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Where will your donations do the most for animals?

Here are some great candidates.

Pigs on a farm in Spain, 2015.
Pigs gather on a farm in Spain, 2015.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

It’s Giving Tuesday, when millions of Americans identify the causes they care about most and contribute to organizations working to solve them. Many of them will be giving to help animals.

More than 50 billion animals are raised and killed for food every year. Most of them are raised on factory farms, where they live in tiny cages, engineered to grow so quickly that their skeletons collapse on them. For people concerned with making the world a better place for animals, then, improving conditions on farms — or figuring out how to feed the world without them — is a top priority.

Animal Charity Evaluators is a nonprofit that does research on which interventions, and which charities, are best positioned to help animals. On Monday, it released its top charity recommendations for 2018, which highlight organizations it thinks are particularly promising for helping farmed animals.

Its four top charities — the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Animal Equality, the Humane League, and the Good Food Institute — each work on factory farming from a different angle: outreach to people interested in vegetarianism and veganism, outreach to corporations to demand they use humanely raised products, undercover investigations of factory farms, and development of meat alternatives.

Why donations make a big difference for farmed animals

The vast majority of animal welfare charities don’t work on farmed animal welfare. Most of them run shelters for abandoned cats and dogs, or sanctuaries for rescued wild animals. That’s important work too. But from an effective altruist framework — which emphasizes doing good by identifying the projects where resources can achieve the most — farm animal welfare stands out.

“Farmed animals is really promising for scale, neglectedness, and tractability,” Toni Adleberg, director of research at Animal Charity Evaluators, told me. “Animal charities are all neglected” — that is, they’re short on attention and funding — “but farmed animal charities are even more neglected.” For every cat or dog euthanized in a shelter, about 3,400 animals are confined, raised, and killed on farms.

For that reason, people who want their dollar to go as far as possible in improving conditions for animals often look at charities that work toward helping farmed animals. And in 2012, Animal Charity Evaluators was founded — then called Effective Animal Activism — to figure out which charities seemed to make the most of donations. (Full disclosure: The founder was a friend of mine in college, but he is no longer with the organization.)

It was an exceptionally difficult task. There’s not a lot of evidence about the effectiveness of most forms of individual outreach to convince people to eat less meat. The evidence that does exist is pretty discouraging — and activists disagree on what it implies about what the movement should focus on.

Animal Charity Evaluators has changed its own research process and conclusions on tactics like leafletting (giving people fliers about animal welfare) and now recommends that on the margin, more of the resources spent on farmed animals go to campaigns to convince companies to adhere to higher welfare standards, which have a stronger evidence base.

Like others in the field, they’ve also started to think about replacing meat entirely. One of ACE’s top recommended charities, the Good Food Institute, works with meat producers, restaurants, and others to develop and promote better plant-based foods. ACE concludes that “developing competitive alternatives to animal products could have an enormous impact for farmed animals in the long term.”

A big change for ACE this year is the global focus

ACE endorses a lot of the same interventions that it did last year, from corporate outreach to work on clean meat.”

But there are nonetheless some big shifts in its list of recommended charities, and that’s largely a result of a broader, bigger focus.

Animals are raised for slaughter all over the world — indeed, as poorer countries have industrialized, they’ve tended to transition toward industrial farming methods to keep up with the increased demand for slaughtered meat. That means that any solution to factory farming needs to be a global one.

“We started by looking more at US charities,” Adleberg told me, “and that was partially because we felt like we needed to.” ACE initially didn’t have the expertise to evaluate charities elsewhere to the same standards that it evaluates US charities, and it wasn’t sure how much of the research would generalize. But this year, ACE was able to make progress on those questions. “We’re looking internationally, and we’ve expanded our pool of charities we consider,” Adleberg said.

New top charity Albert Schweitzer Foundation works in Germany. There are also new international standout charities (organizations ACE recommends, but not as highly): Open Cages works in Eastern Europe on reducing animal suffering, Sinergia Animal works in Latin America on individual outreach and campaigns to phase out battery cages and gestation crates, and Sociedade Vegetariana Brasileira works on vegetarian options in Brazil.

US-based charities are often also looking to expand their work overseas: “A lot of our top charities are expanding internationally,” Adleberg said, “or have expanded internationally in the last few years.”

What makes an animal welfare charity stand out?

In arriving at its recommendations, ACE considered more than 350 organizations in total. Many of those are doing valuable work, and many are doing work very different from one another, which makes it a challenge to identify the most promising options. The group looks at three primary considerations.

The first is whether the organization pursues programs “likely to produce the greatest gains for animals.” Organizations that are doing work with a proven track record, and have a strong case for the impact of their work, do the best here. All ACE’s top choices are working on either corporate outreach campaigns or plant-based meat alternatives, approaches that ACE has identified as promising.

The second criterion is whether the charities “actively evaluate and improve their programs.” Especially in a field with as much uncertainty as animal advocacy, our understanding of the best options next year might look very different from our understanding of the best options today. That makes it essential that the best charities are advancing our understanding of what works, and adjusting their programs as they learn.

Finally, ACE looks for programs that “have a demonstrated need for more funding.” Believe it or not, not all charities do. If a charity has plans to spend $200,000 on a program next year, can’t expand the program any further since it already reaches everyone it knows how to reach, and already has the money on hand, additional spending will not produce results. It’s not that the charity isn’t doing a great job — it’s just that money isn’t holding the organization back from doing an even better job, so giving it money won’t add to what it’s doing.

There’s a lot more to the process than that, and ACE has a detailed individual report for each charity outlining all the considerations that went into the recommendation.

Check out ACE’s full list of recommended charities, and Vox’s general recommendations on how to do good this holiday season.

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