Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Donations & The Small Print in Animal Advocacy

How often do you check the 990 IRS form for your favorite non-profit before you donate? I think many readers would be shocked to learn how often non-profit claimsmaking seriously mismatches its actual financial situation.

Free From Harm claims it reached 6 million web users in 2014 with a budget of only $45,000. This information is part of a call for donations. The assumption is, the more money you donate, the more money it can put towards outreach.

Free From Harm Facebook Post: "Galliano is the picture of the happy, starry-eyed youngster. He's also a great ambassador for his species offering us a tremendous opportunity to build awareness about the 95% who are used and treated as "utility" animals. But he's not an exceptional case. Instead he embodies the spirit of what all chickens, and all sentient beings, desire: to simply be appreciated for their intrinsic value. You can help us in this mission by donating to Free from Harm at and sharing our posts. We reached 6 million web users in 2014 on a budget of about $45,000 dollars. And we are poised to do even better in 2015, but we need your help. Thanks in advance!"

While I was not able to access the 2014 records, 2013 records are publicly available. In 2013, Free From Harm pulled in $92,000 from a grant, and only $20,000 of that was spent on social media outreach and web fees (the only major expenditure listed). About $70,000 was leftover in cash, savings, and investments. 

Given that billions of Nonhuman Animals like Galliano are desperately in need and could be hugely benefited if that surplus was unlocked, why not spend it? Why sit on the profits? Why am I being asked to donate when Free From Harm has more money than it can use? 

In fact, many non-profits hoard their income in this way. Non-profits act according to a capitalist logic of economic growth whereby bigger is thought to be better. Like most non-profits, Free From Harm likely hopes to achieve the status of Farm Sanctuary or PETA. Getting to that size will necessitate offices and paid staff. Interestingly, Free From Harm was not long ago crowdfunding in advocacy spaces looking for donations to support a salary for one of their volunteers. This occurred in spite of evidence in the 990 IRS form indicating that the organization has several thousands of dollars on hand that are not being put towards outreach.

Non-profitization has its benefits, to be sure. Becoming a non-profit means access to these huge grants, salaried activism, free postage from the government, relaxed repression from the state (as a group must deradicalize and become transparent in order to achieve the privilege of non-profit status), and increased public presence which is helpful for dispersing claimsmaking, but also for bringing in more funding. But the focus on growth is expensive. 

Counterbalancing these benefits are the many costs to the group's goals and tactics. Free From Harm has been known to take some questionable positions on racism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, as well as ableism. Many professionalized non-profits are hesitant to take a stand against human oppression, as capitalizing on racism can be profitable to the group. Free From Harm also features many essays from famous welfarists who are regularly hostile to abolitionist advocacy. This is probably because the celebrity association is more important for traffic than abolitionist veganism. To be fair, I think it is amazing that an education-based vegan group was able to land such a large grant. I do worry, however, that the logic of growth will undermine these goals as Free From Harm (and other groups like it) climb to the top.

A final point. The commodification of advocacy is a growing trend in social change spaces, and one that should be seriously reevaluated. In a heavily non-profitized social movement, meaningful, engaged, collective action is rarely engaged. Instead, calls to action are merely replaced with calls to donate. This serious squandering of advocate energy and people power is perhaps the greatest cost of all.