Advice To Young Animal Advocates: Do Not Sell Your Soul And Get Rich To Help Animals (A Reader Responds)

» August 1st, 2014

What follows is a very thoughtful response from a reader who chose to remain anonymous. It’s a fine rebuttal to some of my recent posts suggesting that there’s merit in going to Wall Street, getting rich, and giving back. Enjoy. Also, please check out a piece I published in today’s The Paris Review. 

This comment is as much a response to this post as it is to the original one.

First I will say, however, that I was disappointed to read your original post. What I appreciate about you and your writing, James, is that (at least it appears to me) while you are an idealist, you’re also a realist and a pragmatist. However, I feel that your post about young advocates focusing on wealth creation and donating their money might be simplistic and misguided.

As someone who works in investment banking (close enough to Wall St.), and has spent time working to earn money and not directly advocate for animals (or to work on other social causes), I can relate to this issue and have struggled in determining the importance of money. I especially appreciate your point about young advocates possibly (but not always) in effect placing their own identity over what’s best for the animals.

You’re correct in emphasizing the importance money can have. After all, what cash-strapped non-profit organization wouldn’t benefit from additional funds to continue undercover investigations, conduct grass-roots outreach (whatever form that may take), print educational materials, etc. At the very least, an influx of cash can relieve the constant financial stress I’m sure many organizations face. Yet, telling young advocates to focus on accumulating wealth is at least somewhat misguided for several reasons.

1. While I don’t have access to the finances of any nonprofits, I wonder how much money do they really need? You could argue that with more money they could hire more people to work undercover, conduct outreach, etc., but if more young advocates are willing to live (comparatively) selflessly, and to live simply, rather then go to work on Wall St., then organizations won’t need all of those millions of dollars. I don’t believe organizations need all that much money. What they really need are intelligent, dedicated, selfless people who are willing to work hard advocating for animals (or any other cause) – as hard as titans of Wall St. work to make money.

2. It takes time to make the big bucks. At least in high finance, when someone is starting out, while she does make an impressive sum of money relative to the majority of Americans (or humans in general), that still amounts to just ~$100,000 starting out and several hundred thousands of dollars of few years in. You start making millions of dollars per year perhaps only a decade in. While someone could certainly live simply during all that time, even if they donated a couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars (which would be a SIGNIFICANT proportion of their gross income) every year, that would have nowhere as near an effect as the millions of dollars you speak of (even if dozens and dozens of activists took this path, it would take many animal advocates working on Wall St. to reach millions of dollars in donations, at least initially). Just think how much could possibly be done if these dozens and dozens of activists dedicated their energies and focus instead on directly advocating for animals smartly.

3. Charity and donations are given too much importance in U.S. society (and maybe in all modern society), perhaps because they allow people to enjoy the benefits of capitalism and wealth without having to the do the heavy lifting of advocating for change, all while getting to be affiliated with causes. It’s almost as if charity and donations allow people to buy their contribution to causes and social progress/improvement. I don’t mean to suggest that participants in the Giving Pledge, for instance, or celebrities who raise millions of dollars for various causes, don’t care about the causes they get involved in, but just that the importance given to donations and charity might more reflect capitalist society’s naive, misguided preferences and focus on money, rather than the actual value of donations and charity. Indeed, in a world where cash is king, wouldn’t it better if MORE young advocates decide to use their intelligence and abilities and time to advocate for the powerless rather than just write a check for them? John Robbins of Baskin-Robbins and Diet for a New America fame, is a great example. He gave up buckets of wealth and made a tangible impact.

In sum, I agree that organizations could probably use more money, but they probably don’t need as much money as you think. Money has a way of finding its way to the causes that need it. In my limited experience, I think making money a goal, even if it is to be used to good, is a futile exercise. Don’t go chasing money – money will find you. Even if it’s not millions, it will be enough to continue your advocacy (see: Gary Yourofsky).

If you want to urge advocates not only to think about working for nonprofits, I think instead of telling them to focus on pursuing careers that make the most money, you should urge them to find other ways to help animals. Perhaps they should pursue a career in biomedical or toxicology research, working furiously to find alternatives to animal testing. Or they should pursue a career in law and explore creative ways to advocate for animals through the courts. If they do want to go into business or finance, they should consider taking their talents to meat alternative companies, or to creating and managing endowments or investments for nonprofits (similar to how college endowments are managed).

Lastly, you make a point about advocates in effect choosing their own professional (and personal) identity over what’s best for the animals by choosing not to make as much money as possible and donate it. I take a couple of issues with this. First, it presupposes that advocacy needs a lot of money and that money is the most important thing, things I’ve explained my disagreement with above. Moreover, this point also is not fair, and it works the other way. Don’t hedge fund managers, musicians, actors, CEOs etc. also choose their own professional (and personal) identity – as well as their natural, understandable preference for money and power and fame and personal happiness – over what’s best for animals, or even humans? Let’s not even look at animals for moment. If you’re going to say animal advocates are choosing their identity over what’s best for animals, shouldn’t pretty much everyone else who has the means and capability also be called out for choosing their own identity over helping imprisoned North Koreans, displaced tribes people, and exploited sex workers? I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone choosing their own success over helping others, but I don’t think animal advocates should necessarily be said to be pursing their own identity over truly helping animals. And if they decide they want their identity to be associated with advocating for animals, that’s not necessarily bad. Most other people choose that their identity be associated with other, lucrative, self-focused, self-fulfilling (not selfish or self-centered) professions that don’t directly focus on helping others. Wouldn’t the world be better with more of the former (mind you, I’m not necessarily condemning anyone for choosing the latter)?

Let me wrap up by addressing the issue of money. Maybe I’m just the naive and too idealistic, but money shouldn’t be the focus. Creative methods of selfless advocacy coupled with tenacious, disciplined dedication should be.

9 Responses to Advice To Young Animal Advocates: Do Not Sell Your Soul And Get Rich To Help Animals (A Reader Responds)

  1. Heidi says:

    I loved the arguments made for and against this concept of focusing on money and its potential in helping to advance the animal rights movement. Very thoughtful with lots of great points made. I definitely think a balance should be struck here. I see a lot of activists (from all different sorts of movements) who are incredibly poor or in poverty and while they are very passionate, I think there is this false idea that “real” activists don’t care about material concerns. But I feel like this undermines a lot of potential for true self-actualization. I’m thinking specifically of Maslow’s Hierarcy of needs. One must fulfill one’s basic needs (and I think that’s different for everyone) before one can be in a position to really effectively advocate for others. I’ve been skimming Hillary Rettig’s book on this and have found what seems to be a lot of good practical advice in this regard:

    • Elaine Brown says:

      I do agree with you and with the advice given by anonymous. Only, may I add, that each of us marches to our own drummer. Personally, I donate money to save horses from the Kill Pen. Horses owned by Kill Buyers who will allow you to purchase a horse that they are intending to transport to slaughter after buying it at auction. The Kill Buyer’s sale of the horse to you is at an increased price. Many wonderful animals are saved in this manner, but the twist is that if I had enough money, I could travel with a large trailer to auctions and buy the horses at a lower price, haul them to safety and TLC and have the resources to put them into loving hands.

      And there are so many other causes for example in which dogs and cats are being boiled alive or donkeys are being slaughtered for snack food that to spend a decade earning your way up the money ladder while so many, many die horrifically is to turn your back on immediate need.

      Different drummers and terribly difficult decisions as to directions versus need.

      And lastly how many people start out with altruism to make money who lose sight of their original intent and get lost in the glitz?

  2. Mary Finelli says:

    Additionally, it’s hard to gauge the impact that advocates have through their different fields. A teacher, for example, might influence many students, some of whom may become wealthy and donate large sums. Or they may influence students who become powerful politicians. They may be able to do much more good through their political clout than someone with a sizable amount of money.

    Money isn’t everything. Animal protection organizations have a substantial amount of money. A significant portion of it is spent in counteractive ways. Power and/or fame can be more effective than wealth, depending on how it is used.

    I used to ask how best I could help animals. Later I realized that the only person who could answer it was me. Each individual needs to try to realize what he or she is interested in and has an aptitude for. It’s the only way one is likely to excel at something and not be miserable. There’s enough to be miserable about in dealing with animal oppression let alone to be in a career that also makes one miserable. Miserable people don’t tend to be very persuasive or effective.

  3. Dave Rolsky says:

    I think this person seriously underestimates the utility of money for activism. Here’s some things that take money to do, and can’t simply be done through activist willpower alone:

    * Print leaflets by the millions
    * Advertising campaigns to counteract animal abuse industry advertising and spread our own message
    * Holding large events like conferences and veg fests
    * Pay someone a modest salary to work on these issues full time. Note that even if someone becomes a lawyer to work on animal issues, someone still needs to pay them. Same goes with those who might work on alternatives to animal testing.
    * [Insert more here]

  4. One useful way to look at this issue is to ask yourself the following question: If you went to Wall Street, would you earn enough to pay someone to do the kind of work that you would otherwise have done yourself? This is an open empirical question, but I get the impression that many people, including the author of this post, don’t take it seriously enough, and either underestimate the good money can buy or overestimate the good they themselves can do directly.

    See Patrick Brinich-Langlois’s essay, Choosing a Conventional Career to Help Animals, for a more in-depth examination of the relevant considerations.

  5. David Moss says:

    This reply simply *assumes* that non-profits don’t really need much more money and need cheap activist labour more. This assumption could simply be false and if it is then we should conclude the opposite.

    The argument is made that:
    “if more young advocates are willing to live (comparatively) selflessly, and to live simply, rather then go to work on Wall St., then organizations won’t need all of those millions of dollars.”

    It’s an empirical question whether non-profits would benefit more from having more people willing to work cheaply as activists, than it would from additional funds (to fund activists). But it seems implausible that what most orgs lack is potential activists rather than funding. Even an activist living as “simply” and “selflessly” as possible needs some (a considerable amount of) resources simply to live simply, unless we assume that all activists are independently wealthy or part time and those resources have to come from somewhere (and it can’t be from other full time activists…). Likewise activism necessarily requires resources in itself (e.g. for leaflets etc.). It’s theoretically possible that we could have a situation where we have loads of excess funding and yet cannot pay anyone to take up activist jobs with it- but this seems vastly distant from the world as it is, where I know hundreds/thousands of passionate actual or would-be activists who aren’t interested in money.

  6. Elaine Vigneault says:

    As someone who manages a small nonprofit I’d love more money. However, I agree with the article above 100%. Why? Because I know how much we’ve achieved with a shoe-string budget and a handful of volunteers. Dedicated people who work creatively and are willing to collaborate with others CAN achieve a LOT.

    I think we ought to be urging everyone to GIVE – give money or time or both. But we shouldn’t be telling them exactly one thing they ought to do with their lives, especially if we don’t have personal experience in that which we’re advocating!

    Like I said elsewhere, it’s one thing to ask people to consider earning lots of money in order to donate it (which is questionable) but it’s another thing entirely to suggest THE single best course of action is to work on Wall Street. For starters, this advice comes from an assumption about the world that the paths to wealth that have worked in the past will not only continue to work in the future but are also the best paths to wealth. There are many wealthy people who’ve broken the mold and found their own fulfilling path to wealth far far away from Wall Street.

    Also, I particularly like the suggestion:
    “Perhaps they should pursue a career in biomedical or toxicology research, working furiously to find alternatives to animal testing. Or they should pursue a career in law and explore creative ways to advocate for animals through the courts. If they do want to go into business or finance, they should consider taking their talents to meat alternative companies, or to creating and managing endowments or investments for nonprofits”

  7. Shane says:

    I think it’s important to consider “the replaceability effect”, which is what convinced me to study finance.

  8. As a former Goldman Sachs & Co secretary working for 8 years in the Controllers Dept. in NYC ending in 2008, I totally agree with the concept of following your heart in your work. I did not follow it then. I do now. I always wondered about measuring the net effect of a human life in creating abundance or lack. As an alumni, I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast last year and ask Goldman’s guest speaker (a former partner, currently heading a hedge fund with another company) the following: ‘What is the net effect of the existence of Goldman Sachs upon life on the planet?’ The moderator asked me if I was with the press and told the guest he did not have to answer my question. After several minutes, the answer I received (paraphrased) was ‘Goldman Sachs gives back more money than any other financial institution’. My question went unanswered. My purpose was to compel us all to think about how we ‘amass’ wealth, the causes we set into place and the resulting effects. Vast sums of money are being manipulated with no regard to what is being created. Sobering.

    Thank you for a great topic!
    Patricia E. Knudsen
    Keyport, New Jersey

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