The following is a summary of a conversation that took place as part of our evaluation of The Humane League. David Coman-Hidy is the Executive Director of THL. David spoke with Allison Smith, ACE’s Director of Research, on October 1, 2015.
Development at The Humane League
What’s going on at The Humane League which you think is the most important for us to be aware of at the moment?
The biggest development is the expansion of the campaigns department, as well as the utilization of the grassroots network to help expand national campaigns. Every year, The Humane League (THL) further perfects new campaign tactics, which they have used against the dining companies and other companies and institutions, such as Cheesecake Factory. Consequently, they are now seeing a huge acceleration in campaign victories. This is the most exciting thing that is happening for THL right now. Along with this, their grassroots work has been continuing sustainably and working well.
Secondly, the big picture big improvement for THL has been in communication, which Andrea Gunn and Rachel Huff-Wagenborg get the credit for. THL has made a strong effort to be as transparent as possible with decision-making for staff, as well as making sure people are talking to one another and feeling less isolated. They emphasize that all decisions made by senior staff should be shared with everyone, so that everyone knows what direction THL is moving in. Consequently, morale is now at an all time high.
You have way more campaign staff now then when we talked last year. Can you talk a bit about that?
In the heat of the Sodexo and Aramark Campaigns, David and Aaron Ross worked on campaigns, but both had less and less time to devote to them. So, they hired Taylor Ford, who had been interning at THL, to work on the campaigns full-time. As soon as they hired him, they got much more work done and had unprecedented victories with dining companies. A few donors followed these campaigns closely and contacted THL to find out how they could help. Thanks to these donations, THL were able to hire two more people to work on campaigns. With campaign staff you can plug people into a role and anyone can start doing the work required. They have seen a large payoff in results relative to these salaries and other costs, and so they are hoping to take on more campaigns people next year.
Is there a maximum size THL are thinking of growing to?
David said that THL has no maximum size in mind, but they do have some goals related to growth. THL want to avoid growing too quickly. That said, as Taylor has shown good management and organizational skills, THL would like to hire two people to work under him doing online and research campaigning against a number of companies at once.
Chris Liptrot has been working under Aaron Ross. They have similar personalities and both are really good at face-to-face meetings with companies. Next year, Aaron and Chris will travel as much as possible meeting with companies. In the last few months, THL has reached hundreds of companies. For example, they met with four to five companies this week, and have got cage-free commitments out of a number of them, including the sixth largest hotel chain in the world. They have also met with Shake Shack, who are now interested in a cage-free commitment. So, the return compared to travel time invested is very large.
Outside of that, Di Lamont has been working on campus campaigns. If THL receives sufficient funding they will hire two more people to work with her. Di works with students on campuses to change the food in dining halls and to campaign against campus restaurants.
What is your overall assessment of corporate outreach?
David said that THL is very positive about corporate outreach and has expanded a lot in that area. They have learned that having face-to-face relationships with firms is valuable for a few reasons. Firstly, it accelerates victories for campaigns because it makes the threats seem more real. This makes the campaign progress a lot faster. Secondly, even companies like Sodexo, who don’t like THL due to previous campaigns, are still willing to come to the table in order to avoid future campaigns. They are also willing to work with Aaron, thanks to his personality.
In the past, THL would have been an external group campaigning without having a relationship with the company. Now, due in part to face-to-face meetings, Aramark are greatly expanding the number of vegan options on campus. Similarly, THL is talking with Sodexo about percentage-based meat reduction programs.
As food technology changes, having these relationships is going to make change down the line easier. For example, thanks to Josh Balk’s [of Hampton Creek Foods] relationship with Compass Group, Compass Group have switched to Just Mayo for all their mayonnaise, which has removed an unbelievable number of eggs from the supply chain. Similarly, THL is campaigning for Shake Shack to sell veggie burgers at the moment. This kind of work would be very valuable: directly, for the animals involved, and indirectly, for the news coverage produced. Moreover, this kind of work is very cheap: the cost is a few people’s salary and travel.
One thing lots of people have mentioned about THL is that you are rebranding and seeking to grow your audience and membership. Can you tell me about how you are accomplishing that and what your plans are?
David said that this year and next, THL is trying to professionalize. Previously, they were very ‘DIY’: anything they could do themselves to save cash, they would do. Rebranding will help them make more professional relationships with the corporations they are talking to. Following the lead of other successful groups, THL want to use a smart approach to social media. They have seen really big success on their Facebook page, for example. They are still relatively small in terms of engagement compared to Vegan Outreach, but they probably have 100 times more than they did six months ago.
THL have also been working with Rich Miller, a professional branding consultant. Rich is vegan and wanted to get involved in animal rights, so he got in touch with THL. The senior staff went on a retreat with him, where he did his complete branding package for THL, which they are now using. They are also working with a professional copywriter, so that their output is consistent and professional. This is part of THL’s effort to be transparent with the staff. In addition, staff training now incorporates the branding work that Rich did. New employees have a full introduction to THL and its brand.
Online Ads and Funding
As your corporate outreach program has been growing, do you have any plans to change the percentage of the budget spent on online ads?
Currently, most of the spending on ads comes from grants, which are continuing to grow because of the success of the program. Right now the percentage of the overall budget spent on ads is roughly the same. This year, they spent $15k per month on English ads, and $50k on Spanish ads. They have $50k set aside for Spanish ads next year, which donors have inquired about, so it seems likely that they will contribute more than $50k next year. They are not sure if VegFund is going to increase their spending next year. There are a few other donors to whom David is going to pitch the Spanish ads. For the most part, individual donors are supportive of grassroots work and corporate campaigns, depending on their own priorities.
It sounds like you’re saying that money you’re spending on online ads is from grants restricted for that purpose. Are other activities also from restricted donations?
There are some individual donors who don’t mind where their money goes. However, THL’s past growth has largely come from a franchise-style model, which means they make a proposal for a new campaign or city office, and seek earmarked funding for that. There are a few major donors who will want to support online ads, but David could not confidently say how much they will give towards that end. His guess was that the budget will increase quite a bit next year, and the amount spent on ads will increase proportionally.
Have you had trouble funding the things you most want to fund because people want to donate to specific things, or are you always able to find the right people to sell your proposals to?
That hasn’t been an issue yet. They have found that there is varied interest in all the different areas which THL work on.
Grassroots Network and Corporate Campaigns
One criticism that we’ve heard of THL is that you focus too much on grassroots outreach, rather than mass public outreach which reaches more people, such as investigations or things that have major media pushes. Groups like Mercy For Animals have shifted from grassroots work to media work because they think it’s more effective. Why does THL do so much grassroots advocacy? Do you anticipate THL making a similar shift as you get more resources?
Media coverage hasn’t been part of their approach, though they have set aside money to work with media consultants or specialists or potentially hiring someone, especially now that they have expanded their campaigns so much. They hope that in the next year they will see more media coverage.
With regard to a general grassroots approach, David feels strongly that the animal rights movement should have a network of activists, and not having that would spell death for the movement. As long as THL has good organizers on the ground, they can be nimble in what they focus their energy on. For example, one semester THL campaigned for Meatless Mondays, then they switched all volunteers and employees to leafleting. They found the same flexibility with switching people to their corporate campaigns. Interventions may change, but THL will remain a grassroots organization: that is how they win campaigns and get media coverage. Mercy For Animals is a great example of an organization getting media coverage for large demonstrations.
David would like THL to be the NRA of the animal rights movement. He wants companies and lawmakers to be afraid of large groups of people that care about animals and will take time out of their day to do something about it. Though they are open to changing what their activists do based on the evidence (which they have done a fair bit in the past), they currently do not see a case for changing their approach.
Can you talk a bit about how the grassroots network has helped with the corporate campaigns recently?
The first time they saw the effectiveness of the grassroots network was with the Sodexo campaign. THL knew that a vulnerability for Sodexo was their college clients. So, THL had office directors organize on all Sodexo campuses in the area, getting signatures and taking pictures of dozens of students holding signs. These are things you cannot do without people on the ground. THL’s grassroots-based approach was very effective in this case.
THL have started using this approach in all their campaigns. For example, they held demonstrations outside Cheesecake Factories in malls.
In the last year, it seems like several THL employees have shifted responsibility towards management, and that you now have a model with several departments. How is that working out?
Last year, David was doing lots of different tasks, including fundraising and campaigns, and it became clear that it wasn’t possible not to have a full time person overseeing grassroots work. Andrea is a very good fit for this role as she is well-organized and loved by staff. When she moved to this role, it was clear how useful the role was, especially because it freed up a lot of David’s time and increased staff morale by having a full-time manager available to them. In addition, Andrea has had the time to implement projects which were inessential given David’s previous time constraints. For example, within the first few months Andrea made a thorough and professional training manual, created new meeting formats for senior staff and grassroots activists, and made a new standardized training program. So, THL is now more professionalized and streamlined.
Rachel Atcheson’s new role as Director of Campus Outreach is also going well. She is technically in the grassroots department with Andrea, but she is a free agent and travels around meeting with students. Rachel still has bi-weekly check-ins with Andrea and sends a weekly update of her activities to the full staff (as do all office directors).
Michelle Kucerak and Rachel Huff-Wagenborg constitute the admin and development department. But it is important that the senior staff—David, Michelle, Rachel, Andrea, Aaron, and Ethan—meet each week on Friday, so that they avoid the problem of ‘silo’ departments. These meeting have helped the team to avoid drifting apart from one another.
Do you have the sense that other people in the organization, aside from department leaders, understand what’s going on in each department?
When they first started hiring campaigns people, there was a disconnect between grassroots activists and campaign people. One of the nice side-effects of including the grassroots network in campaigns is that each employee has a buy-in: for example, every one of the grassroots people participated in the Cheesecake Factory and Costco campaigns and was invested in winning the campaign.
To deal with the problem of silo departments, they have had one or two campaign staff join the grassroots call each week and update the grassroots staff on meetings, campaign progress, and tactics, as well as fielding new ideas and brainstorming.
Can you talk a little more about the campus outreach program that Rachel is leading?
THL have 20 students on campuses around the country. THL didn’t want to overlap with Mercy for Animal’s similar program, so they aimed for other prestigious schools and big schools, and looked for the best quality students. The students are working 50 hours over a semester for $10 per hour. They work on outreach, corporate campaigns, making dining halls veg friendly, and doing Meatless Monday pledging. They use the same website as MFA for the MM pledging. Rachel sends all the students an email every Monday with general veg news and congratulating them on their work.
THL has funding from a donor for another round of 20 students next semester. David believes that it will be a popular program, which could be expanded. The biggest positive is that it creates a lot of human capital. One of THL’s biggest limiting factors is access to highly capable elite people. Even a small success in the campus outreach program could create great employees down the line for THL and other animal organizations.
Do you plan to go back into the same schools with the next round of twenty students?
If some of the students are exceptional, THL will hire them back to do different kinds of things, such as working on national campaigns or organizing veg clubs. The vast majority will be new students who will probably be on new campuses.
Are there any differences with MFA’s program?
David was not sure on the specifics of MFA’s campaigns, though one difference is that THL students get involved in national campaigns.
How do you decide how many new offices to open and at what point it won’t make sense to open new offices?
Opening two new offices per semester is the limit of what Andrea can do by herself in terms of training new people. THL is careful that people who start in a new semester have a lot of handholding because it’s such a big job that it takes a while to build up confidence.
A lot of THL’s staff are still relatively new, so a year from now they will no longer require help from Andrea. Eventually, THL will look to have someone managing the other offices. This might just mean hiring a sub person to work with Andrea in overseeing half the offices, or it might mean putting an office director in a regional management role.
They do not currently have a figure of how many offices they want to have. Even though THL are concerned about sustainable growth, they would in principle love there to be a professional organizer doing THL-style work in every metro area.
As you’re opening more offices and staff have been with THL for longer, there has been more turnover in office directors, usually from moving into new roles at THL. How much time does that take away from opening new offices? Does it slow down rate at which THL can open a new office?
David confirmed that the turnover is almost all due to movement within THL. For a few reasons, this turnover has not been too damaging. For example, Andrea moving into a new management role was much less difficult than opening a new office location because the person hired to run Andrea’s office, Maddie Segal, was Andrea’s highest achieving volunteer. Maddie was already familiar with all the programs and Andrea was living in the city to go to Maddie’s first humane ed presentations. Moreover, Maddie already had Andrea’s interns and network of volunteers. So, there was less inertia in this move than there could have been. Much the same can be said of Chris taking control of the Boston office. There were already supportive people there, which reduced the difficulty of the changeover by around 50%.
In the next year, there will be probably be two office directors who want to change their role at THL or be promoted. For both of these people, there are already people in the offices who are familiar with what is going, so this would be around 50% of the work of a new office opening. Each semester, they would like to open two new offices and put a new person in an office, as long as Andrea is the only one doing the training. If they had more cash and wanted to open more offices, then it would be time to hire someone to help with the training.
Are there any mistakes or experiences you’ve learned from in the past year?
The big lessons relate to transparency and communication, specifically making sure the staff feel connected across departments. Previously, they were always focused on the effectiveness of their programs, so that everything else, such as staff culture, was secondary. In the past of course they had good employee morale, but that was never talked about as a valuable thing. They’ve really worked on staff culture this year, which has increased productivity, morale and loyalty to THL among interns and staff.
They have also learned that hiring really good professional people is worth it, even if you have to pay a bit more. They have a very good Director of Development and Director of Operations, the latter of which was a difficult role to fill in the past. Now that Rachel is in that role, going back to not having a Director of Operations looks like an inconceivable nightmare. They are also working with good designers and copywriters, which has saved David a lot of time.
Finally, Andrea and David have changed the hiring process to ensure that new hires fit in with THL culture. When they are hiring people, they focus a lot more on attitude and personality, whereas previously they focused chiefly on technical suitability to the task. This has produced good results.
Is there anything that’s gone surprisingly well in the past year?
Andrea’s promotion has gone very well. The growth in the campaigns department has been a big success. The number of victories in a short amount of time with little money has been huge. If David had been told last year that almost the entire dining industry would make a cage-free commitment, he would have been stunned.
We have seen some studies published out of THL Labs in the past few months. Do you have more stuff in the pipeline, or are you still working on original set of studies? How is that going in general?
No studies will come out in the near future. THL is currently waiting to see where THL Labs fits into the new intervention effectiveness research world. THL does not have professional researchers, so they do not want to duplicate other people’s work. They will decide soon on whether or not to hire someone to do labs research full time, given their funding situation.
Plans for Funding
What would you do with $200k next year?
THL has two main areas where they see opportunity for expansion: campaigns and outreach. They plan on growing these programs alongside each other. Priority for expansion is based on funding availability and interest, and the time commitment in training each new position (grassroots offices having the longest setup time). THL already has some expanded funding pledged for next year, and they are confident that with $200,000 in extra funding they would be able to fund everything below.
- Expand corporate campaign staff by adding three additional staff to amplify current campaign tactics against multiple new targets.
- Add legal support to campaigns work.
- Increase budget for corporate outreach travel.
- Expand use of professional IT, design and video contractors to support THL’s campaigns.
- Expansion of campus outreach program with one additional staff person and 10 additional students in Spring 2016 with opportunity to expand further in Fall 2016.
- They hope to open at least two new grassroots offices in 2016.
- Increase Spanish language ads spending.
Is there anything else we should know?
THL appreciates doing this process each year. It reminds them that they need to have answers to questions that every nonprofit should have answers to.