The following is a summary of a conversation that took place as part of our evaluation of Farm Forward. Ben Goldsmith is the Executive Director and Aaron Gross is the Founder and CEO of Farm Forward. Ben and Aaron spoke with Jon Bockman, ACE’s Executive Director, on September 21st, 2014.
Goals: 1 year, 3-5 year
Most immediately, they are looking forward to rolling out www.buyingpoultry.com, which will launch in the first quarter of 2015. This website is the culmination of several years of planning and over one year of full time work. They think that it will have a significant impact, both as a direct impact and through the interaction with other campaigns such as ASPCA’s ‘Truth about Chicken’ and other nonprofit partners. Their most immediate focus is making the website a success, and it will drive their agenda in the near-term.
One of their primary goals in the next couple of years is to expand their work into the developing world through a base in India. They would like to develop relationships with activists there and move towards internationalizing their campaigns, with an eye towards influencing policy affecting factory farming.
Another area Farm Forward is starting to work on is outreach in the religious community. They would like to get animals on the agenda of churches, synagogues, and religious non-profits, and are working cooperatively with HSUS towards this end.
Unilever campaign and corporate outreach
At the beginning of the summer Farm Forward launched a very targeted campaign aimed at Unilever, makers of Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayonnaise. They wanted to push them to address the issue of maceration within the egg industry. They used a targeted campaign and then negotiated with the company. Unilever agreed to all the terms Farm Forward laid out for them. They were able to do that because of the experience their staff has had running corporate campaigns in the past. They hope to build on the success of this campaign both by continuing to pursue the issues it has addressed (maceration and egg reduction) but also by increasing their corporate outreach work more generally. Because Unilever already had relationships with CIWF and HSUS, they asked to bring those groups into the negotiations.
Last year Farm Forward raised as much money as they needed for their operations. They’d like to slightly expand their team in the future, but they’re very close to where they want to be in terms of personnel.
They approach funding in two ways. First is having the funding to support a small core team that can generate future campaigns, think about innovation, and execute current campaigns. They’re working towards keeping that base secure so that they can build a team with long-term experience. That’s a relatively small piece, about $250,000 per year.
The other component is programs which can be large and require more funding. They only move forward on those projects when they have secured funding. For instance, they didn’t launch buyingpoultry.com until they had a grant that could cover the expenses because they knew that to do it right they’d need about $250,000, and they didn’t want to do it with lingering concerns about adequate funding.
So although they had the money they needed last year, if they’d had more funding they could have carried out more activities, moved on initiatives quicker, and gotten closer to finalizing the team, which they’d consider part of the 5 year plan. Their goals every year are limited by the amount of money they’ve raised in the past.
Use of additional funds
It’s easier to generate funding for some programs than it is for others. For instance, they’re hoping that buyingpoultry.com will get support from ASPCA, and believe that it has a good chance of getting some public support. Other initiatives are harder to raise money for and they like to fund these with untargeted donations. The main area where they are currently actively looking for money is the expansion to India. They’ve been able to do some work towards building relationships for this as part of the documentary filming (for Eating Animals) occurred in India. They now have confidence in their partners in India and are at the point where they’d like to be expending funds on that work. Another possible area of expansion is being better prepared to take advantage of the publicity that will come with the Eating Animals documentary. This is a huge opportunity; their organization was really built by the energy associated with the publication of the book Eating Animals, which articulates their positions on farmed animal issues. One way they are planning to use energy from the film that could be greatly expanded is through establishing themselves as experts for how to use Eating Animals in an educational setting. They’ve been doing virtual classroom visits with Foer and they reach around 3300 students per day—currently, visits are limited to just one day per year. This also develops relationships with teachers and students who want to use the book. They’d like to start working on how to also use the film educationally; the film Director is trying to raise money to do this.
They also have growth plans in other areas, like building off the success of buyingpoultry.com (assuming they find this is sucessful) to expand to buyingbeef.com etc.
Expansion to India
They chose to expand to India for two reasons. Firstly because India and China jump out as key places for animal advocates, and secondly because Aaron spent 2 ½ years there and opened up PETA’s office there in 1999. They have two key partners in India. It’s difficult to achieve effectiveness as an organization working in India because it is a different system with different rules; for example, there’s a bribe system, which changes the nature of policy work. Vegetarian advocates may not be good allies for the animals. They’re focused on developing strong and robust relationships with people with direct connections to farmers. They think having the direct connection is crucial; they came to that conclusion by looking at where other groups are having trouble or succeeding. US-based groups tend to focus on urban India with campaigns that influence people at the thought level or the dietary choice level.
Farm Forward thinks they can be most effective at the policy level through looking at how animal agriculture is viewed by local, state, and federal decision makers. The idea is that a strong relationship with the rural community will be useful because the factory farm industry is trying to convince people that it brings economic benefits to communities that it doesn’t really bring. Because it’s happening so fast in India, there’s enough skepticism about the validity of these arguments that animal advocates have a fighting chance, but currently there isn’t the empirical evidence to demonstrate that industrial farming isn’t necessary to produce enough protein and keep people employed. From what Farm Forward can tell, the thing that’s preventing this argument from being made is weak relationships between the organizations that do development advocacy and the farmers. The systems that get developed don’t really reflect something that will truly resist factory farming.
For example, Humane Society International is working on stopping the spread of industrial egg production to India. They have relationships with big hotel chains and other companies, which gives them some buying power they can use to influence industry. Right now they use that to work with a women’s cooperative that distributes hybrid chickens. They can only be hatched through a factory farming system, but they’re advertised as being higher welfare because they have better immune systems and aren’t quite as productive as some breeds are. The chickens are distributed to women who raise the birds and sell the eggs back. This system hasn’t been demonstrated to be profitable; if it weren’t subsidized by the Humane Society, it wouldn’t make money. So this model won’t spread. One of the big economic weaknesses is the fact that they’re working with hybrid birds, because it means that the women will have to get chickens from the industrial hatchery each year and they can’t hatch their own. Using chickens that can reproduce naturally would lead to greater profitability and eliminate the dependence on industrial agriculture. It simply hadn’t occurred to HSI to ask about that, because they weren’t working directly with farmers. This is an example of where Farm Forward has something to contribute by building relationships with farmers.
Farm Forward’s partners are providing free and subsidized veterinary work, which improves animal welfare. Farm Forward wants to work with them to build relationships and to document where there are systems that attend to both animal welfare and human employment. This is particularly important in India because agricultural policy there is driven largely by employment concerns; most Indians are employed in agriculture. The money would immediately go to support the partners’ existing programs (⅔ of it) and to support Farm Forward’s travel expenses (⅓). This might be less than $20,000 over the course of a year. During that time they would assess more precisely how quickly they can develop reports, speak to other advocates, and identify where they can document something that will be helpful in the region where they see it and that might even be able to be implemented outside of India, for instance in Africa.
Measurement of outcomes
It’s difficult to measure their impact in India at this time, but some of Farm Forward’s programs are easier to measure. For example, for buyingpoultry.com they have specific metrics for success that they plan to utilize. They have identified several types of visitors they anticipate having and the click patterns that would be associated with them: for instance, vegetarians, or people who currently look for organic chicken. They’re thinking about the particular experience they’d like each group to get from the site, like when they should be shown that most poultry is factory farmed or shown vegetarian products, and identifying the quantities that would count as success. They’re identifying what success would look like before the site launch, and plan to ask for the full funding package to expand it if they reach their goals. If they don’t, they’ll need to think about what went wrong.
They treat virtual visits in a similar manner. They’re able to do these extremely efficiently; they have a contract employee at $15/hr, sometimes a rental room, and donations of books to schools that can’t afford them. They look at how much they’re spending ($15,000) and how many people they’re reaching (2,000-3,000 in past years; they expect 5,000 this year). They consider the impact in terms of numbers of individuals and also in terms of the benefits of getting teachers involved in inserting animal issues in their classes.
For buyingmayo.com, during the campaign they were looking to minimize the cost per impression, so they tracked the cost through different sources while the campaign ran and put more resources into sources that received better results. The difficult part is that while it’s easy to quantify the number of people who have been exposed to the message, it’s not possible to know now how many animals they’ll impact as a result of something like the Unilever victory. If Unilever does switch its supply chain to in ovo sexing from maceration and no other corporation does that, they can come up with a number of chicks saved each year and tie that back to the cost of the campaign. But that’s speculative at this point. They have a pledge from Unilever to continue to explore and adopt egg reduction in their products, and that was difficult to get them to adopt, but the number of animals affected by that is also speculative. Farm Forward sees that as a huge victory because it provides leverage to compel industry to improve conditions for animals, but this is more about signalling and less about animals being helped immediately. The impact is impossible to quantify. Farm Forward sees it as important to have quantifiable effects on animals, but they’re especially excited by less quantifiable effects on the perception of animals and animal products. They also found that although maceration is not as important in terms of the amount of suffering it causes, people have a very strong reaction to it, so it’s a good way to draw attention to problems in the egg industry. They know this because they got many more impressions on this campaign than on other topics with similar budgets. For example ag-gag.org has had about 100,000 unique views since the beginning of 2013, and they’ve considered that successful. A single Facebook post on the buyingmayo campaign received 1 million impressions.
On the ag-gag work, they’ve found a ‘sweet spot’ on advertising, where they’re acquiring signups on the email list for less than 50 cents. They ran the numbers and even if the only result of these signups were in donations to Farm Forward itself, this would be worth it, but the list also contributes to the broader mobilization against ag-gag laws.
They don’t have an example of a targeted campaign that they’ve done and been unhappy with the results. Part of that is because they’re cautious about getting to that point. A lot of their day-to-day work is consulting, which is something that they get paid for. In this case they’re not measuring the effectiveness of a campaign; they’ve already vetted the partner and become convinced that they’ll have an impact. By the time something reaches the stage of being a campaign like buyingpoultry.com, it’s well justified internally as something which is likely to succeed.
If there’s anything they could point to as being a failure or where they’ve learned to do things differently, it would be their consulting work. Farm Forward approaches organizations that they think it would be of particular strategic value for them to help, and ideally that organization then funds their work as consultants on a particular campaign or project. Farm Forward chooses the area they’d like to work on when approaching a partner organization. They try to help with the organization’s goals, but to also push them in a particular direction, and at times in the past they haven’t been as aggressive on the second role as they could or should have been. They’ve found that they’re good at finding problems early on, and they should have confidence when they see them.
Farm Forward doesn’t have a particular commitment to measuring their impact in specific ways. They take more of a fluid approach to selecting the programs that become a core part of their work. So they’ve had several ideas that initially sounded very promising and upon further investigation didn’t seem as good, but because they have so many opportunities available to them they’ve left those behind at relatively early stages. They undertake a lot of thought before fully investing in a particular program, so their predictions of results have been pretty accurate.
For instance, with buyingpoultry.com, they initially wrote up a memo and sent it out to people they respected within the animal movement and to other relevant groups like farmers. Even though the feedback they received at that stage was very positive, they took three more years to convince themselves that the idea was worth pursuing fully, and only at that point sought out funding for the project.
They haven’t been able to afford to risk money on projects that they aren’t sure will work out, but they think it would be helpful if they could. They use the slimmest budget possible on projects, especially before they’re proven, but even after the stage that they are fairly certain they will work. They do take some risks with the use of employee time. The largest challenge they’ve had is working on a non-factory-farm model for poultry that would not have any links back into the system. They put energy into a report they hoped to release called ‘Poultry Forward’ that would give farmers information about what profitability would be expected if they went entirely outside the factory system, with genetics that weren’t fast growth. This turned out to be much more complicated than they thought and they learned that there were intermediate steps they would need to do before they could make a clear case for the profitability of that model. Through this process, they also learned more about building relationships with farmers which is important because they think that humane farmers who are entirely opposed to factory farming are very important and under-appreciated allies for animal advocates.
Ben Goldsmith, the Executive Director, runs day-to-day operations. Aaron Gross is the CEO and primarily works on working to develop new areas to branch out into, such as the India project or the religious outreach. Steve Gross, Chairman of the Board, is a very experienced manager and a mentor. He represents them on GAP and takes care of a lot of finances and is also involved in strategic discussions. Aaron and Steve get some of their expenses paid but do not takes salaries from Farm Forward. They make a lot of decisions by consensus, so there is a lot of open debate about ideas and projects before coming to a conclusion. Each Director basically has equal say on decisions both big and small, through weekly meetings and through the annual retreat. This has helped them recruit a stronger team. Lara Prescott, the Marketing & Communications Director, does social networking and communications. Michael McFadden, the Policy & Program Director and General Counsel, heads consulting services. Andrew Decoriolis, the Director of Strategic Programs & Engagement, heads the buyingpoultry.com project. They also have one support staffer, Luke, who has been with the team for about six months. They started the organization in 2007, and so far no one at the Director level has left the organization.
They have a handbook and provide educational and professional development opportunities to staff when they request them. Most of their employees have had strong activism backgrounds. They’re a small enough organization that Steve and Aaron are able to act as mentors to employees who need mentorship and guidance. They’ve been very attentive to trying to teach employees to create sustainable careers in animal activism, because they see it as a success if employees stay in the movement even if they were to leave Farm Forward.
They plan to provide ACE with by-laws, conflict of interest policies, etc. They have a 5 year plan, which they think will be the most helpful document.
Farm Forward tries to work on strategic innovations that will change the way the whole animal advocacy movement does things. They think that as a small group they are better positioned for innovation than some larger groups. This is the kind of thinking like the thinking that drove the move from focusing on legislative campaigns on a federal level to focusing on state level legislation.
Right now Farm Forward thinks the relationship between animal activists and a certain kind of small farmer aren’t as strong as they should be. The public should be perceiving farmers as anti factory farming. They’re working on creating better relationships between farmers and animal advocates, as a strategic concern. They see their efforts with GAP and ASPCA and the religion outreach campaign as tied to this.
Farm Forward’s single proudest accomplishment, for Aaron, was that when Laurie Beacham was the only employee of ASPCA hired to address factory farming and they hadn’t set a direction yet it seemed likely they would move forward with Certified Humane’s guidance, which would be less radical and more focused on mitigating rather than ending factory farming. Farm Forward provided another option by bringing ASPCA leaders to Frank Reese’s farm and showing them a way to strongly oppose factory farming without doing too much vegetarian or vegan messaging, which would not have been approved by the ASPCA Board and funders. This has resulted in them working on chicken genetics, which is a really hard and critical issue. It was only possible because Farm Forward had relationships with farmers.