Sep 16 01:00

Two major mistakes activists make

  1. Appealing to reason instead of emotion.
    One thing that science has shown us time and time again is that humans are guiding primarily by emotions. We make decisions based on emotion and very seldom deliberate logically before making choices.
    Check out the work of Dan Ariely for hard science to back this up.
  2. Ignoring the data
    In a way this is the inverse of point number one. There is a huge amount of data out there showing what works and what doesn't for strategies of social change. Activists seem to latch on to dogmatical reasons for choosing strategies and neglect the numbers that show other strategies that are more effective.

I think these two points not only mean activists are less effective than they could be, but also that there is needless conflict between activists who choose different strategies to the same end.
Ignoring the data leads to dogmatic thinking – not a good idea when you are trying to tackle a very complex problem and create massive shifts in the way people think and act.

May 25 03:43

Leaving Liberation BC

Next month I'll be finishing up my time on the board of Liberation BC. Lately my head has been split between my full-time job, our new shoe store, and Liberation BC – which has not been fair to any of the three, or to me.

For now I'm going to just work at my paying job during the day and on Nice Shoes projects in my "spare" time. I'll still be around as a volunteer too, but not as much.

I actually can't remember how long I've been on the board, but it's been for as long as there has been a board, plus a bit longer. Something like 5 years now, I think!

But, it has been a wonderful time. The people I have met through activism have been inspiring, and I've probably learned more doing this work than I have in any of my years of school.

Building up the organization, all of our successes, all of our many mistakes – it's all been great. I'm glad we've been able to be a vegan voice for animal rights. There was a definite gap that we were working to fill. And I'm very glad that I got to organize Animal Advocacy Camp twice. I will be helping out with that again for 2013.

I'm leaving the board in capable hands, I know. I wish all of my fellow board members the best of luck, and to everyone else who's been involved with Liberation BC over the years, thank you for caring and working to make a difference!

May 20 10:47

Feeling transgression

In my life I have occasionally "comitted" what some may consider "transgressive"acts. These have been violations of social norms, morals, traditions, and expectations.

Recently my wife and I decided (again) that we would not have children - or even a child. For some reason this time I feel another type of transgression: biological.

Essentially, biologically speaking, we seem to be reproduction machines. Just about everything we do is focused on propogating our genes, making the strongest and most viable offspring.

This time I actually felt a physical effect - I felt physical unease because of the decision we made after this latest discussion to not have children. It was a bit like how I felt when I decided to not do drugs again.... A sure sign that in the current world our bodies are not always the best decision makers for ourselves, coming generations, or the world.

With this physical feeling I've finally felt the transgression, rather than simply knowing about it or think about it.

In the end, though, I've ended up leading a pretty normal life - and really think that anything we do that doesn't hurt someone else is just fine to do, whether or not it fits into your "tradition."

Mar 09 10:03

Research on Animals: the grey areas

How much use can we (should we) get out of something that violates our ethics?

It's an ethical question I struggle with a lot.

For example, today I went to a talk by Frans de Waal, a pre-eminent primatologist, author of The Age of Empathy.

I find his research fascinating and very useful for illustrating aspects of animals that we have long believed to belong solely to humans. His research explores empathy, fairness, cooperation, and other "positive" behaviours.

The tricky part comes with the kinds of research he is doing, which itself occupies a great range of uncomfortable ethics for me. He works at a primate research facility that is similar to a sanctuary – but is not a sanctuary – where the primates live in their family groups in outdoor enclosures. It is a type of captivity that is more acceptable than a zoo or a lab, but it is still captivity, and they are still subjected to tests (not invasive tests).

Am I as uncomfortable with studying animals at a sanctuary? What about tests of dogs' cognitive abilities, when those dogs are brought in from home by their guardians?
What about observing animals in captivity at a sanctuary – or possibly even manipulating their environment to run experiments that are entirely non-invasive?

What is it in this murky area of research that makes me uneasy?

Can I reasonably expect, at this point in time, to find research being done in a way that I would find completely ethical, especially where it concerns animals?

Two posts I've written about The Age of Empathy:

Feb 12 04:20

Top 3 reasons you should be at Animal Advocacy Camp (crossposted)

Creating the agendaI just posted this over on the Liberation BC blog and thought I might as well share it here too.

This event is for anyone interested in animal activism, but be forewarned, you will hear the word "vegan" a lot! I mean, really, how can any of us be truly committed to helping animals if we're still contributing to their exploitation and slaughter?


  1. Network with other animal rights activists and learn about other groups and campaigns - and build a stronger movement

    There are many groups in Vancouver and across Canada who are working on all sorts of issues. Fur, factory farming, veganism, health and the environment, animal testing, and many others. At Animal Advocacy Camp you can meet activists working on all of these issues and learn from their experiences.

    And, by building connections and networking, you can build a stronger and more effective movement.

  2. The exciting opening and closing speakers

    • Camille Labchuck

      Among many other accomplishments, Camille has managed communications for the federal Green Party, and worked as a public relations specialist with Humane Society International/Canada. She has documented the commercial seal kill on Canada’s East Coast, and has worked on campaigns against horse slaughter, puppy mills, factory farming, trophy hunting, circuses, shark finning, and other issues. Camille has also worked on countless election campaigns at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels.Currently studying law in Toronto, Camille will bring her knowledge of politics, law, and activism together in her inspiring opening keynote.

    • Rob Laidlaw

      Rob is the founder and Executive Director of Zoocheck Canada, an organization focused on wildlife, specifically wildlife in captivity. He has also written several books, including books for children about animals.

    • Lesley Fox

      Lesley is the Executive Director of Vancouver's own Fur Bearer Defenders (otherwise known as the Association for the Protection of Fur Bearing Animals). In addition to her work with Fur Bearers, Lesley has run campaigns promoting alternatives to dissection for high school students and humane education in schools. Lesley is a very good speaker, and her opening keynote on Sunday, February 26 is not to be missed.

    • Sarah Kramer

      If you don't know who Sarah Kramer is, look on your bookshelf. Chances are you've got at least on of her many cookbooks. One of the funnest people in the animal rights movement, Sarah will be closing out the event on Sunday with a light-hearted (and knowledge-testing) game show.

  3. You set the agenda

    This unconference is all about you.

    Each morning everyone at the event will have the opportunity to announce their own breakout session topics and add them to the agenda for the day.

    It's a very simple format.

    Here's how it works: If you have a particular topic you'd like to lead a discussion about, you will write your topic and your name on a piece of paper, then stand up and announce the topic to the audience. Then you will take your topic over to the agenda wall and stick it up in your selected time slot and location.

    You are free to propose any topic you want – but you are expected to lead the discussion in the breakout session. No posting of topics that you are not committed to leading. You are welcome to collaborate with others to propose topics.

    Easy, right?

To register, visit animaladvocacycamp.ca. There is a low income option available as well, so no excuses!

Feb 11 10:22

Diversity of tactics

When you are working for social change, do you think that it is good for a movement to employ a diversity of tactics?

Tactics that do not contribute to the movements goals, that don't fit a coherent strategy should likely be discarded.

If your tactics alienate the people we are trying to reach and make them less receptive, then what good are your tactics? What is your strategy anyway?

Jan 13 12:05

Animal Intelligence

I found these three videos on the intelligence of three very different animals: crows, octopuses, and pigs.

All three have in recent years astonished researchers by showing themselves to be significantly more intelligent than had originally been thought. All three are among the most intelligent animals on the planet.

But notice the difference in tone in the video about the pigs. Pigs are often regarded as the most intelligent non-primate and non-cetacean, but the video about them is filled with euphemism and even mockery. Somehow, their status as "food" means that we don't have to take the implications of their intelligence seriously.

It was also much harder to find a video on pig intelligence - apart from the Compassion in World Farming video.

What do you think? Is there a bias against farmed animal intelligence? Do we deliberately observe farmed animals to be less intelligent?

Jan 11 10:45

Political activism by charities

I was glad to see this quote in the news today from Devon Page, the Executive Director of Ecojustice:

"If we look to other parts of the world that have more liberal views on the roles that charities play in free and democratic society, they have a greater voice," said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice Canada.

"The current rules that we have should frankly be broadened."

Charities exist to protect the weak, to make change, and to advocate for good. In Canada our charities' hands are tied by archaic laws and accounting rules that severely limit what sorts of activities and causes are considered "charitable."

Read the full story.

Jan 10 10:09

The 7 Deadly Sins of Fundraising Emails

I get a lot of fundraising email. Probably 5 or 6 emails a day. Some of it is great but a lot of it really isn't.

I've noticed 7 easy-to-fix problems in these emails - fix them and your emails will work better and raise you more money.

In no particular order:

  1. No personalization. By this I mean there is no "Dear Glenn" at the beginning. This is the basic minimum of personalization you should be doing. Unless you've got a really good reason – and it better be a really, really good reason. It's good manners, and will almost certainly increase your response rates.

    Here are links to information on exactly how to add personalization to your emails for some of the email services you may use:

    Of course, personalization can go way beyond simply using my name in an email. You might refer to my last gift, or the last action I took, or some preference of mine. There are all sorts of possibilities.

  2. You write about you more than you write about me. You might think I'm just being self-centred here, but I do have a real point. Your fundraising appeals will work better if you focus on the person who is reading the appeal. What will giving to your organization do for them? How will it make them feel? What will they have accomplished?

    As an example, I often read emails that say something like "Please donate to us so that we can take action to end the suffering of animals on fur farms." You could rewrite it like this: "Donate now and take action to end the suffering of animals on fur farms." Now the reader is included in the action and the ask is more compelling. Long-time fundraiser and copywriter Harvey McKinnon (who I happen to work for) says that the "you"s in a letter should outnumber the "we"s and "our"s. And his letters have raised millions of dollars for all kinds of charities. For some nice copywriting tips, check out this article on SOFII.

  3. Hiding or neglecting the ask.

    The "ask" is a bit of jargon that means the part of the letter where you ask me for money. Something like "please donate now."

    Sometimes I get fundraising emails that I know are intended to raise money, but for some reason the writer never asked me for money. Or, if she did, it was ever so soft, as if she was embarrassed and didn't want to bother me too much. Do you ever do that? Worry so much that you are going to offend your donors by asking them for money that you avoid it?

    Instead, ask for money at the beginning of the email. Have a donation button, but still ask me to make a donation in the text of the email. Then repeat it later on. Make it nice and include urgency, but make sure it's there.

  4. You give me too much information. I understand that there are about three hundred reasons why I should get out my credit card and make a donation right this second to your organization. But if you tell me all three hundred chances are I won't make that donation. And it's not just me. There's something about the human brain that can't handle choice or complexity very well. And by bombarding my poor brain with so many reasons you've simply overwhelmed it and I've clicked "delete."

    The book Switch includes a lot of information about how our brains make decisions and what you can do to change behaviour. Like my delete-clicking instead of donating.

  5. There is no story and no emotion. You might not think this is important, and you wouldn't be alone. There are some people out there who feel that nothing is as convincing as a good rational argument and that facts (a nice steady stream of them) are of primary importance. Unfortunately, most people aren't like that. And by most people I mean most of the people out there who are reading your email. If you really hope to engage them and inspire them to make a gift, use a compelling story that affects them emotionally.

    There is quite a bit of information about this in Switch, but you might also want to take a look at "Nicholas Kristoff's Advice for Saving the World" – an excellent article that examines how we respond to the stories of single individuals versus groups.

  6. There is no personal connection. As fundraiser Alan Sharpe says, (I'm paraphrasing) an fundraising email is a communication from one person to another person. One individual to one individual. It is not a piece of institutional mail.

    It is ok to refer to yourself. I want to know that there's a real person on the other side speaking to me.

  7. The email isn't signed, or it's signed by a group. This is sort of a continuation of the last point, but if you're taking the time to write to me, at least add your name at the bottom. And if you are writing in the first person, sign with one name. I really don't believe that the whole organization wrote the email.

I'm really only talking here about particular emails. How often you send emails and how you track them and learn from your results are also factors that will affect how well they do. If you have fantastic subject lines but send almost the same email out every time, your open and response rates are likely to be terrible.

As always, I might be wrong. Have you tested any of these and found that your results contradict what I've said? Please let me know!

Jan 09 10:59

In Defense of Fundraising, part 2

I've come across this sentiment many times: non-profits should avoid "wasting" money on fundraising or advertising or salaries, and should put donations directly into the work of the organization's mission.

On the surface this seems good. If I'm donating money to Mercy for Animals I want my money to go to paying for investigations or other advocacy programs. I don't want them to use 30 or 40 cents out of each of my dollars to raise more money or promote the organization or pay staff, do I?

But are our expectations in line with reality? We want these organizations we support to change the world, but we limit how and where they can utilize our donations. We want their staff to work for less pay than an entry level job at a for-profit company and we want their work to be effective. And we want them to have millions of dollars without spending money on raising money.

It doesn't make sense.

In reality, organizations need to spend money (yes, YOUR money) to raise more money. They may need to spend $.50 to raise $1. They might be able to spend $.10 to raise $1 in some cases too.

Businesses spend $.50 to earn $1 all the time.

And how do organizations raise money?

One way that gets a lot of criticism is by sending out unsolicited mail. This is called "prospecting" or "acquisition" by fundraisers and "junk mail" by you. You may be the person who tosses these mailings away all the time, or you may be the person who opens them and sends in a donation.

This way of bringing in new donors is expensive. Often it costs $3 or more to raise $1. Yes, that means that these mailings lose money almost 100% of the time.

So why do them? Isn't this a waste of money?

This is one of the basic misconceptions about how fundraising works. Donors do not usually seek out organizations and spontaneously give to them (you are of course the exception). Virtually all first gifts to an organization come as the result of some sort of acquisition campaign.

The value of these campaigns is not to make money. The value is to raise donors. Over time the people who mailed in their gift in response to this piece of "junk mail" will send in more donations and will become "profitable." Yes, fundraisers use the word "profitable."

Really, non-profits don't sell products, but they do sell hope and dreams and the service of doing work for you that you can't do yourself. You can't run a network of animal shelters so you give your money to an organization that can.

I want organizations to be efficient and effective. I don't want them wasting my money. But I think we need to rethink what it means to be efficient and pay attention to how we measure effectiveness. If it honestly takes an organization $400,000 to raise $1,000,000 (a net gain of $600,000) and they do good work with that money, than why should we demand that they reduce the money they spend on fundraising so that it fits into the ideal of 20-25% cost-of-fundraising?

And, beyond fundraising, organizations need good infrastructure and good people, which means that they need to spend money on salaries, benefits, offices, etc. Just because an organization exists to do good doesn't mean it and the people involved should be underpaid and overworked.

I've hardly had an original idea in my life, and this post is mostly an amalgamation of many ideas from books and articles. One book that's been floating around my consciousness for a while (but I haven't read it yet) is Uncharitable by Dan Pallotta. I'm pretty sure he says all of this much better than I have or really ever could.

Here is an article that sums up a lot of the problems with measuring an organization based on how much they spend in fundraising: "Cost of fundraising: the watchdog's Strawman in nonprofit assessments.".

It is clear from numerous surveys (Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2001, et al.) that donors generally prefer that their gifts be used to further the nonprofit's mission rather than be used for fundraising costs. However, that view is akin to wanting one's tax dollars to support the cause of national defense by paying for fighter jets, but not for the copy paper used by employees in the Pentagon. Just as planes do not get used effectively in battle without proper planning, so does a nonprofit's mission depend upon fundraising.

When you are thinking about whether an organization is using your money wisely, don't ask "how much did they spend on fundraising?" or "how much is their executive director getting paid?" Instead, ask "how much have they accomplished?" and "Are they investing in the future?"

Measuring organizational efficiency based on cost-of-fundraising may bring some short term gains, but chances are it will yield long-term ineffectiveness. At the worst it may mean the organization you love because of the work they do will cease to exist.