Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

The numbers are mind-boggling. Between 50 and 170 billion farmed fish, and as many as two trillion wild fish are killed each year to feed people and animals, it’s been estimated. More fish are killed for food each year than all other animals combined. Those fish feel pain when they are caught and processed, many scientists say.

Yet the animal-welfare movement has until recently paid scant attention to fish. You hear it frequently: “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish.” (Uh, no.) Peter Singer, the philosopher and animal-rights advocate, has rightly described fish as “the forgotten victims on our plate.”

That may be about to change, as I reported last week in a story for Civil Eats, a website that encourages critical thinking about food, that is headlined Fish Are Getting Their Animal Rights Moment.

Yes, fish, and this attention to the welfare of fish is being driven in large part by philanthropy–actually, by a single foundation–as the story explains:

The Open Philanthropy Project, a leading funder of the animal welfare movement, last year made three grants totaling $1.2 million to support European groups that advocate on behalf of fish, and awarded $1.5 million in funding to strengthen standards that address the well-being of fish. The hope is that reforms achieved in Europe, where consumers and governments are more attuned to animal welfare issues, will make their way to the U.S.

Will this effort succeed? It’s much too soon to say, but I’d have to guess that it’s a long shot. Many obstacles face those advocating for the better treatment of farmed fish, not the least of which is the difficulty that most people have in empathizing with slippery, scaly creatures that live underwater and don’t communicate, at least not in ways that we humans can hear.

It’s no accident that advocacy on behalf of farm animals began with veal calves, who can be adorable. It has since then worked its way through cows, pigs and chickens, which are less and less like us. The trouble is, if my friends who love dogs (and you know who you are) can happily chow down on steaks and pork chops, what hope is there for getting people to care about the suffering of a fish that would up as in tuna salad sandwich or as a slice of smoked salmon on a bagel?

Yet this is precisely the kind of problem that foundations are uniquely suited to take on. At the very least,  the willingness of the Open Philanthropy Project to take on the quixotic cause of fish welfare reflects an admirable willingness of those who work there to chart its own path. OpenPhil, as you may know, is a forced to be reckoned with: It guides the charitable giving of Cari Tuna and her husband, Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and Asana, who have pledged to give away most of their fortune, which is estimated to be about $14bn.

Regular readers of Nonprofit Chronicles are familiar with my belief — really, it’s a lament — that private foundations are the least accountable institutions in the US. Big foundations have enormous power, yet they are under no obligation to explain or justify what they do. Yes, they have to fulfill IRS reporting requirements, listing their grants, expenses, and trustees, and they are required to spend about five percent of their assets on charitable activities, very broadly defined, but that’s about it. They are profoundly undemocratic institutions.

As Stanford scholar Rob Reich asked few years ago in an essay in the Boston Review:

With little or no formal accountability, practically no transparency obligations, a legal framework designed to honor donor intent in perpetuity, and generous tax breaks, what gives foundations their legitimacy in a democratic society?

Reich offers a response that is relevant to this fish story. He writes:

Foundations can operate on a longer time horizon than can businesses in the marketplace and elected officials in public institutions, taking risks in social policy experimentation and innovation that we should not routinely expect to see in the commercial or state sector.

Put another way, the biggest liability of foundations — their lack of accountability, which can lead to insular thinking and ineffective grantmaking — can be turned into a valuable asset if foundations seize opportunities to embrace risk, take on unpopular causes or ideas or tackle problems that will take years or decades to solve. Today it might be fish welfare. Fifteen years ago, it was the Civil Marriage Initiative, which with Freedom to Marry, helped drive the movement for marriage equality, which was seen as a long shot at the time. A half century earlier, four mid-sized foundations provided critical support for the civil rights movement, as this report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy argues.

Will the welfare of fish–and, broadly, the suffering of many millions of farm animals–turn out to be a cause that moves from the fringes of society to the mainstream? Maybe, but not for a while. But, as I learned while reporting my story, there’s a growing body of evidence that fish can suffer. So what’s not to like about an effort to alleviate their suffering?

You can read the rest of my story here.

One thought on “A story about fish, and unconventional philanthropy

  1. Peter Singer has also said that we should euthanize children with disabilities just because they are disabled (from his book Pracitcal Ethics—-.htm) and it is okay to rape people with disabilities (from an oped he did in NYTimes ) and ( ) . So his arguments masked as utilitarianism don’t hold any weight with me.


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