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This essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest.

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Introduction

I’m going to make the case that increasing the social network connectivity of supporters of reducing farmed animal suffering (hereafter referred to simply as “supporters”) has the potential to increase our impact for animals many-fold and is currently one of the most underinvested areas within animal advocacy. Specifically, I think there is a non-negligible probability that with a moderate investment of resources, we could accelerate the end of factory farming by years or decades (and spare the lives of trillions or quadrillions of animals). I think this is a highly tractable problem, and I will detail the ways that I am personally trying to address this area through a new organization called Connect For Animals. I will also address potential opportunities for others who want to invest in this space. Although I focus on the farmed animal advocacy movement, I think a similar argument could be made for other cause areas to the extent that the necessary background conditions are similarly applicable.

Executive Summary

There are millions of people who want to help end factory farming (https://stevenrouk.com/30-million-vegans/). However, only a small percentage of these people are working to help end factory farming in a non-diet-related way, even though many of them would like to help more. Additionally, people’s pro-animal behavior change (diet change) usually doesn’t last (https://faunalytics.org/a-summary-of-faunalytics-study-of-current-and-former-vegetarians-and-vegans/). Both of these problems, and many other problems, can be partially solved by building better connectivity infrastructure for supporters.

The potential impact of solving these problems is enormous: we could potentially have many times as much impact as the entire movement for farmed animals has currently had to date, although this is highly speculative (Impact Estimations sheet). Investment in social network connectivity has lagged relative to efforts to raise awareness of factory farming and efforts to develop campaigns-focused organizations. This means there is an opportunity to accelerate the farmed animal advocacy movement’s work by increasing investment in connective infrastructure to match the current need for it. Now is a good time to try solving these connection-related problems (compared to the past 20 years). Despite the large opportunity for impact, very few people or organizations are working on this issue.

My personal attempt to address this issue is a relatively new organization called Connect For Animals (CFA). The mission of CFA is to use technology to help find, connect, and empower supporters of ending factory farming. We aim to help supporters find “right fit” connections to people, events, organizations, resources, and impact opportunities.

This kind of connectivity infrastructure work could grow to effectively utilize millions of dollars per year and may be one of the most cost effective things we could currently be doing. This work may also provide a model for other causes to build connective infrastructure in the future, which could increase impact across non-farmed-animal causes as well.

Background

In this section, I will discuss some of the most relevant background information that has led me to think that connective infrastructure could create a large impact for farmed animals. In the next section, I’ll discuss why I think developing more and better connective infrastructure could be a good strategy, given our present situation.

Large Total Number of Supporters

Using diet as a rough proxy for serious desire to help animals, there are millions of people who want to help farmed animals (such as by ending factory farming). We will call these people “supporters” whether or not they are actively engaged in work to help farmed animals.

Small Percentage of Active Supporters

A small percentage of supporters are actively working to help animals in a non-diet-related way. If we roughly estimate that there are 50,000 people actively working for farmed animals around the world in any kind of full-time, part-time, or volunteer capacity, and if we further estimate that there are 1.5M supporters total globally, then this would mean over 95% of supporters are not actively engaged (Impact Estimations sheet). (Note that for the purpose of this analysis, we do not treat donors as actively engaged supporters.)

My hypothesis is that a significant percentage of these people would like to be more engaged than they currently are. Given my personal experiences over the last several years, plus some limited research that I’ve conducted, I think this hypothesis is reasonable and would hold up under further research.

Large Percentage of Diet Change Recidivism

Directly advocating for diet change has traditionally been one of the most aggressively pursued interventions by the farmed animal advocacy movement, since decreased consumption of animal products theoretically results in decreased animal suffering (although economic elasticity and the small animal replacement problem complicate this picture). However, the majority of vegans and vegetarians end up going back to eating animals, with recidivism percentages potentially as high as 84% (https://faunalytics.org/a-summary-of-faunalytics-study-of-current-and-former-vegetarians-and-vegans/). Since a large amount of resources are spent on trying to influence diet change, these results could indicate a lot of partially wasted efforts and resources.

Other Challenges

Hiring Staff and Finding Volunteers

Finding the right individuals for high impact roles (paid and volunteer) in the farmed animal advocacy space can be a challenge, which is part of the founding hypothesis of organizations such as Animal Advocacy Careers. They, Vegan Hacktivists, and others have also done some work to create two-sided markets to match volunteers and projects that need volunteers.

Racial Diversity

There has also been a growing recognition of the lack of racial diversity in the nonprofit space and the difficulty that people of color have in finding funding for projects (https://encompassmovement.org/research).

Operating Internationally

Although there is awareness of the importance of building the farmed animal advocacy movement globally, there is limited knowledge of the organizations and advocates working in many other countries (especially in Asia and Africa, which organizations like Animal Alliance Asia and Animal Advocacy Africa are working to address), and limited communication between countries that speak different languages.

The Strategy of Connectivity

Although the challenges above may appear to be distinct at first, my hypothesis is that social network dynamics and connective infrastructure can impact all of them.

In this section, we’ll explore how connectivity-based solutions can help us make significant progress on all of the problems listed above.

Leveraging Talents and Energies of Supporters

First, we’ll talk about how connectivity-focused solutions can increase the percentage of supporters actively working for farmed animals, as well as potentially increase the efficiency of existing active supporters.

More Efficient Marketplace of Supporters and Organizations

Suppose we have a number of organizations working on farmed animal advocacy. Each organization typically has a small number of focus areas that they work on, and each of these focus areas appeals to a certain subset of supporters. Organizations have an incentive to communicate the value of their focus areas and get donations, volunteers, and employees. They also have no direct incentive to send donations, volunteers, and employees to other organizations (although we could make the case that they have indirect incentives to do this when it’s in the interest of the full movement). Thus, generally speaking, organizations have an incentive to try convincing people of their approach, rather than directing supporters to the "right fit" organizations and opportunities for them, and an organization has little incentive to help supporters find better alternatives even when a supporter has no intention of helping that organization.

Unless there is an efficient mechanism for helping supporters connect with organizations that have a high probability of being the right fit, there will be supporters who choose to not get involved because of failure to find a good enough match. From what we know about social network theory, it seems plausible that supporters who stay disconnected will be even more likely to stay disconnected as time goes on (http://www.connectedthebook.com/), leading to a significantly higher probability of long-term or permanent disconnection from impact opportunities.

A solution that created a more efficient marketplace of supporters and organizations could help supporters find impact opportunities that were both personally motivating and a good skills fit.

Local Maxima

Because of the hypothesized current inefficient marketplace of supporters and organizations, many active supporters may be stuck in local maxima of impact. People may volunteer for the first organization that is a good-enough fit, even if that organization is a sub-par fit for them personally relative to other opportunities that already exist.

A more efficient marketplace could not only increase the total number of supporters who become active, but it could increase the efficacy of supporters who are already active by making them aware of opportunities that are a better fit.

Increased social connectivity and more effective connectivity can increase the probability of a supporter finding a right-fit match in a shorter amount of time while also decreasing the probability of a supporter giving up the search completely. If there is a good opportunity already available, someone will be more likely to find it. If there is not a good opportunity currently available, then staying socially connected with other supporters will keep someone interested in farmed animal advocacy for a longer period of time, increasing the probability that a good opportunity will be created. Increased connectivity probably also increases the likelihood of a supporter identifying a gap in existing work and starting a new initiative to fill that gap.

Impact Potential

If we assume that only 5% of supporters are actively engaged in (non-donation) farmed animal advocacy work, then there is a huge upside to increasing the percentage of supporters who take action. My hypothesis is that a significant percentage of supporters would take meaningful action if given the right opportunity and circumstances. Although there is incredible uncertainty here, I think we can be reasonably confident that we could add millions of hours of work and tens of millions of dollars of value to the farmed animal advocacy movement by helping current supporters get more involved, and we could potentially add much more (Impact Estimations sheet). If we could figure out how to leverage the talents and time of another 5% of supporters, that would double the capacity of the movement for farmed animals (assuming similar rates of impact). There is also the additional impact that could be created by increasing the efficiency of the supporters who are already active, as discussed in the section on local maxima.

Reducing Diet Change Recidivism

Next, we’ll discuss how connectivity-focused solutions can reduce the percentage of diet change recidivism, thus extending the impact that organizations have when they advocate for diet change.

Social Support Influences Behavior

From what we know about social network theory, it seems likely that supporters will be much more likely to maintain pro-animal diet change behavior if they are connected with others who engage in that same behavior. For former vegans and vegetarians, not only are social issues explicitly mentioned as reasons for going back to eating animal products, but it’s likely that many of the other top stated issues (health, dissatisfaction with food, etc.) could be solved with greater social connection and more efficient information sharing (https://faunalytics.org/a-summary-of-faunalytics-study-of-current-and-former-vegetarians-and-vegans/). Research shows that significant behavior change and socially risky behavior change are often supported more by social network dynamics than by individual motivations (https://www.littlebrown.com/titles/damon-centola/change/9781549152092/). Thus, someone may self-report that they went back to eating animal products because of health issues or dissatisfaction with food, when actually a change in the person’s social network could have solved both of those problems.

Impact Potential

Meaningfully reducing the rate of diet change recidivism could capture more long-term effects of advocacy efforts. If, for example, 2.5% of the US adult population (~6 million people) is veg*n (vegan or vegetarian) and 5% of them go back to eating animal products each year (~300k), and we can reduce that to 4%, then we could keep another 60k people in the US from eating animal products each year. If the percentage of veg*ns has remained relatively stable over the last decade, as some research shows, then any decrease in yearly recidivism could result in an increasing percentage of veg*ns over time, which could eventually go on to have even greater network effects on the rest of the population as certain “tipping point” thresholds are reached (https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/damon-centola-tipping-point-large-scale-social-change).

Connective Infrastructure as Solution

My hypothesis is that one of the best ways we can make progress on this issue is by developing connective social network infrastructure to (1) increase the total level of connectivity of supporters, as well as (2) optimize the connectivity of supporters.

Connect For Animals as Specific Implementation

Currently, I am trying to utilize all of this thoughtwork to create an organization called Connect For Animals. Our mission is to use technology to find, connect, and empower supporters of ending factory farming. We believe the right connective infrastructure can increase the percentage of supporters taking meaningful action, decrease diet recidivism, increase the efficiency of information and resource flow throughout supporters and organizations, and create many positive indirect network effects (such as increased innovation) which all culminate in more impact for farmed animals.

Currently, we are working on aggregating all events relevant to ending factory farming and connecting supporters with those events in a more efficient manner than currently exists. We are also developing a social network application to help supporters connect with each other and find “right fit” impact opportunities, organizations, and resources.

Here is one way to categorize some of the metrics that I think are most relevant to our work that we can directly measure:

(Note: These metrics all relate to the people using our technology—our application, platform, email list, etc.)

  • Connection Metrics
    • # people (total)
    • # new interpersonal connections made
    • # recurring connections made
    • Self-reported satisfaction with connections made
    • Increased social network connectivity (as measured on the platform)
    • Diversity of people (race, gender, age, nationality, etc.)
    • Geographic coverage (i.e. percent of countries, cities, or geographic regions)
    • Geographic balance (i.e. equivalent ratios of people on platform to national population)
    • Increased social network connectivity across historically disconnected regions and communities
  • Education Metrics
    • # educational opportunities participated in (resources, books, workshops, trainings, etc.)
    • # learning-centered events attended
    • # of supporter-to-organization connections made
  • Impact Metrics
    • # advocacy actions taken
    • # new volunteers for organizations
    • # new hires for organizations

Some of the different ways that we are approaching our work include:

  • Focusing on general connectivity, rather than niche subsets.
  • Focusing on “right fit” connections for supporters, rather than narrow offerings.
  • Utilizing technology to scale our solution.
  • Using social network research, such as the findings from the books Change and Connected.
  • Using strategies from networked product startups to overcome initial negative network effects, such as the strategies found in the book The Cold Start Problem.
  • Connecting people to the preexisting work, resources, and opportunities of other organizations where possible, rather than trying to build every aspect of the solution ourselves.

By focusing on this issue of connectivity, here are some of the things we hope to accomplish that are harder to measure directly:

  • Increased general participation in farmed animal advocacy events and advocacy.
  • Increased amount of discussion about farmed animal issues (between other supporters and nonsupporters).
  • Increased amount of personal thought about farmed animal issues (i.e., people thinking more in general about how to help farmed animals).
  • Increased average accuracy of supporters’ worldviews about farmed animal advocacy issues.
  • Decreased diet change recidivism.
  • Increased innovation in farmed animal advocacy.
  • Increased number of donors, and increased total donations.
  • More equitable distribution of funding to organizations, projects, and individuals.
  • Better candidates for job applications and faster hiring cycles.
  • Increased number of events relevant to ending factory farming.
  • Increased number of impact opportunities relevant to ending factory farming.

Existing Connectivity Work

Despite enormous potential for impact, it seems very few organizations are working on this. Animal welfare is less funded than other cause areas in general—“over 1,000 times more neglected than global health” according to 80,000 Hours (https://80000hours.org/articles/problem-framework/)—and movement building in the farmed animal space is more neglected than other focuses—less than 10% of total funding, and most of the movement building funding is not focused on connectivity-based solutions (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/6H9QGZkdMzDEdKNCX/analysis-of-ea-funding-within-animal-welfare-from-2019-2021-1).

Some work is being done within the connectivity space, including some high quality and high impact work. However, many existing solutions are either narrowly focused or appear to be fairly unsuccessful, which still leaves a lot of room for more general connective infrastructure. I think overall, this space is underdeveloped and underfunded.

Here are a few examples of organizations (in no particular order) working on increasing the connectivity of supporters:

  • Vegan Hacktivists connects programmers, designers, and data professionals to complete tech projects on a pro bono basis.
  • The Open Wing Alliance has developed a greater level of connectivity between international animal advocacy groups who are focused on corporate campaigns.
  • The goal of Farmed Animal Funders is to make funding more effective by connecting and coordinating philanthropists.
  • Conferences like the Animal Rights National Conference, the LEAD Conference, and the AVA Summit are opportunities for supporters to meet each other and to discover organizations.
  • APEX Advocacy and other organizations work to increase the number of people of color in the space.
  • Grassroots organizations like Animal Rebellion, Anonymous for the Voiceless, the Animal Save Movement, and Direct Action Everywhere try to build a social movement for animals by getting people to engage in street outreach, vigils, protests, and direct action.
  • Animal Advocacy Careers aims to increase information flow between organizations and job seekers.
  • Organizations like Vevolution and Beyond Animal are creating platforms for investors to connect with alt protein companies.
  • Applications like Veggly and Grazer focus on connecting individuals with each other.
  • The Good Food Institute works to connect individuals and organizations in the alt protein sector.
  • Vegan Outreach and other organizations have mentoring programs (and Vegan Outreach also has a global network of advocates who leaflet at university campuses).

Analysis and Concerns

In this section, I will summarize the importance, tractability, and neglectedness of this area, as well as address what I think will be common concerns and difficulties with this work.

Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness

I think one of the reasons this area has been so neglected is because it is much harder to measure the full extent of the effects of this work.

In general, measuring the effects of network-based or market-based interventions is extremely difficult, akin to measuring the impact of Google on the level of education of the general public, or the impact of LinkedIn on the job market. Research like Damon Centola’s book Change is valuable for informing network-based approaches, since conducting this kind of research is difficult, expensive, or otherwise infeasible for many researchers.

Nevertheless, in this section I will lay out what I think is a compelling case for the importance, tractability, and neglectedness of this work. For rough calculations that are relevant to some of the information below, see here: Impact Estimations sheet.

Importance

Since this intervention affects the connectivity of the farmed animal advocacy movement, I think it’s meaningful to talk about the impact in terms of fractions or multipliers of the total movement impact. Increased connectivity (and better connectivity) can result in more of the same work being done, or better work being done; but either way, the primary impact of this work is to scale up the work that is already being done and increase the probabilities of “hits” in the future.

I think best case scenario, this work could accelerate the end of factory farming by years or decades, resulting in trillions or quadrillions of lives spared from factory farms.

Neglectedness

As mentioned in the “Existing Connectivity Work” section, animal welfare is less funded than other cause areas in general, movement building is a small percentage of total spending (10% or less of farmed animal funding), and this kind of connectivity-focused or social network-focused work is even more neglected within the movement building space. The total percentage of farmed animal welfare funding going to this type of general social network connectivity work is probably less than 0.1%.

Tractability

This work was probably much less tractable 15 years ago, for several key reasons: social networking apps weren’t used as widely; software was more expensive to develop, deploy, and maintain; the number of people who actively wanted to help end factory farming was probably much smaller globally; the alt protein and plant-based food sector was much smaller; and the number of farmed animal advocacy organizations was much smaller, meaning there was (probably) less diversity in an individual’s options for getting involved.

However, every single point above has changed meaningfully in the last 15 years, which makes the situation much more tractable for connectivity-focused solutions within farmed animal advocacy specifically. Since this space is so nascent, it’s hard to say how the impact per dollar would change with increased investment, but it feels reasonable to assume that impact per dollar wouldn’t meaningfully decrease for the first hundred million dollars in the space, at least.

Three factors that decrease the tractability of this area are:

  1. Multifacetedness of opportunities for increased connection. To fully address the opportunity of developing connective infrastructure requires solving: person-to-person connection; person-to-organization connection; person-to-impact-opportunity connection; person-to-resource connection; and so on. While there are meaningful relationships between all of these that can be leveraged, the problem space is still very large, and each type of connection requires unique strategies to solve.
  2. Social network theory knowledge and negative network effects. Developing interventions that target social networks is difficult for many reasons. Measuring effects of network-based interventions is much more difficult, as is thinking through casual effects. Additionally, the “cold start problem” and negative network effects can cause projects to fail despite having a good hypothesis and good technology, if network-specific strategies are not used to overcome these issues.
  3. Technology knowledge. Although developing technology-based solutions has become much easier in the last 15 years, and although there are many more people with knowledge of how to build applications and technical products, it is still difficult to create, deploy, and manage a scalable solution.

Progress can be made in this area even without deep social network theory knowledge or technical knowledge, particularly by looking for specific problems of disconnection or inefficient information/resource flow that can be solved using low-code or no-code technology (such as Airtable, Zapier, list servs, Discord, website builders, and so on), or that can be solved without any custom technology at all (such as using existing social media groups, holding conferences, or hosting in-person or virtual events).

However, the best solutions in this space probably utilize technology heavily while also leveraging a deep knowledge of social network dynamics. To start and scale a highly effective two-sided market, for example—such as investors and startups, or job seekers and organizations—probably requires custom technology and knowledge of network effects. To create multiple distinct types of networks that all interoperate and solve separate but related problems probably requires an even greater knowledge of technology and network effects.

Funders who want to contribute to progress in this area can look for connectivity-focused solutions to fund—especially those that leverage technology to increase scale and effectiveness. Highly skilled developers, designers, data scientists, marketers, and product managers can make a huge difference for these solutions, and these roles typically require higher salaries than campaigners or other advocacy roles. Currently, I think the amount of tech-focused philanthropy in this space is close to nothing. However, even non-tech solutions could probably effectively utilize much more funding since this area in general is so underdeveloped.

Other Concerns and Open Questions

  • Difficulty of measuring outcomes. One of the most significant challenges in this area is the difficulty of measuring outcomes. There is, however, a strong theoretical foundation for the importance of connectivity and efficient marketplaces of people, ideas, and resources. Many individual connection-oriented metrics can be measured. But in general, it is much more difficult to measure network-focused interventions, and the evidence relies heavily on social network theory, economic theory, reasoning about indirect effects, etc.
  • Most important types of connectivity. Certain aspects of connectivity may result in much more impact than others. Connecting supporters with each other, for example, could turn out to be the crucial connection that also results in greater supporter-to-impact-opportunity connections—or it could turn out to be fairly irrelevant (although this seems unlikely). This is something that needs to be researched.
  • Downsides of connectivity. There is some evidence that certain types of increased connectivity can result in negative effects, such as spreading suboptimal innovations to the full network too quickly, which stifles higher-impact innovations from being developed.
  • “Right fit” solutions might mean a lot of low impact advocacy. It might, but it probably also means much more high impact advocacy, as well as a higher probability of spreading information about more impactful advocacy. Initial steps into advocacy, no matter what they are, can be first steps towards higher impact actions in the future. We cannot influence a disconnected network—connection precedes deliberation and discussion about impact. I also think that there is so much uncertainty about long-term effects and indirect effects that we should be fairly slow to label someone’s preferred advocacy method as low impact.
  • Doubt about finding funding for more full-time staff. With increased connectivity may come more people seeking full-time paid roles, and in the near term there may not be money for those roles. For many animal advocacy organizations, there are already dozens or hundreds of applicants per open position. However, it’s also probable that with increased connectivity will come more opportunities for funding. Some people in the EA community believe, for example, that community-building work has financially generated something like a benefit-to-cost ratio of 150-to-1 (https://80000hours.org/2022/05/ea-and-the-current-funding-situation/ and https://80000hours.org/2021/07/effective-altruism-growing/). Additionally, there is an enormous amount of value in part-time and/or unpaid work.
  • Doubt about impact of part-time work. Much of the work done by other social movements (such as the civil rights movement) has been part-time and/or unpaid, and volunteer-driven organizations and movements can wield enormous influence. There are of course challenges and considerations related to effectively leveraging the energies of large numbers of part-time individuals.
  • Doubt about the need to build another digital tool when other networking tools already exist. I agree that initiatives should utilize existing technology if it works well for their use case. A primary reason for the development of new tools, though, is that existing tools are not focused on the community of supporters that we want to engage, and most of them don’t have clear ways for people to indicate that they want to help end factory farming. This makes these tools deficient for connecting our group of supporters. (The EA Forum, for example, theoretically provides a lot of value for the EA community over other forum sites like Reddit, Quora, StackOverflow, and so on.) A second reason to create new tools is that the needs of the supporters of farmed animal advocacy are different from the needs of people on these other platforms. Finally, although developing new digital tools is still difficult, it is easy enough these days to experiment with building new tools, which can then be scaled up if shown to be successful. Other platforms can be used as partial solutions, but highly effective solutions probably require bespoke technology.

Opportunities

Lastly, I will briefly sketch out some possible opportunities within this space. Some of these opportunities are being worked on by existing organizations, including my own (Connect For Animals). This list is by no means exhaustive of the opportunities within this space.

  • A general social networking application for people who want to help end factory farming that includes person-to-person connection opportunities, events, advocacy opportunities, resources, etc.
  • A comprehensive, categorized, easily searchable database of all relevant organizations, events, resources, research, etc.
  • Two-sided networks / marketplaces for connecting:
    • Job seekers with companies and organizations that are hiring.
    • Investors with alt protein and plant-based companies.
    • Event organizers with potential event attendees.
    • Potential volunteers with volunteer opportunities.
  • A coordinated network of targeted professional groups, personal interest groups, demographic-focused or life situation focused interest groups, geographically-focused groups, or a subset of these groups.
  • A forum (like the EA Forum) specifically for ending factory farming.
  • Something that combines several of the above focuses into a single product or service.

Conclusion

Increasing and optimizing social network connectivity can greatly accelerate the progress of the farmed animal advocacy movement, potentially bringing about the end of factory farming years or decades sooner and sparing the lives of trillions or quadrillions of individual animals. Despite some small, mostly niche solutions being developed, the space remains largely neglected and unfunded. There is an enormous potential for funders and founders to explore more general connectivity-oriented solutions, especially those powered by digital technology, although increased knowledge of social network dynamics is probably required for maximal positive impact. The relatively new organization Connect For Animals is my personal attempt to tackle this problem. Finally, the solutions developed for farmed animal advocacy could likely be used for other cause areas as well.

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