David Coman-Hidy is the president of The Humane League. He spoke with ACE Research Associate Ashwin Acharya on July 27, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are some of The Humane League’s biggest accomplishments?
The Humane League’s single biggest accomplishment in the past year has been the successful launch of a coalition-led “broiler initiative” to reform the industry that raises and kills chickens for meat. The Humane League (THL) launched the first campaign of this initiative against Aramark. After five weeks, Aramark made the commitment that the coalition requested. Within 30 minutes, Compass Group (Aramark’s largest competitor) made the same commitment. Since then, 40 companies have signed on.1 THL played a key role in the first victory with Aramark and many since then in what they see as the hallmark initiative of the last year for both THL and the animal rights movement as a whole. The broiler initiative is where THL has put most of their resources and focus in the last year.
THL’s second-biggest achievement in the past year was the successful launch of the Open Wing Alliance (OWA), an international coalition of dozens of groups working on cage-free campaigns around the world. THL plays a leadership and organizing role in OWA. A few months ago in Poland they held the first multi-day training seminar for the alliance, in which 22 member groups participated. THL also launched a campaign against General Mills which brought about a global cage-free policy. Since then, they have had a number of other global victories, as well as a multitude of victories in individual countries where member organizations have launched campaigns with the help and encouragement of THL. They have also provided grants through OWA.
Internally, THL expanded to the U.K., where they have hired 5 employees and won some cage-free victories. They have plans for more U.K. hiring in the near future. They plan to launch some broiler campaigns before the end of the year. They are just getting started in the U.K. and expect major progress in the next few months. THL also played a major role in the passing of Question 3 in Massachusetts—a ballot initiative on confinement—which they view as another significant win for the animal rights movement in the last year.
These accomplishments have been fueled by grassroots and organizational growth, including the hiring of THL’s national volunteer coordinator and the launch of their Fast Action Network.
How does THL measure their outcomes?
Among THL’s accomplishments, the easiest to measure is corporate commitments. One metric is the number of companies that have made commitments, which can roughly be converted into a number of chickens impacted based on the companies that share their purchasing information with THL. The ultimate goal is to reform the whole industry by raising the minimum standard of welfare, which would mean getting all the producers on board. Things like last week’s commitment by Perdue to fulfill all commitments made by companies, saying that they will switch over to Global Animal Partnership standards, are major wins along those lines. THL looks at what percentage of the industry corporate commitments cover in terms of chickens affected and money spent. They always look for the next logical step toward the endgame of reforming the entire industry.
To see the impact of last year’s cage-free campaign, THL looks at USDA statistics that measure monthly what percentage of birds are still in cages, which they feel is the most important statistic they have access to because it concerns actual animals being impacted. (Based on these statistics, there has been good progress.) On top of that, THL maintains a dialogue with companies to see how they’re progressing, though it is not a primary focus for them the way it is for some other charities. THL has been speaking with a few international companies about that, such as Sodexo, which just released how they’re doing on their international commitment.
In terms of grassroots initiatives, THL works to increase their impact and effectiveness over time in several ways. One is by looking at the number of demonstrations that are taking place, which THL has learned is an effective pressure tactic based on their dialogues with companies. THL keeps very close track of how many demonstrations are being done, how many students are sending in pictures of themselves with posters, and all the various other tactics that they use. In terms of qualitative research, one way that THL determines what might be effective is to use meetings to gauge how agitated companies are by various tactics. They also consider what volunteers like to do and what is sustainable. That kind of metric is not as direct as the number of animals being impacted, but it’s essential to getting to those victories.
When it comes to international work, for the corporate policies it’s the same as in the U.S.: they keep track of how many commitments have been made and how many animals they estimate have been impacted. They also keep track of which countries have the most animals—and qualitatively determine which countries are most vulnerable to activism—to decide where campaign spending can do the most good. An example of where they would use this kind of thinking is in deciding where to give grants through the Open Wing Alliance. They look for the places where they can impact the most animals and get the easiest campaign victories, and where there’s a good group that they can train and give a grant to.
One question the movement has been dealing with is the issue of individual dietary change and how to measure its impact. Humane League Labs has a very large-scale measurement test being put in place to help answer those questions. That’s also something that their grassroots workers are very involved in and that they are doing online ads for.
In the past 18 months, THL has focused on the issue of movement building and building up their volunteer resources. Right now, the broiler campaigns seem to be so high-impact and so essential to the movement’s mission that they are where THL can have the most impact—but ultimately, the tactics they need to use are going to change over time. One thing they believe won’t change is that they need a lot of people who are willing to do this work, so they think it’s a good baseline to be building up that army of people around the country. That’s why a lot of their metrics are volunteer-focused at the moment.
What are some of THL’s strengths?
One of THL’s major strengths is that they are a very strong, aggressive campaigning group. That’s their flagship program at the moment; they’re winning all these corporate campaigns, and they have a really good track record of success with that. Their campaign team is incredibly strong, so being campaigned against by THL is one of the worst things that can happen to a company, and that’s something they’re really proud of. They want to maintain that high standard.
THL is also extremely collaborative. They work well with everyone. They hold their staff to a high standard of collaboration and friendliness to other groups. They give all of their information away freely. They give grants to other groups, they give free trainings to other organizations through OWA, and they’ll even fly other groups’ staff to come and meet with THL and be trained. They try to cultivate a spirit of generosity and collaboration, which has helped them to achieve a lot of their success, especially internationally.
THL has a good grassroots network and a good team of volunteers and interns and students who work for them and take part in their work for animals. This network is an incredible strength and is what powers many of THL’s campaigns and achievements.
Lastly, THL has a really strong culture. They have a really high level of general staff morale and a relatively low turnover rate. They maintain a healthy team environment, investing in staff, training them, and using staff surveys to see how they can improve morale. They continually work to improve their meetings and make them more effective. After every full-team meeting they do a survey on how to improve the next meeting. Self improvement, and trying to really value the morale of the staff, is part of their culture.
What are some of THL’s weaknesses?
THL has grown hugely over the last few years, thanks to large grants and new donors coming in. Every year they’ve almost doubled in size, or at least it seems that way. That comes with a host of challenges. One thing they’ve been trying to do over the last year or two is move towards professionalization and functioning as a larger organization. They’ve been continuously trying to hire more people—particularly communications staff, admin staff, and HR staff. They also now have a lawyer working with them full-time. It’s not necessarily a weakness—but certainly a challenge that they’re constantly facing—to maintain their high level of impact at an ever-increasing size.
THL’s nature as an aggressive, “bad-cop” organization limits them in some ways. They’re a lot less likely to be able to achieve what some other groups can achieve by working with industry. For example, in Compassion in World Farming’s egg tracker program, they work with companies to be really transparent. It’s very unlikely companies would be willing to work with THL in that way.
In their international expansion, THL has found that they can’t always just replicate their exact tactics everywhere they go. Some of the tactics that they use in the U.S. are not legal everywhere. The biggest tactical change THL has made is in Japan, where corporate culture is very different than it is in the U.S. The U.S. and U.K. are a few degrees different (even in the U.K., they can’t be as aggressive as they can in the U.S.), but Japan is very different. For example, getting a meeting with an executive is a really difficult process, as opposed to in the U.S. where THL staff can just look up their email and then bug them until they agree to meet. The approach they’re taking in Japan is very different.
THL has still been able to find a lot of success internationally, especially working with groups in the OWA. One of the reasons they took the collaborative approach of the OWA—rather than opening THL offices everywhere—is because of these cultural issues. Local folks have a much better sense of what’s going to work in their country, what kind of outreach will be most effective, and what kind of messaging will be most effective.
What are some of THL’s short-term goals?
One major goal is eliminating battery cages around the world. That’s the goal of the OWA. A subgoal of that is building a really strong coalition around the world of groups that are willing to work together and share resources. THL has a vision of a campaigning coalition that can relatively quickly target major corporations and powers in every continent in dozens of countries with big campaigns. That’s something they’ve seen come to fruition this year, and they hope to be able to continue to use it and to strengthen and build the bonds of a really strong movement between these groups.
A year from now, they hope that a number of groups they’re currently giving grants to, working with, and training will become self-sufficient in campaigning and will have eliminated cages from their respective countries. That would include groups in France and Poland, as well as a few others that are well on their way now, a few months into their partnership with THL.
In the coming year, they’d also like to see substantial progress made in regions like the Ukraine, Russia, parts of Asia, and South Africa—places where the cage-free movement is very new, and they’re just starting to see progress. In South Africa for example, McDonald’s is cage-free, but that’s about it. They’ve been doing corporate outreach there and training activists in that region, and they would like to see more active campaigning there and in similar places.
In the U.S., THL aims to get every major company in the broiler industry to make welfare commitments. It’s very difficult to predict how long this will take, especially for the hard targets like retailers. For the cage-free campaigns it took about a decade, but they’ve been making very fast progress on the broiler campaigns so far.
One goal for next year is to have no long period of time without a major commitment. THL would like to have a steady flow of companies making commitments each month. Whether that’s a lot of companies or a few isn’t as important as maintaining momentum. They’d like to see other broiler companies make commitments like Perdue has done. A big win would be to have some major fast food chains like Chick-fil-A on board.
THL also hopes to keep building their grassroots network. One part of that is recruiting a ton of volunteers who might just do a little bit each week or month. They also want to have a lot of interns and students. That’s why they have their campus program and intern program. They see one of THL’s roles in the movement as training the next generation of activists. Because they have a grassroots approach, they try to empower young activists to get involved in their campaigns and their work. Pumping out a stream of hardcore, trained professional activists is something they really want to do. Coman-Hidy doesn’t have precise numbers in mind as goals for grassroots expansion.
One major goal is the success of the recently-introduced Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act, a ballot initiative in California. Supporting the initiative is something THL believes will be a major part of their work in the near future.
Organizationally, a major goal is expansion to the U.K. They have a small team there of six or seven people and they want to continue hiring there, build a bigger presence, and have the U.K. office serve as a headquarters for their work in Europe. In the next year, THL would like their U.K. team to be self-sustaining and not pulling from funds in the U.S., so they’d like to create a donor base there. They want to launch the first broiler campaign before the end of this year and have won several of those campaigns within the first half of next year. They want to have run the table completely on the cage-free initiative. They also want to expand to the Republic of Ireland, and make sure it’s cage-free by next year, as well as build up a solid volunteer base.
What are some of THL’s long-term goals?
Once THL feels they’ve made enough progress internationally with their cage-free campaigns, Coman-Hidy expects they’ll move on to broilers. Another long-term plan is to figure out how to help fish effectively, either through corporate policy or ballot initiatives. THL’s veterinarian, Vicky, has done quite a bit of research on what kind of policies could be put into place regarding fish welfare. They’ve also been talking about this with other groups. For example, addressing the method of slaughter seems like a relatively good place to start working on fish welfare. It’s something they can be sure reduces suffering. It’s something that the technology exists for, that can be audited easily, that doesn’t require a specific kind of management or really any level of trust, so they think it could be worth campaigning for.
When it comes to gestation crate policies, cage-free policies, and broiler policies in the U.S., enforcement is a looming project. THL needs to make sure that the commitments are carried out. One way to do that is to run enforcement campaigns, which is something they’re likely to do next year. If companies fail to follow through completely on any commitments that are supposed to take place in the next year or two, THL intends to make an example of those companies so no bad precedent is set for future cage-free commitments.
Another way to enforce commitments is to pass laws, as they’ve done in Massachusetts and California. That’s the endgame. The corporate commitments are a bridge to be able to do that; they want to clear out the moneyed interest, make sure corporations don’t have a reason to fight legislation, and then get the laws on the books. The question is when it will be the rational choice to start passing those laws en masse. THL has played a supporting role in those efforts so far, though legislation is really the strong suit of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), especially given their size and place in the movement. Still, THL was able to put a lot of boots on the ground in Massachusetts, and that’s what they hope to do continuously. A strong suit for THL is the ability to bring a lot of people together in person to gather signatures.
What are some of THL’s past goals?
Coman-Hidy finds that THL has generally been able to meet their major goals. For a lot of years their main goal was to eliminate battery cages, and while there are still hens in cages, they’ve achieved more than they hoped to each year in terms of policy commitments, plus they helped get Proposition 3 passed in Massachusetts.
In terms of international work, they’ve had a lot of big cage-free successes in Mexico. They’ve been able to expand more aggressively through the OWA than they had hoped, simply because of the unexpected appetite for the project from other groups. Their goal was to have 20 member groups, and now they’re at almost 40.
What does strategic planning look like at THL?
There a few processes that are involved in THL’s planning. There’s the annual budget-setting process, in which THL establishes big goals and plans for the next year and allocates resources for accomplishing those goals. Given that the organization is growing quickly, these annual meetings have not been frequent enough. THL has a leadership team—Coman-Hidy and the vice presidents—that meets every week and talks about the progress they’re making towards their larger goals. More importantly, THL’s leadership team gets together for one weekend once every quarter to talk about these issues.
The board is most involved in the budget-setting process, although Coman-Hidy also meets with them three times a year to talk about how things are going. THL has a lot of retreats, including an annual retreat with their staff at which they talk about these issues and work on goal-setting for each department. Typically, each department also has its own retreat once a year where they talk about their departmental goals. In the check-in calls that each employee has once a week, they typically list the goals of that person at the top of the check-in sheet and talk about their progress. THL is very goals-focused.
What is THL’s role in the animal advocacy movement?
It’s an important part of THL’s culture that they’re team players. THL does not conduct investigations or work to get media coverage; they don’t meet with producers very much to have proactive talks about new housing systems. THL’s specific role within the animal advocacy movement’s institutional outreach efforts is to put pressure on companies to change their policies.
When it comes to the international movement, THL sees their role as twofold. One part of their role is to spread the tactics they’ve found to be really effective, inexpensive, and feasible for grassroots activists. That’s why they have the OWA and the associated training. They have a corporate outreach campaign manual that they share for free with the member organizations. They give all their secrets away because they want these groups to be able to campaign as effectively as possible.
Another part of THL’s role is to share their way of thinking, in addition to their tactics. Working with other groups on the cage-free campaigns has shown THL that animal advocates are so much stronger when they work together than when they try to do things on their own. That is a message they really want to bring to Europe, especially where they’ve done most of their OWA work. Together, all these small animal groups in all these small countries can crush a company like General Mills. That’s a lesson they’re trying to share, spreading a feeling of trust and goodwill among animal groups.
Finally, the grassroots nature of THL’s work is important. They organize and recruit a lot people; they’re creating human capital for the movement. The fact that they have dozens and dozens of campuses with students who are willing to do whatever it takes to win their campaigns is an asset they can provide to the movement that tends to work well in concert with what other groups can provide.
Some of THL’s staff see THL as existing in a “gray area” insofar as their programs tend to be focused on highly pragmatic, incrementalist, utilitarian aims, but they’re organized in the way that local, grassroots organizations are organized. They have a bunch of local volunteers and interns doing demonstrations and leafleting in individual cities, which is typically associated with the more radical side of the movement. They try to combine the strengths of both sides of the movement. They want to deliver a strong moral message and tell people “you can get involved; you can be empowered to fight against factory farming,” and then harness that grassroots energy to achieve what THL thinks will scare industry the most, which tend to be the more pragmatic asks. Focused asks are really disruptive to industry. Coman-Hidy thinks that they serve as an example to the grassroots orgs that it’s okay to be involved in this work, it’s okay to be a welfarist.
Can you tell us about THL’s collaboration with other advocates?
The OWA is the biggest way THL collaborates with other organizations. They host an annual summit and do other trainings, including one recently in Denmark. They send staff to hold seminars and meet with people—for example, some THL outreach staff went to South Africa to help a local animal advocate negotiate with corporations there.
In the U.S., THL was involved in putting together the standard broiler ask that’s being used, signed by THL, HSUS, MFA, and some other groups.
What are THL’s funding needs?
Coman-Hidy thinks that the maximum amount of money that THL could use next year is probably around $10 million; that’s the point at which he’d start to feel uncomfortable about how they’d spend more money.
Two of the areas that Coman-Hidy thinks are currently the highest value for expansion are their U.K. expansion and the Open Wing Alliance. These are two areas where the ceiling for spending is enormous, and there is a relatively low overhead cost to expansion, in terms of impacts on the current organization. This is because the U.K. expansion is really funding a separate organization, and funding the Open Wing Alliance is funding grants and training for activists working in countries where currently there aren’t many corporate campaigns. For example, training and funding the first three activists working on cage-free in South Africa is a really good opportunity for THL to make things happen without committing a lot of their time and money. This is an improvement from two years ago, when THL’s opportunities were mostly within the U.S.
There is still a lot of room for THL to grow in the U.S., specifically by hiring support staff. They’d like to hire staff to support the broiler campaigns and grassroots growth. On top of that, they could potentially do more work on ballot initiatives in the coming years, if those come up. But Coman-Hidy thinks a lot of their growth will be international, because that’s where their money can do the most good.
THL sees South Africa and Eastern Europe (particularly Ukraine and Poland) as key places to expand their programs. Those are places where things are pretty cheap, and THL is in a good position with links to local activists. Ukraine and Poland have expanding agricultural sectors based around broilers and eggs, and there’s a group there called Open Cages (Otwarte Klatki) that THL thinks could do an unbelievable amount of good for animals, given the right training and good support.
Last year, THL well outpaced their fundraising goal thanks to grants from the Open Philanthropy Project. They kept surpassing their goals and making new ones. They raised close to $5 million last year. This year, THL is hoping to raise between $5 million and $6 million, based on the donor trends they’ve seen in the past year. THL has found that the Open Philanthropy grants have been a legitimizing agent for their work among effective altruists and Silicon Valley donors, so they’ve seen an influx of new donors that they think is related to those grants—either because that’s how people learned about the issue of factory farming or because those grants caused them to take it more seriously.
Can you tell us about THL’s strategic and program changes?
At one point, THL was going to work on completely redoing their website, but because it never became a major priority, they’ve decided to simply edit and update their current website instead. [Update: as of September 2017, THL has decided to begin the process of creating a new website design.]
In Mexico, THL and other groups have been campaigning against Wal-Mart to go cage-free, but recently they’ve started allotting more resources to other, smaller campaigns to rebuild momentum. Their first victory in Mexico was with Grupo Bimbo, a very large company, so they thought that momentum might let them go after a big target like Wal-Mart immediately, but that hasn’t worked out as they hoped, so they’ve adjusted their strategy.
A goal they’ve started talking about more recently is movement building. For example, they’ve begun ranking their volunteers in terms of how involved they are and trying to move people up into higher levels of involvement as well as getting more people into low-involvement roles. Now their metrics for the volunteer program aren’t only things like how many leaflets they hand out, but also how many people they get engaged and how much they’re building the movement. This isn’t a good in itself; it’s a resource.
Due to the uncertainty about the effectiveness of individual outreach and the looming, difficult broiler campaign, THL shifted a lot of grassroots resources to working on institutional campaigns. Coman-Hidy estimates that grassroots staff now spend 40-50% of their time on getting people involved in institutional campaigns and providing brute force for those campaigns. There are some other local programs they no longer do because of this, such as printing local vegetarian dining guides in some cities.
THL has also expanded their campus program and this is the first year of really significant investment; there will be 60 students getting trained at a summer retreat and then acting almost as part-time THL staff on their campuses. THL plans to track those students’ careers and how they contribute to the movement later; they’re looking forward to seeing what becomes of those students. The campus program is loosely modeled from Koch University, and from THL’s own successful intern program.
Lately, THL has spent less staff time on giving presentations in classrooms. Coman-Hidy thinks the new path forward will be to have staff give some presentations about THL’s work, seeking to get students involved in it, and train volunteers to give presentations.
What is THL’s workplace culture like?
Coman-Hidy is speaking to these questions as best he can, but notes that Andrea Gunn would be the ideal person to follow up with on any work-climate-related questions.
As far as professional development, THL hosts several retreats for staff. They have a weekly call for anyone who manages staff to talk about management issues, and because many of them are young and inexperienced with management, they’ve sent all managers to a training seminar about working in a nonprofit and managing volunteers and staff. They use the textbook from the course to help give structure to their manager calls and to promote an open dialogue about challenges people were having. THL also has a thorough orientation process for new employees, provides the opportunity to go to professional conferences if it makes sense, and has sent staff to training conferences for movement building and fundraising.
THL has a long employee handbook that employees sign. This year, all staff went through sexual harassment training, with additional training for managers. Coman-Hidy thinks it’s clear to everyone on staff that they take these issues very seriously.
THL just completed an annual staff morale survey, based on Google’s practices. All employees with managers—so everyone but Coman-Hidy—review their manager on a separate survey that has spaces for ratings as well as qualitative feedback. They make parts of the survey results public to everyone within the organization, such as numeric ratings from the morale survey and themes from the manager feedback and the morale survey. They also share plans for how to address some of the more negative themes in the feedback. For example, last year they specifically looked into how to improve meetings at THL. They’ve found that, as THL has grown, some meetings no longer felt specialized enough. For example, the corporate outreach and behind-the-scenes corporate campaigns staff had a lot of meetings. Initially that made sense, but it didn’t make as much sense as the team grew and people were no longer all working on the same campaigns.
THL’s Operations and HR departments do a lot of specific things in terms of following best practices for diversity in hiring. For example, they have blinded the skill-test phase of their application process, and are considering further adjustments. THL has a diversity committee made of staff from every department that provides education for staff at retreats and in other ways; for example, they recently put together a document about best practices for managers.
It’s been very clear to Coman-Hidy that having people from different cultures and countries to help brainstorm about how to solve problems has been very helpful. They have people who have done campaigns in different countries and have different ideas about what works. For example, because corporate culture in the U.K. is a little more conservative than in the U.S., THL’s U.K. staff have been able to work really well with the team in Japan on ways to approach companies there that people in the U.S. might not have thought of. Additionally, Coman-Hidy believes that when it comes to their grassroots work, it’s clear that the more diversity THL has on staff, the more welcoming they can be to a broad group of people.