 3 year goals
The main goal is to continue the leafleting program as effectively as possible. Right now this program covers many colleges and universities in the US every semester and has some presence in Australia, Canada, and Mexico. They just came out with a new booklet called “Your Choice”, for which they had consultation help from Nick Cooney. They’re hoping to also update their other booklets to use some of Cooney’s insights and research on what makes people change their behavior and to be more modern. The other thing is that they would like to begin doing is a little more research, either on their own or in conjunction with other groups.
5 year goals
As long as leafleting continues to be effective, their main goal is to continue running and expanding the existing leafleting program.
Vegan Outreach is currently going through a leadership transition, as their former Executive Director and Director of Development both left the organization recently. Right now the remaining leadership has an especially heavy workload, so some of the longer-range planning has to wait.
Vegan Outreach prints leaflets for Australian distribution in Australia due to shipping costs. This brings printing costs up somewhat, because they are not able to use as large of print runs in Australia as they do in the US. Costs otherwise in Australia are similar to costs in the US. This is a very new program, but so far reception for the leaflets has been good.
So far, when Vegan Outreach has distributed leaflets in Mexico they have been printed in the US and distributed by one of the leafleting coordinators who is based in the US. They’re looking into hiring someone in Mexico starting in January 2015, which would be cheaper because wages are lower in Mexico. However, the booklets would probably continue to be printed in the US and shipped to Mexico. This will be a joint venture with Mercy for Animals; MFA will be designing and printing the materials, and VO will handle distribution.
It’s somewhat expensive to ship to Canada unless you’re shipping to Toronto or Vancouver. When Vegan Outreach has someone (usually a leafleting coordinator from the US) do a tour in Canada they generally ship large amounts of leaflets at a time to reduce the shipping costs.
Is the US saturated?
Even though there are aspects of working in these countries that are more expensive than working in the US, overall they expect that expanding geographically is more cost-effective than increasing coverage in the US. Vegan Outreach is leafleting most schools they cover in the US once or twice per semester now, and beyond that they think it starts to be less effective. There are some schools they don’t go to because they are too small or because they have trouble getting permission to leaflet on campus, but they cover most of the large public schools regularly.
Because of student turnover, it wouldn’t make sense to stop visiting a campus simply because they’d leafleted there many times in the past, so continuing the US program in its present form is important. On each visit Vegan Outreach tries to give out leaflets to about 15% of the students at a school. This seems to be a point at which they have saturated the campus and giving out more leaflets there has diminishing returns. It might be better to do this twice per semester rather than once, but beyond that Vegan Outreach would expect diminishing returns. Currently about 90% of leaflets handed out are in the US.
New leaflet designs
One big motivator for the Your Choice leaflet was the survey that Nick Cooney did while at Farm Sanctuary comparing Something Better to Compassionate Choices. It’s very hard to create a survey that’s perfectly accurate, but in that survey Something Better performed better than Compassionate Choices. Some of Vegan Outreach’s coordinators also felt that the existing booklet designs were looking dated, and Jack also felt they had too much text for the current audience. They worked on Your Choice with these concerns in mind. They find it is especially appealing to college students, so now they are using Your Choice with college students and Compassionate Choices with older adults.
Vegan Outreach has historically had very text-heavy booklets because they needed to prove that factory farming existed and was bad. However, now some of that isn’t necessary; people already know some of the abstract facts. The booklets need to make an emotional appeal and provide people motivation to take steps to change. So the new booklet is not as citation heavy and assumes the audience is more ready to believe what it is saying. They’ve also provided more pictures of people who’ve become vegetarian because of research that indicates people are more motivated by thinking other people like them are doing something than by ideas and arguments. Vegan Outreach also took the advice of Faunalytics who tested the reading level of their booklets and made sure the new one was at a 6th to 8th grade reading level.
Recently they’ve begun considering testing their own leaflets, and they have a donor who would be interested in funding that. In the past they didn’t think there was an effective way to test this kind of thing, but they’ve started to think well-designed tests could be valuable.
Regardless of the conclusions that Vegan Outreach leadership comes to about which leaflets are best in which situations, they do tend to continue printing editions of leaflets that they find activists want to distribute. Some activists will only distribute material with very specific messages, so while Vegan Outreach can control what they hand out themselves, they want to continue encouraging these people to do outreach and providing them with materials they want to use, even if there’s reason to think those materials might not be the most effective materials possible for most situations.
Funding in recent years
Vegan Outreach has had enough money to print the number of booklets they needed since about 2010 or 2011. It’s about $700 to change the booklet on the printing press, so there is very low additional cost to keeping old booklet designs in print.
That isn’t to say that Vegan Outreach doesn’t need more funds; of course they always need funds to continue their operations, and they would need more in order to expand the scope of their operations. But they have had enough money to print the booklets they need in the areas they’ve been working in.
Another effect of having more money is that they are able to send more leaflets out to activists who request them but aren’t affiliated with Vegan Outreach. They still are careful to check that the leaflets are getting used, but can be, and most definitely are, more generous about filling requests when they have more money.
Funding in the coming year
There’s a possibility that some donors will stop giving to Vegan Outreach because of the leadership transition. And of course, individual donors go through changes over time, which can matter because a significant part of Vegan Outreach’s income comes through large individual donations. They hope to hire a Director of Development who will be able to increase their budget compared to past years.
Jack’s position in Vegan Outreach
He is currently the Interim Executive Director and also the President, his former role. He may leave his role as President shortly, but he is the main person responsible for making sure the organization functions through this transition period.
The goal of the current transition is to make Vegan Outreach into a professional organization that doesn’t depend on any one or two people. They also hope to keep a somewhat more active Board of Directors in the future.
Additional Marginal Funding
One area for expansion would be to have more of a presence in Canada. They’ve had some trouble consistently visiting Canadian schools, and having an outreach coordinator there would be useful. Similarly, they’re considering printing hard copies of a French language booklet for use mainly in Canada.
They would also be interested in working in other countries, as long as they could find someone to leaflet there. There is a potential vitamin B12 issue in undeveloped countries, so it might be better to spread vegetarianism instead of veganism in areas where it isn’t clear that supplementation would be available.
Measurement of Impact
Much of Vegan Outreach’s assessment is done by the leafleters themselves. They put a huge personal investment of time and energy into leafleting, so if they do not get positive feedback, they will stop wanting to do this demanding work. The fact that leafleters like Jon Camp have given out so many leaflets and still feel energized suggests high effectiveness to them.
Leafleters also try to document it when someone approaches them and says they’ve changed their diet because of a Vegan Outreach leaflet. If possible, they get a picture of that person and add it to an ongoing slideshow, which currently has about 560 pictures. Since most people who change their diet probably aren’t in that slideshow, it’s a good sign as long as they are finding some people.
There have also been some studies of leafleting (by Nick Cooney and by ACE), and Vegan Outreach is definitely looking at their results.
Some of why Vegan Outreach engages in leafleting is not about the specific results of leafleting, but about a broader understanding of what it would take to change the way society relates to animals. They feel that change will only happen if individual people change, and there are limited ways that an organization can reach a lot of people and make a case that changes their minds. Leafleting is one way; pay-per-view is one way; online Facebooks ads are one way. Attempts at systematic change will not work if there isn’t also individual change, so that is what Vegan Outreach focuses on. And they don’t want to do something that relies upon people being self-driven enough to seek out a book or a documentary on their own.
Specific program successes
Recent leafleting in Mexico appears to have been exceptionally effective. Vic Sjodin, the leafleting coordinator, reported a very high rate of people reading and engaging with the flyers. Some of that might be the newness of someone doing this on their campus, or that the local culture is more friendly and talkative. But it seemed very encouraging.
People sometimes find crowds for a particular artist are very receptive, and they share that on the Adopt a College website. But they aren’t really able to track that past how willing people are to take the leaflet and read it in the moment, to whether they actually change their diet.
What would signify that programs need change?
If leafleting coordinators stopped feeling that they were having an effect, that would signify that the programs needed a big change. So far, they’ve had people occasionally find that specific locations felt ineffective, or that leafleting the same place frequently was ineffective. But although individual people have sometimes felt discouraged, overall there hasn’t been a clear pattern of people finding that leafleting stopped working.
There is some fear that a poorly designed survey or pressure to change could lead them to change gears in the wrong way. But Vegan Outreach is becoming less afraid of that.
Less successful programs
Vegan Outreach has always been mainly focused on leafleting at colleges. A couple of semesters ago they tried to table at some liberal arts schools, but found that the time spent trying to get access was not as productive as they had hoped because they only got permission to go on campus at a very small percentage of schools. There are other audiences that haven’t been as successful, such as leafleting football games. They don’t put a priority on leafleting those audiences, but they do let volunteers do this. They do try to encourage the volunteers to do something more efficient or send a reduced number of leaflets if something seems questionable, and for really ineffective uses, such as putting flyers on car windows, they will just not send leaflets out.
They have an Executive Director and a Director of Outreach and are hoping to hire a Director of Development. One of the Outreach Coordinators has also been very engaged recently in shaping the direction of the programs.
The Director of Outreach has been in that position for 5-6 years. Jack only took over as Executive Director recently, but was a co-founder of the organization and has been involved in leadership positions since 1993. The former Executive Director was another co-founder, and the former Director of Development had been employed by the organization for 6-7 years. They try to keep people for as long as possible; they have more turnover with Outreach Coordinators, whose jobs often involve a lot of travel.
Outreach Coordinators are almost always hired from the group of volunteers. This means that by the time they are hired, they have already had some training and experience with the job they will be doing. There is also a handbook that explains how to go about the various aspects of their jobs. There is no established procedure for training volunteers, but they do keep a list organized by geographic location so that the coordinators can contact volunteers when they travel to an area. There is also information about how to leaflet on their website, which volunteers can use if they want to start leafleting on their own. When volunteers contact Vegan Outreach, they are provided with a list of relevant links.
Vegan Outreach has an annual report that lists board meetings, board members, revenue, etc. This report is shared with anyone who asks for it, and their yearly newsletter has some financial information. They plan to be more public about who their board members and employees are by adding a page to their website.
Proactive information sharing
Vegan Outreach works cooperatively with other groups like Mercy for Animals, Animal Protection and Rescue League, and The Humane League to coordinate leafleting efforts. They’re happy to share what they’ve found to be more or less effective when asked. They’re trying to be increasingly proactive about working with other groups.