Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact


The Humane League, protesting at Aramark

The Humane League is on quite a roll. Last fall, THL, an advocacy group that aims to reduce animal suffering, pressured foodservice giant Aramark to agree to improve its treatment of broiler chickens, a important victory as the animal welfare movement turns its attention to the chickens we eat, along with egg-laying hens. The nonprofit Animal Charity Evaluators again named THL one of its three top charities.  Most important, the Open Philanthropy Project, a collaboration between GiveWell and Good Ventures, which is the family foundation of Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of Facebook, and his wife Cari Tuna, has in the last year given $3 million to The Humane League. Those donations are game-changers for an organization that just a couple of years ago had a budget of about $922,000.

The Humane League stands out because of its willingness, nay, eagerness to figure out what works when it comes to advocacy–not an easy task. A grass-roots organization with organizers based in 14 cities, THL has pivoted from one tactic to another, starting with broad public outreach around animal cruelty and vegan eating, then putting its activists and volunteers behind Meatless Monday campaigns in public schools and, most recently, focusing on corporate campaigns like the one against Aramark. There’s a lesson there for advocacy groups of all kinds–constantly ask yourself whether what you are doing is working.

“We’re very utilitarian,” says David Coman-Hidy, THL’s executive director. “We don’t want to get tied to any one tactic.”

As Animal Charity Evaluators wrote in its review of THL:

THL’s most significant advantage is not any single program, but rather its general approach to advocacy. Among animal advocacy organizations, THL makes exceptionally strong efforts to assess its own programs and to look for and test ways to improve them.

THL is just getting going. Its fledgling research arm, called Humane League Labs,  is led by a committed volunteer named Harish Sethu, who is a Ph.D. computer scientist, university professor and former IBM executive who worked on the powerful computer Deep Blue. Sethu plans to conduct a rigorous study to see if animal advocacy actually changes what people eat–a fundamental question about which, surprisingly, little research has been done.

Then again, maybe it’s not that surprising. The impact of advocacy is hard to measure, whether we’re talking about animal welfare, climate change, LGBT or women’s issues, health care or tax policy. This is obviously a problem. Nonprofits spend lots of time and money on what looks to me like pointless advocacy. The Sierra Club declares that it is horrified by Scott Pruitt, the man nominated by Donald Trump to lead EPA. Teachers unions launch an aggressive campaign against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary. Will these campaigns stop their nominations, or lead to greater support for the environment or public schools? It’s impossible to know, but I’m dubious. I’m fairly certain that advocacy groups don’t devote enough time and money to testing their tactics and their messages. What, for example, has been bought with the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into climate-change advocacy  in the last decade? Where’s the climate movement, beyond the campuses? It certainly wasn’t evident on November 8.

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I’m enjoying a month-long break from writing and blogging (with the exception of this post) and spending much of that time reading books. The other day, I spent a couple of hours curled up with a book during the afternoon. What a treat! Looking back at 2016, I wish I’d spent more time reading words between covers and less time browsing Facebook or tending to my Twitter account. Books provide perspective, which is sorely needed right now.

Here are the books that I read and (mostly) enjoyed last year, in the order in which I read them: Continue reading

make_difference_charitable_givingMy wife Karen Schneider and I gave about six percent of our pretax income to charity in 2016. Most Americans give away about three percent of their adjusted gross income, according to the Urban Institute, but our earnings are higher, so we should give away more, in my view. The Life You Can Save, a website inspired by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, has a calculator that recommends the percentage of your income that he believes you should give.

I’m writing about my own giving because (1) I’m a strong believer in transparency,  (2) I’d like to influence readers to be more intentional about their giving, and (3) I’d like to encourage more people to talk about their charitable giving so that we can learn from one another. Continue reading

winner-with-media-after-ceremony-croppedIn the US, Integrity Idol might not qualify as must-see TV. The TV-and-radio show showcases five government officials, nominated by their fellow citizens, who are known for their honesty. People vote for their favorite civil servant via text messages or online, and the winner is crowned in a ceremony in the national capital.

In Nepal, though, Integrity Idol is a hit. Last year, reached an estimated 3 million viewers (10 percent of the population), generated 10,000 votes and celebrated the work of a education reformer named Gyan Mani Nepal, who cleaned house in a rural school district. It’s back again now, with new episodes rolling out.

More important, according to Blair Glencorse of Accountability Lab:

The program created a national discussion — online, in tea shops, and among families — about what it means to be a public official in Nepal and what it takes to demonstrate integrity within a corrupt and deeply politicized system.

Glencorse is the founder and executive director of Accountability Lab, a nonprofit that helps young people in the global south to promote accountability and transparency. Launched in 2012 and based on Washington, D.C., Accountability Lab trains and supports local people in four countries –Nepal, Pakistan, Liberia and Mali — to use media, culture, education and technology to make government work better for them and reduce corruption.

“We’re building a new generation of young people who value accountability and integrity and can push for the kind of change they want to see,” Glencorse says.

This makes sense to me. While many well-intentioned nonprofits provide the global poor with health care, education or job training (albeit with disappointing results), Accountability Lab aims to get their governments to work on their behalf.

“Unless we can get the relationship between people in power and citizens right, it will hard to do anything else,” Glencorse says.

Or, as the Nobel prize winning economist Angus Deaton argued in The Great Escape: “Poverty an underdevelopment are primarily consequences of poor institutions.”

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6127688772_bca146f26d_o-4f3972a03e10aHaiti is a tough place to do business. The impoverished Caribbean nation ranks 181 of 190 countries analyzed by the World Bank. The cookstove business is tough, too. No one has built a profitable cookstove company at scale, even with subsidies. So why would anyone start a business making and selling cleaner cookstoves in Haiti?

For Duquesne Fednard, the founder of D&E Green Enterprises, a cookstove manufacturer in Port-au-Prince, it’s partly about upending the conventional wisdom about his home country. “Haiti has been getting a bad rap,” he says. Fednard was close to giving up after the 2010 earthquake destroyed his small factory, until his workers persuaded him to keep at it. “They pinned their hopes on us,” he says. “It was my responsibility to see it through.”

His partner, Vahid Jahangiri, who is the deputy director of the nonprofit International Lifeline Fund, relished the challenge, too. Haiti was in “complete chaos” after the earthquake, and people desperately needed ways to cook, he told me. Lifeline first imported stoves from China and then employed a crew to pound them out by hand in Lifeline’s Port-au-Prince office. “If you wanted to make a phone call,” Jahangiri recalls, “it was impossible because everybody was banging on metal.”

D&E and Lifeline eventually joined forces to rebuild the D&E factory–an unusual partnership between a charity and a business. These days, they work with another improbable startup, called Carbon Roots International, that makes charcoal from agricultural waste. Eric Sorensen, the co-founder of Carbon Roots, says its goal is to make the equivalent of a Kingsford charcoal briquette that is cheaper and does less environmental damage than conventional wood-based charcoal.

Surely there are easier ways to make a living. Continue reading



I skipped the turkey this year at Thanksgiving. It was purely a symbolic gesture; we served turkey at my house, so my decision not to eat it didn’t mean much. Still, over the last year or so, I have radically reduced my meat consumption, largely because of the time I’ve spent with people in the animal welfare movement, in particular while reporting on the Humane Society of the United States.

This week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story [paywall] about the Humane Society and its hard-charging chief executive, Wayne Pacelle. It’s a story about how to make social change. The animal welfare movement, led by HSUS and with the cooperation of smaller, nimbler groups like Mercy for Animals and The Humane League, has made great strides in the last decade on behalf of animals who cannot speak for themselves, particularly around the issues of the intensive confinement of hens and pigs.

How have Pacelle and Humane Society succeeded? By deploying every tool at their command: Ballot measures, lobbying, litigation, undercover investigations, cooperative agreements with corporate allies, mergers with smaller groups, even investments in plant-based protein startups like Beyond MeatAny social-justice organization that wants to succeed in the Trump era would do well to study Pacelle’s playbook.

The animal welfare movement is energized these days by the commitment, brainpower and moral fervor of a impressive group of activists in their 20s and 30s, working inside and outside of HSUS. I think of them as today’s abolitionists–they are crying out in opposition to what they see as an evil but widely-accepted practice, just as the founders of the abolitionist movement did in 18th century Britain. Those early abolitionists built the world’s first social-justice movement, according to Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains, a wonderful history.

Why work on behalf of animals?

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fc450111In ordinary times, the words in bold type on the home page of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE — might seem anodyne. In Donald Trump’s America, they are radical.

They mean that Asian, African and Latin American lives have as much value as American and European lives. They mean we shouldn’t especially care that iPhones are made in China, or when jobs move from Michigan to Mexico. Hey, maybe we should cheer. After all, the Chinese and Mexican people need the jobs more than better-off Americans do.

Of course, few politicians–not Trump, Sanders or candidate Hillary Clinton–would say such a thing, or even attempt to explain why globalization is, on balance, good for most Americans. But one of the (many) nice things about leading an endowed foundation is that you don’t have to answer to voters. So Sue Desmond-Hellman, the chief executive officer of the Gates Foundation, cheerfully came to the defense of globalization during a #GivingTuesday conversation with Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, at AEI.

“It’s actually surprising that it’s controversial,” Desmond-Hellmann said. Continue reading