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.