Advice To Young Animal Advocates: Go To Wall Street. Get Rich. Give Back.

» July 26th, 2014

Want to really help make the world a better place for animals? Go to Wall Street. Get rich. Give back. What the real animal rights movement needs, and what it lacks, is real wealth. Donated wealth. Super-rich wealth.

Everyday I’m hit up to contribute to one great organization or another. I give when I can—and it’s always the Wall Street equivalent of pocket change—but when I do give I always think that it’s really too bad there’s not a person with five million bucks lying around to endow this organization, free it from fundraising, and allow it to fight the fight it wants to fight, rather than spending enormous resources or exploiting interns to hit me up for chump change.  And don’t fool yourselves: there are plenty of people with an extra five million bucks lying around. And the change I can give really is chump-ish.

One obvious objection to this idea is that you’d have to invest in various forms of animal exploitation–directly or indirectly–to make your fortune. I imagine collusion with the animal-industrial complex would indeed be unavoidable. But, if your intention is to make millions and give back, I say do it anyway—make your fortune fast, keep your lifestyle simple, live your values as best you can, and rob Peter to pay Paul. What’s that phrase about being effective or being right? Plus, if enough people do it, the investment profile might change over time.

For now, though, it might be more consistent ethically speaking for a young person concerned with animals to do an unpaid internship at an underfunded animal rights group, or to start a sanctuary and rescue a few birds and rabbits, but it’d be much more effective if that young person put off the internship, set aside the idea of a little sanctuary, started a hedge fund, became a billionaire, and founded the world’s largest animal sanctuary. Activism is not divorced from economics. Scale matters.

There are so many amazing activists doing amazing work to make the world a safer place for sentient animals. But we are all hampered financially. So, young and compassionate  person: go to Wall Street, get rich, and give back.  (Oh, and when you make your fortune, remember that The Pitchfork is happy to accept your pledge.)


22 Responses to Advice To Young Animal Advocates: Go To Wall Street. Get Rich. Give Back.

  1. Dachia says:

    I can understand the point of view expressed here. I have seen so often a celebrity raising awareness about an issue and asking for contributions and readers responding with, “they are rich… they could fund this if they really wanted to.” True, but the point is often not the funding but the seeking of funds by telling a story that moves a person to then share that story with others. A rich person building an animal shelter does no long-term good, if the masses have no idea that we have a pet overpopulation issue and we need to spay and neuter and stop patronizing pet breeders and sellers. That education most often comes from a one-on-one personal appeal.

    We tend to click past a channel with a skinny dog in the rain. We flip past the article about the puppy-mills and breeding issues.

    When someone is talking to directly to us and asking for $5 to help raise awareness that we have 13 million perfectly good pets being put down each year because not enough homes and morons who won’t spay neuter, the $5 is really beside the point.

    Just my opinion. I don;t want to see deep pockets simply fund a project. The funding of the project, the involvement of all of us, is just another important aspect of that project. Now, having said all that, I agree… get a real job, make real money and put that money to good use.

  2. Jennifer Greene says:

    James, this is exactly the thinking at 80,000 Hours. They understand the importance of what’s called “counterfactual reasoning,” and they offer guidance to young people who want to make a difference. Here’s their site:

    An excerpt from their FAQ:
    “We’ve researched a lot of interesting things so far. One of the most ground-breaking things we’re doing is pioneering a new way of thinking about careers that make a difference. Unlike many other sources of ethical career advice we focus on the difference between what happens if you make a choice and what would have happened otherwise. That means we end up thinking about some problems differently. For example, it isn’t important that you are the one who does something, so long as you make it possible. It also means that we think about who would replace you in any job that you end up turning down.”

  3. Mary Finelli says:

    If one isn’t genuinely interested in working on Wall Street they probably won’t be very good at it. It’s not a matter of doing what is most effective but rather a matter of doing what one will be most effective at doing, and that requires having a genuine interest in it. Becoming president of the U.S. might be the best way anyone could help animals (theoretically) but not everyone is cut out to pursue that path. If it’s not for you, you’ll probably not be very successful at it. Follow your heart and your passion.

    • James says:

      I could not agree more with your comment. But if a person cares deeply for animal rights, so much so that she theoretically places that cause ahead of her own professional preferences–and has the skills to reap rewards on Wall Street–she’d be placing her own arbitrary interests ahead of animals’ essential interests by eschewing Wall Street for the local animal shelter. The underlying point here is an uncomfortable one: but for those who have the ability to reap economic rewards from the marketplace but choose to pursue their advocacy through grassroots channels, they are placing their own professional identity ahead of the interests of animals. I include myself in this category, by the way.

      • Mary Finelli says:

        Understood, James. I just question if they would have the skills and enthusiasm it would take to succeed if they don’t really have the interest in it. They might be much more successful, including financially, if they were instead to pursue whatever it is they are genuinely interested in. To be successful on Wall Street probably requires being genuinely interested in it.

      • Steven van Staden says:

        On this issue, I’ve often wondered whether generally the kind of mind capable of making these huge sums of money is really also capable of feeling compassion, because it seems to me that the one ability at least restricts the other. I hope I’m wrong.
        We help animal shelters with donations within our means and we help physically with training, finding homes, donating food and so on, but we also wish someone would inject a large sum, but it almost never happens, and as you say, there’s no shortage of people with that kind of money who wouldn’t even miss a few million.
        Good luck all,

  4. Mountain says:

    This is true, at least in theory. If you have valuable skills, it’s probably more useful to help animals indirectly, through wealth, rather than through direct involvement. Of course, most of us don’t have highly marketable skills, but for those who do, it’s probably best to use them.

    In practice, there are issues with this approach. The most lucrative jobs tend to be soul-killing (or tedious, to put it more gently). They are paying not just for skills, but for a willingness to tolerate unpleasant work conditions. I worked in law, which isn’t as lucrative as finance or technology, but is pretty high up there, but I couldn’t tolerate the lifestyle.

  5. Jacy Anthis says:

    This idea is what the Effective Altruism movement calls “earning to give” :) I’d encourage anyone interested to contact us for more information! You can also join our Facebook group:

    Or one specific to animal advocacy:

  6. Jamie B. says:

    As a young animal rights activist who went through the unpaid internship and now works full-time at one of those underfunded organizations, I give this question a lot of thought. I’m fairly certain that I don’t have what it takes to succeed on Wall Street–if I did I would certainly go that route. To be honest, I don’t know how many young compassionate people there are in this movement–at its current state–who could actually become multi-millionaires or billionaires. Then again, it’d really only take one to make a difference!

    But even if we choose a career path that would put our earnings in the realm of 6 figures (not 7) instead of (a low) 5, we could pay the salaries of at least a few direct activists, essentially replacing ourselves and multiplying our impact. Of course, that’s assuming we wouldn’t increase our standard of living by much. To be honest, I’m afraid that if I had the money I’d be tempted to spend it on things like travel. The few people I know who “earn to give” are truly exceptional human beings who have a rare ability to live far, far below their means and make sacrifices that only the most driven people could.

    And there’s always the question of whether the skills and dedication we have are unique and valuable enough within this (still relatively small) movement to warrant staying in direct activism. Someone has to do that work — and do it really well.

    Another thought is that those of us in direct activism should perhaps consider dedicating more effort to earning the attention of the existing super-rich.

  7. Irene Muschel says:

    Just like to point out that there is already huge wealth
    in the animal rights movement in the major organizations.

    In addition, many people do not give to smaller groups–such as dog, cat, horse rescue groups because–with a
    few exceptions here and there–these groups routinely
    support animal agriculture/exploitation in multiple ways, including serving dead animal parts at all their fund raisers. The fact
    that people who present themselves as animal lovers and
    exclude huge numbers of animals from their focus of compassion ultimately results in lost income for their organizations and, more importantly, raises the question
    that if “animal lovers” can’t be persuaded to give up consuming and wearing dead animal parts, how is the rest of the population going to change?

    The issue for me is not inadequate funding but a lack of
    unity in vision.

  8. Elaine Vigneault says:

    On paper is sounds like a fine idea to just make lots of money and donate it. But there’s a reason this advice always seems to come from people who don’t have wealth: there are innumerable various problems with that plan, the least of which is that the drive to amass wealth is often very literally corrupting.

    I happen to be married to someone who received multiple invitations to come work on Wall Street and earn millions fairly easily and quickly. Did he do it? No. Why not? Because he truly could not stand the work. He felt it, as Mountain above describes, “soul-crushing.”

    • James says:

      Hi, Elaine,
      Kudos to your husband for avoiding a soul crushing job–most people don’t have that option, so he’s fortunate and, I suppose, you are too. As I keep noting, I also have chosen an enriching rather than a soul crushing job. I’m a happier person for doing so. But I’m also aware that my choice, as well as your husband’s, placed my happiness ahead of the harm done to animals, whom I could be doing much more to help were I as rich as Croesus.

      • Mountain says:

        It isn’t too late, James. The royalties from one best-selling pop history book could help a lot of animals.

        • James says:

          Making big $$$ from royalties works for about 15 writers in the world. Even highly successful books come with an advance that allows the author to write for a year or two but, because the royalties pay back that advance, the author cannot expect to live off it, much less donate it to a good cause.

          • Mountain says:

            So… You’re saying there’s a chance?

          • Elaine Vigneault says:

            Interestingly, my husband is an author and earns enough to not only live well but also to donate to causes we believe in. Our son goes to private school and we enjoy an upper middle class lifestyle. ALL FROM ROYALTIES.

  9. Tom S says:

    I’d have to say that this strikes me as a rash and counterproductive post. Yes, the thought has often struck me that, rather than doing the philosophy/sociology postgrad that I did, I should’ve studied something highly ‘marketable’, worked for a few years earning obscene cash, and then dedicated myself to things I love after that.

    However, I would never actually go down this route, I think, for good reason. Do the ends justify the means? Not always, and working somewhere like Wall St, seriously screwing people over and perpetuating a system of horrific wealth inequality (a wealth inequality which in many ways exacerbates the very exploitation of animals you’d be trying to prevent) is simply not a trade-off I’d be willing to make.

    • James says:

      Dear Tom,
      It’s a blog so I prefer to use the term “experimental” rather than rash. That said, I don’t really disagree with you, in so far as I too have no inclination to get rich on Wall Street. And so I don’t go to Wall Street, even though I think I could figure out how to make a killing there if I wanted to (in the past PhDs in history have done very well on WS). I could go, could get rich (if I put my mind to it), but, alas, I don’t.

      This preference on my part—the choice to do what I want to do professionally–could be said to harm animals in that I’m allowing my selfish but relatively unremunerative preference to teach college and keep a blog to outweigh the help I could offer animals with millions made in the trenches of finance.

      So unless you believe that money per se–or capitalism per se– is inherently evil, I don’t see how both of us aren’t (understandably) placing an arbitrary lifestyle choice over a more genuine sacrifice we could but don’t make to improve animal welfare.

      But our choices have been made. I’m really aiming this post for people coming out of college who want to maximize their ability to help animals.

  10. Mountain says:

    What if it’s possible to help animals in a way that is profitable? If it is, a young person could skip the lucrative sacrifice, and jump straight into helping animals. The difficulty, the intellectual challenge, is how to achieve this, rather than the tried-and-true path of unpaid internships and low-paid nonprofit work.

  11. earntogive says:

    The short version:

    For those wondering whether what James and 80,000 hours are suggesting here is in fact possible and does in fact happen (in animal protection), the answer is *yes*. I highly encourage anyone who has the potential for high earning power (e.g., medicine, law, banking/high finance, consulting) to pursue the “earn to give” strategy.

    The longer version…

    I started pursuing the “earn to give” route after finishing school nearly a decade ago based on arguments of a fellow activist that I couldn’t logically rebut.

    At the time, many other activists I knew dismissed the idea, predicting I would either get corrupted / greedy and not donate the vast majority of money I earned, or get burnt out because the career I was pursuing wasn’t something I then had an inherent passion for.

    As I already knew before I started, the naysayers were wrong and I’m still at it today nearly $1M in donations later. I didn’t expect going this route to be fun, and for the most part it wasn’t. But fun wasn’t the point.

    There are other careers that I would have found more personally fulfilling (including working for an animal non-profit) but I couldn’t justify making a choice that would have yielded lower impact for animals. My only regret is not coming to the realization that this was the most effective (=obligatory) path sooner so that I could have engineered my education to pursue an even more lucrative career path.

    Thanks to James for bringing attention to this argument — provocative and perhaps counterintuitive — but more importantly: correct.

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