If you haven’t heard of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) yet, there’s a really neat summary of them here, but in short, they are doing research on the most effective ways to help animals and reduce their suffering. They perform foundational research on a range of things from the effectiveness of various interventions, such as leafleting to encourage people to go vegan or eat less meat, to the scale of wild animal suffering (it’s huge).
They also produce recommendations on which charities to donate to in order to reduce animal suffering. Perhaps counterintuitively, they don’t recommend animal shelters. This is because the impact of creating one extra vegan on animal wellbeing is so high that it makes the impact of sheltering one extra animal look tiny in comparison. ACE estimates that Vegan Outreach, one of their standout charities which does leafleting at universities, can spare 1.87 animals from a life on a factory farm per dollar donated. By reducing the demand for meat, the animals are, in theory1, never brought into existence in the first place. If you believe like I do that a life of immense suffering is worse than no life at all, this is surely a good thing.
Let’s suppose that rescuing and sheltering one animal costs $50. I have no idea what it costs but I think this is a safe underestimate. Therefore, for the same cost that it takes to shelter an animal, Vegan Outreach can spare 93.5 animals from a life of suffering. Unless you value shelter animals much more than you do food animals, you should donate to Vegan Outreach (or better yet, ACE, to multiply your impact). I don’t think you should value shelter animals more than food animals though. They can all suffer, and in fact pigs are more intelligent than dogs, so if capacity to suffer is what you care about, you should probably care about pigs a little more than dogs.
So this is why I would argue you should donate to an effective animal charity rather than a shelter, but what about the original question? There are many great reasons to go vegan, and it’s really easy, yet many have still decided to not go vegan because they enjoy the taste of animals too much. Even if this is you, I think you should still donate to ACE. Most people who eat animals still claim to care about animals, so if you want to be at least partially consistent with that belief, the very least you could do is donate to a charity which is reducing their suffering. Of course, I think being vegan is far easier than people think, and you should do this as well because it’s not one or the other (see this video for how to literally go vegan overnight). I’m also not saying that anything but a vegan lifestyle is ethically justified, and don’t want to make it sound like I’m supporting that. But if you can’t bring yourself to be completely vegan, at least donate a chunk of your money to ACE2. Last estimate I heard was that it costs $500 to create one vegan through Vegan Outreach, so you should donate at least that much3. But why stop there?
Let’s go one step further and say that you currently donate to charities that focus on humans. Arguably the most effective charity working on poverty and global health, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), saves a human life for around $3,300 USD. In effect, you would have to value human life something like 3,000+ times more than the life of an animal to donate to AMF instead of a top animal charity.
1 I say in theory because other factors such as market elasticity are at play which dilute your effect.
2 I’m wary that such a stance will make people less likely to go vegan and to just donate a bit of money to ACE and think they’re ok. I think, on balance, this article is more likely to have a net positive effect than a net negative effect (otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it), but I want to make it doubly clear that I think you should do both.
3 An interesting conclusion comes out of this which might be uncomfortable for those who aren’t consequentialist in their ethical beliefs. If donating $1 is expected to save 1.87 animals from a life of suffering, that means that by not donating, you have confined 1.87 animals to a life of suffering, because there is no morally relevant different between an action and an inaction (think walking past a drowning child in a shallow pond when you could easily save them). By extension, if you’re vegan (or even if you’re not) and you spend $20 on a nice restaurant meal when you could have eaten for $5, having spent $15 on yourself needlessly instead of donating it to a top animal charity, you have consigned 28 animals to a life of suffering. Consider that next time you dine out. This leads to questions like ‘well where does it end then?’ Maybe it doesn’t. Living on less is easy and arguably better for your wellbeing, and you get to save a ton of lives. Why wouldn’t you?
Disclosure: While Michael has worked with ACE in the past, he has never been an employee or an official volunteer.