Maximising impact: the case for research

Updated: Aug 19

Animal advocates are united by a shared desire to help all suffering animals. Each individual animal needs our help, so the greater the number of animals suffering, the greater the need, and the greater priority they should represent. This shared thought - that we should help not just some animals, but as many as possible - is behind the decision for many animal organisations to focus on helping farmed animals, based on the numbers of individuals suffering. In addition to this shift to farm animals, there are many other potential changes that organisations can make to be more impactful.

Inevitably, organisations face trade-offs when choosing to prioritise their limited resources between different campaigns. Funding and staffing resources used in one campaign cannot be used in another. Starting one campaign or another implicitly prioritises it over many other potential opportunities. This means that we cannot help all animals. Instead, we face important trade-offs that should be considered carefully.

These trade-offs are particularly important because of the large difference in effectiveness between different campaign choices. Many people intuitively believe that charities and their projects differ very little in effectiveness. However, charities can actually differ greatly in their cost-effectiveness. A study on the subject found that the public generally estimated that charities helping the global poor differed in cost-effectiveness by a factor of 1.5 while experts believed that these charities differed in cost-effectiveness by a factor of 100.

The results of this study match up with the differences and cost-effectiveness that our research has suggested between different prospective campaigns that we have evaluated. This presents an exciting opportunity to have a larger impact through choosing more effective campaigns and thereby save many more animals with the same resources.

Particularly strong campaigns

With such variation, it is particularly important to identify the most impactful campaigns, rather than just opportunities that are “good enough”. One ask that we’ve identified as particularly exciting in the context of both the UK and Switzerland is mandating that animal imports must meet local welfare standards. This would mean that animal products that were produced with lower animal welfare standards than the respective country would either be banned from imports or would face additional tariffs. This ask would cause producers who export to the country to raise welfare standards, therefore improving welfare.

An additional strength of this ask is that it is particularly popular amongst the public, with a majority of UK citizens being in favour of it. It is also nearly unique in being an ask that farmers and the animal agriculture industry in the country have reason to support because it protects them against competition. This is particularly important because they are normally the voting and lobbying block that is most opposed to animal advocacy efforts. This popularity makes this ask particularly strong in this Swiss context, where it could be achieved through a ballot initiative that would more directly translate this popularity into political results.

Having said this, this ask may be weaker in other countries' contexts. Countries that do not import significant amounts from countries with lower standards will see little direct impact from this ask. Though even in this case the ask may have value in setting a precedent for implementation in other countries in the future.

Overall harmful campaigns

More concerning than just “good enough” campaigns, we have also identified opportunities that are much less effective and even, in some cases, harmful. It is crucial to identify these campaigns in advance so that we do not commit resources to something that could be actively harmful.

One recent example of this is a proposed meat tax. Though it initially seemed promising to us, in our later rounds of research and in our extensive report on the subject, we determined that there is substantial risk that a meat tax would shift consumption towards the meat of smaller animals, and thereby increase overall suffering. This may happen as the most prominent motivations for a meat tax are climate and human health, leading to taxes weighted on carbon or health burden. This places much higher taxes on the meat of cows, sheep and pigs compared to chickens.

Thus as the price of meat rises, consumers may shift from more expensive red meat to the meat of chickens. The predictions of economic theory, economic modelling studies, and one similar real-world case all suggest that a meat tax could increase the number of farmed animals and thus increase rather than decrease suffering.

Through this extensive report, we are in a confident position to dissuade organisations from starting meat tax campaigns and therefore committing resources to something that is actively harmful. Animal advocacy organisations would be unlikely to perform this level of research on their own initiative, and so we believe that this type of insight would typically be missed by organisations.

Surprising ideas with good impact

In this analysis of which types of campaigns tend to be particularly impactful or overall harmful, a common pattern that we have found is that campaigns focused on small animals, such as chickens and fish, are particularly impactful due to the sheer scale of the individuals farmed. Perhaps surprisingly, campaigns focused on insects may also be very impactful, though so far tractability concerns and difficulty of organisations to work on the topic have meant that insect welfare has, so far, not been a top ask for us. Conversely, campaigns focused on larger animals may become harmful if they lead to a shift in relative consumption of smaller animals. This can be true even if overall consumption of animal products decreases.

However, there are few general rules that we can rely upon to judge the value of an ask or campaign in advance, and so we must engage in careful research with each new ask and for each new context.

One ask that we found surprisingly impactful is a campaign against the intensive breeding of pheasants and other game birds in the UK. The UK stands out in breeding a huge number of these birds, perhaps 60 million, and they are raised in particularly poor conditions. We believe that with a favourable government in power, a full ban would be possible (albeit somewhat difficult). There have been precedents set for this in other countries. A campaign to improve their rearing conditions might also be quite impactful. We considered this a quite strong campaign in the UK, though there are a few UK-based campaigns we consider even more impactful.

This is why research is crucial

If campaign choice is this important and if research can significantly contribute to choosing stronger campaigns, then it follows that research is also crucially important. Simply put, when we have limited resources to distribute between campaigns that vary greatly in effectiveness, it is worth spending time to carefully and systematically research which campaigns are optimal. This importance is recognized by the movement, with 84% agreeing that research to prioritise amongst different farm animal asks is neglected.

We estimate that since 2021 we have moved $1.9 million USD of movement funds to more impactful campaigns. On average, we have recommended campaigns that are 25% more effective than those the partnered organisations would have chosen without our support. The cost of achieving this 25% uplift in effectiveness was just 6% of the organisation’s overall campaign budget.

Our approach

At Animal Ask, we take the approach we do because we are convinced of the value of research. We offer research assistance to organisations across the globe who are deciding on their next campaign through our prioritisation process, consultation process, or through our publicly available reports:

  1. Our prioritisation programme is our most extensive programme. This involves a three stage research process to narrow down the most effective asks with country scoping, weighted factor models, cost-effectiveness analyses, expert interviews, and finally extensive reports on the top asks.

  2. Our consultation programme offers targeted solutions to particular questions, such as the relative value of a smaller number of potential campaigns that the organisation is deliberating on.

  3. Lastly, many of our extensive reports are publicly available on our website for organisations considering asks that we have covered or that are interested in our foundational research.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you might be interested in one of our programmes or if you have any questions for us.