GBS Switzerland

Effective donation: Why you can save many more animals with your dollar than with your plate

on May 7. 2014

fundraising tree 1


  1. The blind spot of consumer ethics
  2. Donating well is (much) more important than consuming well
  3. Effective vs. ineffective donation
  4. Monthly budget and career choice: “Earning to Give”
  5. “Setting a good example”: Towards a new culture of donation

Our intuitive thinking is strongly influenced by consumer ethics: We think that acting responsibly according to human and animal rights standards primarily involves responsible consumption. When buying new clothes, for instance, we might consult “clean clothes” rankings that rate the working conditions of the companies.1 We might try to cut down on our air travel to reduce our carbon emissions.23 Or we might avoid animal products in order to have a “clean slate” regarding animal welfare. At least these are the priorities that our gut feeling likely suggests to us. However, cognitive psychology questions the reliability of our intuitions4 – and there’s reason to think doing so is worthwhile in the case at hand as well.

1. The blind spot of consumer ethics

The problem with the consumer ethics mindset and behaviour is not that consumption is unimportant. Rather, the problem is that there are far more important things than consumption, things that are comparatively neglected. Such prioritisation failures are widespread and hugely (negatively) consequential.5, 6 For instance, of greater importance than what products to consume is the decision whether to consume at all (beyond the necessary baseline that sustains productivity), or to donate the money instead. Even though it doesn’t feel this way intuitively, there is a lot more at stake with this preceding decision: many vegetarians would probably feel very bad about eating veal for a year (which might amount to about 50kg of veal).7 This would roughly translate into the consumption of one calf8 – if chickens were eaten instead, the number of dead animals consumed would be about 259 – and also result in the release of the equivalent of one tonne of CO2.10 Intuitively, we feel worse about this than we do when we do not donate $1,000 that we could afford to donate11, even though the decision to not donate harms hundreds of animals12 and releases dozens of tonnes of CO2. Why is that?

2. Donating well is (much) more important than consuming well

An average meat eater consumes hundreds of animals during his or her lifetime13, 14 , which also releases the equivalent of about one tonne of CO2 per year more than a person mainly following a plant-based diet. It follows that if we successfully motivate one person to remove animal products from their diet, we can expect to save hundreds of animals and the equivalent of dozens of tonnes of CO2. The supply of animal products may not be reduced immediately, but the change in demand will tend to change the supply accordingly in the long run.15, 16 This raises the question: Is it possible to motivate at least one person (or person equivalent) with $1,000 to remove animal products from their diet (who would otherwise not have made the change)? With $1,000, one can distribute thousands of flyers17 or generate thousands of clicks for websites such as via Facebook ads.18 Or one can co-finance an NGO position with $1,000, which may cost roughly $50,000 per year, and thereby help promote positive dietary change in society. Suppose this NGO position motivates at least 50 people per year to start eating a predominantly plant-based diet – then one would already save hundreds of animals and the equivalent of dozens of tonnes of CO2. (In order to convince 50 people, it is not necessary to reach 50 people directly. For example, if one reaches 25 people who on average convince one other person, then 50 people in total will end up changing their diets.) If this – possibly conservative19, 20 – calculation isn’t totally off, then an annual non-donation of $1000 would have much worse consequences than consuming veal for a year.21 Our gut feeling suggests that it is the other way around, that consuming veal is much worse than not donating. How should we deal with this contradiction? Let us carry this reasoning further: What if we had to pay an additional $1,000 per year in order to avoid consuming veal? If, for example, plant based products were $1,000 more expensive per year, such that we’d have to pay an additional $2.50 per day to get them? Would vegetarians be prepared to do this if the $2.50 were within their budget? Most of them would probably not hesitate: They would push the $1,000 button every year in order to avoid having to eat one calf (or 25 chickens). However, if one is willing to spend $1,000 to avoid the consumption of one animal (or indeed 25), then it seems contradictory and irrational to not press the $1,000 donation button that would prevent the consumption of hundreds of animals. In short: If my own consumption achieves a positive impact of X, then two other people together can achieve twice the impact, i.e., 2X. Therefore, if I successfully motivate – directly or through a donation – two people to switch to predominantly plant based consumption, the result is twice as impactful (!) as my own consumption throughout my whole life. If I can motivate ten people, the impact of this would be 10X, and so on. With larger donations – consisting of 10% to 50% of one’s income – it is possible to generate an impact of 100X or even 1000X. One thereby saves hundreds of thousands of animals and tens of thousands of tonnes of CO2. It might sound surreal, but the fact of the decisional matter seems to be that most people in rich countries have the capacity to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals. Given comparable resource input, it is much better to counterfactually raise someone else’s plant-based consumption from 0% to 90% (+90%) than to raise one’s own from 90% to 99% (+9%). The widespread focus on consumption therefore seems ethically unwarranted.

3. Effective vs. ineffective donation

The above argument does not relate to just any kind of donations, but to ones that have the effect of successfully spreading information and persuading society, which is not the case with all donations. The organisation Animal Charity Evaluators tries to empirically evaluate which animal charities, or rather which interventions regarding animal welfare and rights, have the most impact. Their research yields interesting data:22, 23

animals killed vs where we donate

Almost 100% of the animals we unnecessarily harm are “food animals”, yet not even 1% of the current U.S. animal-related donations go into helping animals in this domain. The largest share of animal-related donations goes to shelters. The support of a cow in an animal shelter costs several thousand dollars per year24, i.e., if the cow lives for ten years, then the total cost will add up to tens of thousands of dollars. With tens of thousands of dollars, one could distribute well over 100,000 flyers25 or buy 50,000 clicks26 on Facebook ads linking to persuasive videos. Even if only one of these 50,000 people decides to switch to a predominantly plant based diet because of the ad, then hundreds of animals and dozens of tonnes of CO2 will be saved. 27, 28 Of course, the full story is not that simple. A cow living in an animal shelter is not “only” one precious life which is saved, or rather, spared of suffering. She also has symbolic power – serving as an impressive example that we can treat animals well, with a commitment to non-violence and respect for their intrinsic value. This societal message will save further animals down the line. Still: One has to spread the message in order for it to be heard and have an effect – and this is only possible via flyers, online advertisement or organisations that foster societal and political discourse. The optimal use of resources (for animals) would thus be to keep the number of animals in animal shelters low and concentrate most of the resources on activities that spread information and encourage people to change their diet. This distribution of donor resources based on effectiveness may seem abstract and “cold”. However, it simply attempts to implement what universal compassion demands, i.e., helping as many sentient animals as possible. Alternative policies would contradict the belief that every life counts, and counts the same.

It is therefore also important to optimise leafletting and Facebook ads according to criteria of psychological effectiveness.29 Not all societal target groups have the same impact potential: Socio-psychological studies have confirmed that young people are more open to new ideas and have a higher probability of accepting and actively promoting them.30, 31 Furthermore, young people have many more years ahead of them during which they can live on a plant based diet (and societally promote it). In the future, they will have the power to make financial, social and political decisions – progressive animal law proposals will then have a much better chance in politics. The practical upshot of these considerations is that donations are more effective when they cause flyers to be distributed at universities and schools instead of in places where they would reach other demographic segments. Facebook ads enable particularly narrow targeting and effectiveness monitoring.32

4. Monthly budget and career choice: “Earning to Give”

How does one put the principle that “good donation is (far) more important than good consumption” into practice? Usually people pay about $50-100/year for memberships in pro-vegetarian organisations. A first step could be to donate $50-100 per month to effective organisations. More and more vegetarians – as well as a growing number of flexitarians and meat-eaters – are starting to reserve 10% of their income for donations.33 (Given the above arguments, we can infer that people negatively affected by global warming and the farm animals slaughtered would prefer, if they had to choose, an effectively donating meat-eater over a non-donating vegetarian or vegan – in other words: If you lack the personal willingness to go veg, paying many other people to go veg can be a way to have (greater) impact.) 10% might sound like too large an amount to start with, but this is often proven to be illusory: People who earn an average wage in rich countries still belong to the richest and most privileged people to have ever lived on this planet, even after donating 10% of their income.34 In addition, psychological studies suggest that donations are among the expenditures that actually tend to make us happier.35 Last but not least, it seems that our loss of luxury pales in comparison to what is at stake in the world out there: Do I prefer world_1 in which I earn 10% more and (hundreds of) thousands of animals suffer additionally – or world_2 in which I earn 10% less and (hundreds of) thousands of animals are spared from suffering? People comfortable with giving 10% are more likely to increase their donations to 20, 30 or perhaps even 50%. More and more people are trying to put this idea into practice and have of course realised that 20% of a large income amounts to more than 20% of a small income. This approach is currently being discussed in the “ethics of career choice” and is known as Earning to Give: One can – and probably should – aspire to get a high earning job36 – not to get rich, but to donate towards the prevention of as much unnecessary suffering as possible.37 The importance and urgency of the Earning to Give concept is borne out by the following fact: Most human and animal rights activists are not financially able to promote their cause full-time − although this would do a great amount of good and although they’d be more than willing to pursue full-time careers. Under these circumstances, a rational, i.e. a goal-achieving/winning strategy would look like this: Human and animal rights activists who have the chance to get highly paid jobs should try and maximise their salary in order to fund as many activist jobs as possible.

5. “Setting a good example”: Towards a new culture of giving

A reasonable amount of optimism seems justified on this front, given that the ethical importance of (effective) giving has been gaining recognition and is being put into practice by an increasing number of people.38 These people contribute to the development of a new culture of giving: Traditionally, donors have often followed the irrational motto “Do good and keep it to yourself!”, i.e., don’t make a lot of noise about personal donations or even donate anonymously. To its credit, this motto could (under certain circumstances) be used to determine if donors are altruistically motivated or are (also) motivated egoistically: If one publicises a donation, one may be motivated by the prospect of scoring some reputational social points. Donors who are purely motivated by altruism will of course also create higher expected value in the long run, as they will donate in cases where they do not gain any social points, too. This, however, does by no means save the motto: First off, egoistically motivated donors obviously have a much higher impact than non-existent donors. Second, motivation seems intrinsically irrelevant: Ultimately, the effect of the donation is what counts, not what is going on in the donor’s head. Third, and most importantly: This motto is not relevant to the case of rational donors. These donors donate because donations − when influencing the consumption of others − can multiply the positive effect compared to one’s own consumption. Moreover, they realise that the effect of a donation can be further multiplied if it motivates other to donate, too. Remaining silent about one’s own donations would therefore not be goal-achieving. On the contrary: Rational donors should try to establish an open culture of giving in order to foster a social norm of effective giving. Discussion on the effectiveness of different donation targets as well as on the amounts of money donated (in absolute and relative terms) should be part of this culture. It’s analogous to consumption: If we want to socially motivate others to change their consumption (i.e., directly, not via donation), it’s important to set a good public example. Therefore we should not keep our own changes in consumption secret but make them public. (If it is desirable to make the change in consumption public and if donations are more important than consumption, then it seems that it is even more desirable to make one’s donations public.) The first paragraph of this article states that donating is something that is a lot more important than consumption. The other thing is of course the direct work of inspiring others to change their behaviour. So the mentioned connection to consumption is as follows: We’ll be less successful at convincing others to change their consumption if we do not set a good example. (One’s own good example is more important than the effect of one’s own consumption.) But in order to take this direct work to a large societal scale, we have to enable people to do it full-time. This requires large donations. Currently, most organisations supporting a plant-based diet − like many progressive NGOs − have a lot of room for more funding/a lot of funding gaps. Finding people who would be willing to promote the good cause is always easy. Finding the financial resources to support them is always hard. We can change this with a new culture of giving.


1.  Cf. e.g. the Ethical Consumer.

2. There are many carbon footprint calculators available in the internet, see e.g. one from Terrapass.

3. Borken-Kleefeld, J., Fuglestvedt, J., & Berntsen, T. (2013). Mode, load, and specific climate impact from passenger trips. Environmental Science and Technology, 47(14), 7608–7614. doi:10.1021/es4003713

4. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

5. Tomasik, B. (2012, June 20). On triage. 80.000 hours.

6. Wise, J. (2011, November 14). Our worst subjects. 80.000 hours.

7. Meat consumption hits ten-year high (2011, April 6).

8. Indiana State Board of Animal Health (n.d.). How much meat in a steer, calf, lamb or hog?

9. Galef, J. (2011, August 11). Want to kill fewer animals? Give up eggs. Scientific American.

10. FAO (2006). Livestock’s long shadow − environmental issues and options. Rome.

11. In moral psychology, the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral than equally harmful omissions (inactions) due to the fact that actions are more obvious than inactions is known as omission bias. Cf. Spranca, M., Minsk, E., & Baron, J. (1991). Omission and commission in judgment and choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 27, 76−105.

12. See below footnotes 17f.

13. Counting Animals (2012, February 6). How many animals does a vegetarian save?

14. Heinrich Böll Foundation & Friends of the Earth Europe (2013). Meat atlas: facts and figures about the animals we eat. Berlin.

15. Matheny, G. (2003). Expected utility, contributory causation, and vegetarianism. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 19(3), 293−297. doi:10.1111/1468-5930.00223

16. Tomasik, B. (2006). Does vegetarianism make a difference? Utilitarian Essays.

17. Vegan Outreach suggests a donation of between $0.11 to $0.25 per brochure.

18. ads cost around 20 cents per click in the US, and international campaigns in foreign countries can cost as little as 2 cents per click. Cf. Animal Charity Evaluators. Online ads.

19. Cooney, N. (n.d.). Well-planned Facebook ads: The most cost-effective way to create new vegans, vegetarians and meat reducers?

20. Hurford, P. (2013, June 10). How much does it cost to buy a vegetarian? Everyday Utilitarian.

21. Brian Tomasik conservatively estimates that it costs $11 to buy a vegetarian year. Cf. Tomasik, B. (2012, January 28). Donating towards efficient online veg ads. Utilitarian Essays.

22. Animal Charity Evaluators (n.d.). Number of animals vs. amount of donations.

23. Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that the most cost-effective farm animal charities save about 3000 lives per $1.000 and are up to 1.000 times more cost-effective than animal shelters. Cf. Animal Charity Evaluators (n.d.). Impact of donations.

24. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates the annual minimum costs of humane care for a large dog to be more than $1.800. If we expect costs to rise more or less proportionally to size – which seems reasonable – we can assume costs for humane care for a cow to be substantially higher.

25. See above footnote 17.

26. See above footnote 18.

27.  In fact, it is estimated that about 2.1% of the viewers of such ads go vegetarian. Cf. Animal Charity Evaluators. Analyzing the hidden face of food.

28. The Humane League (2011). Facebook ads survey.

29. See e.g. Animal Charity Evaluators (n.d.). Comparing effectiveness of videos and ads.

30. Donnellan, M. B., & Lucas, R. E. (2008). Age differences in the Big Five across the life span: evidence from two national samples. Psychology and Aging 23(3):558−566. doi:10.1037/a0012897

31. McCrae, R. R., Costa, P. T., Hr̆ebíc̆ková, M., Martin, M. A., Oryol, V. E., … Senin, I. G. (2004). Age differences in personality traits across cultures: self-report and observer perspectives. European Journal of Personality 18(2), 143–157. doi:10.1002/per.510

32. See above footnote 18.

33. The donation registry of Effective Altruism Hub shows that a significant part of people who donate a substantial part of their income to charity have given or plan to give to animal charities. Cf. Effective Altruism Hub (n.d.). EA donation registry.

34. A calculator by the charity evaluator Giving What We Can calculates how rich one is. It turns out that someone earning the current mean per capita income in the United States ($53.000) is in the top 1% of the world’s population. When donating 10% of this income, they are still richer than 98.6% of people.

35. Dunn, E. W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2011). If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21(2), 115−125. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2011.02.002

36. MacAskill, W. (2014). Replaceability, career choice and making a difference. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17(2), 269–283.

37. 80.000 hours (n.d.). Earning to give.

38. See above footnote 33.