The Importance of Veg Support Systems

Preamble

This page contains some basic thoughts around why and how to support prospective and existing vegetarians and vegans. While it is easy to understand why supports have value, the incredible potential of providing them effectively on a mass scale can not be overstated. If the process of becoming vegan, staying vegan, and inspiring others to go vegan were made easier, we would see accelerated exponential growth as a movement.

My main focus since the end of 2015 has been addressing the rate of recidivism among vegetarians and vegans, with a particular interest in building supports for new vegetarians and struggling activists. I have been working closely with Ellie Donohue-Miller on this and we launched The Animal Activist Support Line in the summer of 2016. If you'd like to know more about my background, check out my personal website at EmHeppler.com. My most relevant experience to these efforts is my expertise as a social worker and designer, and my years doing vegan outreach.

These notes are quite broad and are intended to start a conversation. I think of these notes as an introduction to the pieces of a chess board; a helpful start, but the development of effective strategies requires a much deeper look. This page is still a draft and more of an outline than final product.

A note on language: Wording matters when providing support and doing outreach (i.e. vegetarian vs vegan, animal rights vs animal welfare vs animal protection vs animal liberation, decreased meat consumption vs increased consumption of plant-foods, etc). The best wording to use is the one that produces the best results in a given scenario. For the purpose of these notes, the language doesn't really matter; the principles are applicable and are likely only to be read by people whose ultimate goal is the complete end to all animal suffering.

Why support prospective and existing vegetarians?

Broadly, the easier it is to become/stay vegan, the more people will choose to be veg*n and the less animals will be harmed. There will be more activists contributing to the movement to help animals and animal agriculture will become less profitable. More investment will be placed in plant-based foods, making vegetarianism even easier.

The rate of attrition of vegetarians and animal activists undercuts the gains made through vegan outreach. To put this problem into perspective, consider what would happen if the rate of recidivism were zero and each vegan inspired only one person each year to become vegan (a modest goal). The vegan population would grow by a power of two each year (starting with just two vegans, there would be approximately four billion after 32 years). It might seem like fantastical thinking, but this type of growth is very possible; there are many analogs among other social phenomena.

These are the benefits to the animal protection movement as a whole. For thoughts on the potential benefits to an organization providing supports, see Organizational Considerations.

What could be accomplished by effectively supporting prospective and existing vegetarians?

There are many measurable outcomes that could be tracked, such as:

  • an increased rate of commitments to adopt vegetarian diets in audiences that have received vegan outreach materials (very easy to track);
  • a decreased rate of recidivism among people who've reached out for support (a bit harder but still possible to measure);
  • an increased resiliency of vegetarians and activists (possible to analyze, but relies on more qualitative methods); and
  • more effective/active vegans among other positive outcomes.

Many of the positive outcomes are harder to measure. Widespread support systems would inevitably lead to a more robust animal protection movement and a vegan population that is better able to inspire and support others to go vegan. The difference these supports could make on the individual level are treamendous and cannot be easily quantified. Consider if the founding members of every large animal protection organization had not made it through the difficult transitionary phase many new vegans struggle with or if they left the movement due to burnout. Supporting new vegetarians and vegans won't just increase the rate of vegetarianism in society, it will also mean that there are that many more activists fighting to help animals.

Understanding the Needs of Vegetarians

We need to understand the unique and diverse stresses/experiences of prospective/existing vegetarianss to better support them.

What stresses do new and existing vegetarians deal with?

Many vegans will tell you veganism is easy, but in so many ways, it is not as easy as eating animals and that is the important comparison to consider. Passion may be enough for some to push through difficulties, but the everyday choices of the masses tend to follow the path of least resistance. Eating animals is a social norm. Divergence from social norms is met with implicit and explicit pressures to conform, both from external forces and interalized thought patterns. There is a tendency for individuals and bystanders to blame problems on any divergence from social norms. For example, it's quite common for vegetarians to be told (or simply believe) that they came down with a cold or other illness as a result of vegetarianism.

Rebuilding one's identity, learning how to eat; accessing plant-based foods; staying healthy; dealing with critics; navigating awkwared social situations; and dealing with anger, sadness, and anxiety are just few of the stresses facing vegetarians.

Where do many vegetarians currently look for support?

As individuals go through the process of becoming vegetarian, they invariably seek out support. Where and how they look for help changes from person to person. Understanding what support they are looking for and where they'd like to find it is important. Some look to their parents, friends, partner, and/or health professionals. Many seek out advice online and even the vegetarian section at a local grocery store could be considered a support.

Where people naturally look for support are important areas to consider addressing (i.e. if prospective vegetarians tend to ask their doctors about vegetarianism, and the average doctor tends to be unsupportive of compassionate veg diets, then working to make doctors more supportive might be something to consider).

Unfortunately seeking support can cut both ways. While some are lucky to find support, most prospective vegetarians are not. Friends, parents, health professionals, and the internet can just as easily make it harder to be vegetarian and less likely that new vegetarians will stay vegan. Much of the help that vegetarians need is in coping with the pressures of non-vegetarians.

What are our limitations in understanding the state of vegetarian recidivism?

There has been very little scientifically rigorous research into the topic of vegetarian recidivism. The spreading of social phenomena is always quite complex and nuanced; veganism is no exception and the research that is required to produce an adequate model to understand it just hasn't happened. This isn't to say there isn't research we can learn from, just that it is incredibly limited.

The animal protection movement has made little effort to engage with ex-vegetarians. Focus tends to be placed on recruitment of new vegetarians, rather than on retention. Even less time is spent supporting ex-vegetarians; and by not engaging with this demographic, we are unable to gather important data on how to effectively reduce recidivism.

Inspiration

What current/past deliberately built support systems exist for vegetarians?

Most vegetarian support systems that have existed weren't built with the explicit goal of helping animals. This does not mean they don't have value, but often their organizational origins and focus come less from deliberately pursuing helping animals and more from developing a particular social network for vegetarian. Vegetarian associations or vegan meetups would be examples of this.

Consider the difference between a prayer group and an evangelical group. A prayer group is content to stay generally the same size, while an evangelical group wants to grow as much as possible. There is a short non-exhaustive list below of larger noteable support systems that were built in order to grow impact.

  • Mercy for Animals' ChooseVeg.com
  • The Animal Activist Support Line
  • PETA2's Youth Forums(service retired)
  • Vegan Outreach Mentorship Program
  • FARM's National Animal Rights Conference
  • Note there are many others, but most are more niche efforts

Where can we look to learn how to improve supports?

  • Other support lines (LGBTQ, kids helpphone, mental health crisis lines, etc),
  • Onboarding processes of efficient businesses
  • Social engineering projects throughout history

What fields of study may have lessons for us?

  • Psychology
  • Social work
  • Economics
  • Design

  • Captology
  • User Experience
  • Systems Design
  • Strategy

Maximzing Impact

How can supports be built to organically grow in effectiveness?

Every support question that is asked is an opportunity to grow your reach. Consider the long tail of searches that people must make when relating to veganism. Most one-on-one supports don't automatically help future people dealing with the same problem, but there are ways to incorporate this.

What are the types of clients you want?

This question is an important one to consider; as I develop this draft, I will add more notes here. By knowing who your ideal client is, you can provide more effective service promotion and tailor your support services to best meet their needs. An ideal client group:

  • Is already being targeted for outreach efforts (e.g. young women)
  • Requires little organizational resource input
  • Fits within the organization's existing approach to animal advocacy
  • Will yield a high return on resource investment
  • Is likely to help grow the organization's efforts

Are there types of clients you do not want?

We also need to consider client groups that are unideal. No organization can be set up to provide highly effective support to every demographic and there will be clients who are unlikely to yield any positive return on investment. While there will likely always be a certain degree of service misuse, this can be minimized by designing marketing/promotion in a way that appeals to your ideal clients and does not appeal to unideal client groups. It can also be minimized by developing protocols to triage these clients. 

Organizational Considerations

How can successfully supporting vegetarians be leveraged to accomplish more?

This is probably the most important question for an organization to consider. The support services themselves are unlikely to bring in donations the way that other programs do. Beyond improving uptake rates and reducing recidivism, support services provide a platform for organizations to use in several important ways.

Is supporting vegetarians something your organization should do?

If outreach plays a big part of what your organization does, then providing support is incredibly important.

Would it be better for certain organizations to partner w/ The Animal Activist Support Line to provide certain supports?

Yes. Any organization that cannot committ to providing the resources necessary to maintain their own support systems for at least a couple years is likely better off outsourcing the work to us or directing their audience to another service (such as ChooseVeg.com or HelpActivists.org). We can work with organizaitons to provide custom support services that are branded as their organization so that they don't need to deal with the associated hassles of building, maintaining, and staffing said services.

This would include most organizations with budgets under $500,000. It is not easy to provide consistent and professional support services and it is better for organizations to focus on doing what ever it is they do best.

What would supporting vegetarians likely lead to naturally for the organization?

  • New and/or more sustainable donors
  • New contributors to calls to action
  • Improved recruitment
  • More resilient staff/volunteers
  • Access to metrics
  • More traffic
  • A new platform to utilize
  • Expanded reach to new demographics
  • Access to understanding their potential member base

How could the support system for vegetarians be utilized for other purposes?

  • Donor questions
  • Research
  • Whistle blowers
  • Animal cruelty reporting
  • Event support
  • Volunteer relationship management

Our Current Plans

When first starting on this work in late 2015, it was obvious that the scale of supports needed by prospective and existing vegetarians would require a large commitment of resources. It necessitates that at least one large animal protection organization take on these intiatives to truly tap into the enormous potential. Our main goals were to produce and test minimum viable supports, experiment and learn best practices, start a conversation in the movement about the importance of support systems, and inspire and empower organizations to implement their own systems.

We currently support around 15 unique clients one-on-one each day (without any large-scale promotion). We have put all marketing efforts on hiatus. The potential client base of vegans looking for one-on-one support is easily in the millions. About 1/50 to 1/100 people who visit www.HelpActivists.org reach out for direct support. While we could scale the system to help thousands a day, we are not positioned in the way that leading animal protection organizations are and we cannot leverage the supports we provide to increase our impact the way large organizations could. In other words, as we scale client usage, we don't benefit as an organization (i.e. we have less time to learn and encourage other organizations), but an animal protection organization such as Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, or Vegan Outreach could benefit in many ways and the benefits would scale (see a discussion of potential benefits here).

With my current set of resources, the most effective thing I can hope to accomplish is to help an organization take on and scale support initiatives.

Moving forward from here

  • Scaling existing services (until we can start supporting an organization that is better suited to provide them)
  • Launching NewVeg.org and ExVegetarian.com
  • Creating supports that scale with low marginal costs
  • Finish pilot program and publish results of vegan outreach leaflets distributed with a 24/7 text support number included on them
  • Leveraging the project to build what we are currently calling The Long Tail Vegan Search Project
  • Networking to inspire other organizations to take up similar initiatives
  • Reviewing and highlighting the efforts of other organizations that provide support to vegetarians
  • Experimentation with automation
  • Experimentation with outsourcing
  • Developing supports specifically to address burnout and turnover within animal protection organizations

Postscript

There are many topics on this page that could have entire books written on them. These notes are just are a modest effort to highlight important points to consider when developing support systems for vegetarians and vegans. Most of my work in this area has been in building, delivering, and testing support services; I haven't really begun the process of creating documentation that might be helpful to organizations looking to develop their own support systems. They say the proof is in the pudding and up until now, my efforts have been more focused on making pudding. I'll continue working on improving documentation and in the meantime, if I can be of any help to your organization's efforts to 'make the pudding', please let me know.

How I can help

I have an eclectic background and diverse set of skills. How I can help largely depends on what you need help with. If you think I might be able to help but aren't sure how, the first step is to meet and talk through what you are hoping to accomplish.