Looking Inward: Activism and Self-Identity

Looking Inward: Activism and Self-Identity

By Nick Cooney

If we want to influence other people, we need to know how they operate. We wouldn’t get in a car and drive to an unfamiliar town without first getting directions, and likewise we can’t expect to switch people from one behavior to another without understanding how the human mind works. But even before discussing that, there’s a first and perhaps more important step: understanding ourselves. Why are we activists in the first place? What motivates us to pick the particular cause we focus on? And how do we judge whether we’ve succeeded in our work? The answers are not nearly as simple—or logical—as we’d like to believe.

Self–Identity and Activism

In 2008 the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team won the World Series, becoming the first Philadelphia sports team to win a national championship in twenty-five years. Fans filled the streets, shouting, cheering, setting off fireworks and giving high fives to total strangers into the early morning hours. In a few spots around the city cars were overturned and light posts came crashing down after revelers climbed up them to wave Phillies flags and chant “Phillies, Phillies!” (As a matter of fact this happened so much that when the Phillies went back to the World Series in 2009, the Philadelphia police department greased all the polls on one major street to prevent fans from climbing up them).

A few days later a victory parade made its way through Philadelphia, with onlookers shouting to one another and to TV cameras that it was the greatest day of their lives. That the fans themselves had accomplished nothing and that their personal lives had not changed one bit didn’t reduce the euphoria they felt. For many fans, the Phillies were such an important part of their self–identity that the team’s victory felt like their own victory.

Self–identity plays a crucial role in the actions of all people, including those of us who consider ourselves activists. As advocates for a particular cause, the work we do often makes up a significant part of our self–identity. If asked to describe ourselves, we would say we are anti–war or animal rights activists, environmentalists, anarchists, pacifists or labor organizers. This intertwining of activism and our self–identity can have beneficial effects. For example, it provides a strong internal motivation for us to keep going even in the face of disillusionment, just as die–hard Phillies fans remained true to the team despite years of failure (Pilliavin, Grube and Callero 2002). Unfortunately, it can also have a negative impact on the effectiveness of our activism.

Eight years ago, as a college senior at Hofstra University, I had a little game I used to play with an unfortunate sales rep from CitiBank who would set up a table in the school’s student center each week to promote student bank accounts. At the time the environmental organization Rainforest Action Network had a campaign in full swing to get CitiGroup (the parent company of CitiBank) to commit to no longer investing in environmentally disastrous development projects around the world. Our campus social justice group was involved with the campaign, in part because CitiBank had a contract with Hofstra wherein they were the only bank whose representatives, ATMs or services were allowed on campus. Our hope was to kick CitiBank off campus, or at least shame them for their involvement in environmental destruction and make enough of a ruckus that word traveled up the corporate ladder.

Whenever the sales rep would come to campus and set up a table I would don a ratty old shirt on which I’d scrawled, in permanent marker, the words “Fuck CitiBank.” I would then grab a stack of photocopied flyers and stand directly in front of the woman’s table, passing out flyers and telling other students to not open CitiBank accounts. While I certainly had an effect on this woman (she eventually stopped coming back to campus) and perhaps by extension a small, small impact on CitiBank, I doubt I provided much more than comic relief to most of the students who saw me standing in front of the table.

Why? Because I looked like the stereotypical hippie college activist (not to mention I looked like a jerk for standing right in front of the woman’s table.) If the ratty shirt with permanent marker scrawled across it wasn’t enough, the equally tattered pants, beard and unwashed shoulder–length hair certainly completed the package. At the time I didn’t think about how my appearance might impact the persuasiveness of my message. But that year Dan Firger, a campaigner from the Rainforest Action Network who’d come to campus to speak about the CitiGroup campaign, shared a story that’s stuck with me ever since.

A long–time environmental activist was speaking to an enthusiastic group of young environmentalists at a rally. He warned of the precarious situation the environment was in, the toll that corporate greed had taken on forests and the dire consequences that lay ahead if serious changes were not made. He then shouted out to the crowd,

“Are you ready to get out there and fight for the environment?” To which they answered an enthusiastic,


“Are you ready to get arrested and go to jail for the environment?”


“Are you ready to give your life for the environment?”


“Are you willing to cut your hair and put on a suit for the environment?”

The crowd fell silent…

Whether this is a true story or just a colorful fable, the lesson is one that we should all take to heart. How we look and dress is intimately tied up with our self–identity. How we look and dress also has a significant impact on how persuasive we will be and therefore how effective we will be at creating change. Abandoning an aspect of self–identity in order to be more effective at protecting the environment (or animals or people) can be a lot harder than it seems for those who have never had to make such a decision.

Doing so can be particularly hard when you’re a member of a subculture that has its own style of dress and appearance. Here, making a change in appearance doesn’t just mean abandoning part of your self–identity; it also means abandoning the social signifiers of a group identity. An anarchist who cuts off their dreadlocks and discards their patched black clothing in favor of khaki pants and a sweater vest is going to be more effective at persuading the public and winning campaigns, but they’re also going to feel a bit disconnected from their fellow anarchists. They may no longer “feel” like an anarchist—and may feel that a part of who they are has been lost. It took me a year and a half to shave off my beard and wear more conventional clothes, and a few more years to finally cut my hair short.

It seems unfair that we should have to alter our tastes in fashion, hairstyle and the like just because people have biases against others who look different from them. After all, isn’t judging people based on their appearance (some call it “lookism”) a social problem in and of itself? Whether or not the situation is fair, the reality is that those biases exist and will continue to exist for many years to come. If we don’t alter our appearance to be as persuasive as possible with those we’re seeking to influence on our main issue, we won’t be fighting one battle we’ll be fighting two at the same time—and chances are we’ll lose both. The psychologically difficult but practically simple action of altering our appearance won’t lessen our quality of life by any significant measure, but it really can (and if we’re doing thoughtful outreach and campaigning it really will) mean a life or death difference for other people, for animals and for portions of the ecosystem.

In addition to considering the consequences our appearance has on our advocacy, we also need to consider the consequences our emotions have.

Just as wearing whatever we like may seem justifiable but will not lead to the best results for our cause, saying whatever we feel and acting out our emotions may seem justifiable but will usually not lead to the best results. Being competent at something makes us feel good, and can be a powerful motivation for us to continue moving forward with our work. But the more negative aspects of self–identity—egos, jealousies and other insecurities—need to be checked at the door when making decisions and when interacting with others. Letting ourselves be steered by old emotional scars, by insecurities we have about our self–worth or by egoistic desires to be praised for our work will have very negative consequences for our effectiveness.

You may have already encountered activists living out these negative aspects of self–identity: the activist who constantly criticizes other organizations in order to feel better about their own efforts; the activist intent on appearing more in–the–know than those around them; the activist whose hatred of something (capitalism, animal abusers, logging companies, etc.) is fueled by childhood abuse that makes them lash out at whoever they perceive to be the bad guy; the person who joins an activist group or subculture in order to find social acceptance; the person whose activism is driven more by personal problems like depression or alienation than by compassion.

Playing close attention to our motivations can be upsetting because we’re steered by these insecurities more often than we’d like to admit. Remembering that lives really are on the line should give us the push we need to work towards the self–understanding and self–control needed to be effective advocates.

Emotional self–control is particularly important when deciding how to go about our activism. For example, it’s tempting to choose tactics that are the most personally satisfying for us: holding a noisy protest so we can vent our anger and frustration on an issue, or writing letters to congresspersons because it’s an easy way to announce our opinions. We also have an instinctual response to snap back at those who argue with our viewpoint. Doing so feels good because we get to express ourselves and feel a sense of power; absorbing the insult without lashing back doesn’t feel good at all.

In these types of situations, the question we need to ask ourselves is not “what do I want to do” or “what does this person deserve,” but “what will be most effective for helping those whom I’m trying to help?” Are we as activists willing to keep our anger and passion in check so that we are directing it rather that it directing us? Are we willing to put those we hope to help ahead of our own desires for self–expression, for standing up for ourselves and for loudly proclaiming what we believe regardless of how others will respond? Are we willing to go beyond the comfortable boundaries of our current self–identity in order to be as effective as possible?

A substantial amount of activism is reactionary in nature: an event occurs that upsets us and makes us want to protest, write angry letters to the editor and otherwise voice our disapproval. Once our cause has become a part of our self–identity, our instincts tell us to lash out when that which we oppose pops up in the headlines or in our neighborhood.

In August of 2009 the Philadelphia Eagles football team hired Michael Vick to fill the slot of backup quarterback. Vick was a standout player with his former team the Atlanta Falcons, so his acquisition would normally have been seen as a great move by Eagles fans. Yet there was one notable difference between Vick and the other new players hired that year: Vick had just been released from federal prison after spending nearly two years behind bars for running an interstate dog–fighting ring called the Bad Newz Kennels. He had financed the operations himself, and had directly participated in the fighting and execution of dogs.

While some in Philadelphia supported the hiring of Michael Vick, the majority lashed out in angry protest at the Eagles management. Protests were held outside the Eagles stadium during pre–season games. Pet supply stores began carrying shirts that said “Lock up your hounds, Vick’s in town” and selling chew toys shaped like a Michael Vick jersey. Letters criticizing the team filled local newspapers and calls poured in to radio talk shows. In a bid to stave off some of the bad publicity, the Eagles launched a new program offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to area animal protection agencies.

Public outcry against the arrival of a loathed person or group is nothing new. When KKK or neo–Nazi groups visit a city to hold a rally they’re often met with angry counter-protests. Unpopular politicians, religious leaders and executives are sometimes given the same treatment. Reactionary activism such as this has some benefit in that it displays social disapproval for a policy, and it may keep an issue in the public’s mind. But it typically fails in regards to the issue it is directly addressing (for example getting the Eagles to fire Vick, or getting the KKK to stay out of one’s town), because the undesirable event has already occurred and because little has been done to prevent it from happening again.

In the case of Michael Vick, the outcry didn’t change the Eagles’ decision (in 2010 they renewed his contract) nor did it bring back the dogs who had suffered and died at Vick’s hands. Vick’s prison term and post–conviction financial collapse had already sent a clear message to other professional athletes that it was in their own best interest to have no part in dog fighting; the threat of public scorn was not likely to provide much additional incentive. In fact Vick’s teammates unanimously selected him for the 2009 Ed Block Courage Award, an honor given to players who show a commitment to sportsmanship and courage.

Reactionary campaigning, such as what happened when Michael Vick was hired by the Eagles, is motivated largely by our own instinctual emotional reactions to situations and often fails to produce change. The better alternative for achieving specific changes is proactive campaigning, where we calmly examine the lay of the land in regards to a particular issue, figure out where and when we will be able to have the greatest impact, and then move forward accordingly.

Philadelphians who are really opposed to dog–fighting could take some time to learn how, where and why dog–fighting occurs, and then figure out how they can best intervene. They might work with the SPCA to help more quickly identify dog–fighting rings, provide a tip line offering financial incentives for people who report such rings or work to develop a foster network so rescued pit bulls can be saved instead of euthanized. Any of these actions would have done more good for dogs that simply venting anger at Vick and the Eagles. Similarly, those protesting a Klan rally could do much more to advance racial equality by focusing on issues where racial disparity still exists, such as differing pay scales for equal work, or by laying the educational groundwork to prevent children from developing the same racist views as Klan members.

Proactive campaigning takes a lot more thought and effort than reactionary campaigning. It also takes emotional self–control. Instead of instinctively lashing out to condemn the most visible symbols of that which we oppose, we need to restrain ourselves and focus on how we can best address the root causes of the problem.

Thinking critically about how effective we are being and whether there are ways we can be more effective also requires us to face another challenge. Once our activist work has become tied in to our self identity, how are we going to respond if faced with evidence that our work is not achieving very much?

The more we’ve emotionally invested in something the more highly we value it and believe it to be right. This makes it very difficult to abandon campaigns and strategies even when (as would be obvious to an impartial outsider) they are deeply flawed. If we are strongly invested in a cause, as many activists are, it becomes tied up with our identity to such an extent that any criticism of our advocacy methods feels like a criticism of us; any thought that the campaign we’re working on is flawed carries the implication that we ourselves are flawed.

Researcher Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas wanted to test how people would respond when confronted with evidence that an important element of their self–identity was flawed. To do this, he approached a Presbyterian church in New Jersey with an interesting request: allow him and his research team to visit the church to test how religious beliefs might withstand evidence that contradicted those beliefs. In order to stimulate discussion on the issue of faith and doubt, the church agreed and fifty teenagers in the church’s youth group volunteered to take part in Batson’s study.

Participants were brought into the research room and asked to sit down in one of two distinctly–marked areas: one area for those who believed that Jesus was God, and one area for those who didn’t. After the participants were seated, they were given questionnaires to determine how strongly they believed that Jesus was God (I’m using the capital G here because it’s the common spelling, not because I hold a religious belief). After the questionnaires were collected, Batson dropped a bombshell on the church group members: the New York Times was sitting on a story that threatened the very foundations of Christianity. Scrolls had been discovered in the Jordanian dessert that turned out to be letters from Jesus’ disciples to one another discussing how Jesus did not rise from the dead. The letters read in part,

“Since our great teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was killed by the Romans, I am sure we were justified in stealing away his body and claiming that he rose from the dead. For, although his death clearly proves he was not the Son of God as we had hoped, if we did not claim that he was, both his great teaching and our lives as his disciples would be wasted!”

Radiocarbon dating and close examination of the dialect used revealed the letters to be authentic, said Batson. The New York Times was holding back on printing the article at the request of the World Council of Churches, and was surveying the public to see what impact this information would have if it were released. Having revealed this shocking information, Batson then polled participants a second time to see if they believed the article to be a true story and to see if the article had shifted their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus.

As you probably guessed, Batson’s story was a fraud. There was no such discovery and no such article. Batson’s goal was to see how church group members would respond when their lifelong belief that Jesus was God was confronted with hard evidence that that was not the case. If humans were perfectly logical creatures then belief should have declined, but the results told a very different story.

For participants who were non–believers or weak believers (and who believed the New York Times story to be authentic), there was indeed a slight reduction in the belief that Jesus was God. But for those who were strong believers (and who also believed the Times article was authentic), their belief that Jesus was God actually grew stronger! Why would this be the case?

Put yourself inside the subconscious minds of the believing church group members as they hear the story indicating that Jesus was not God. Now they they’ve received this information, what should they do? It would seem irrational for them to change beliefs that they’ve held so deeply for so many years after a mere five minute conversation with a researcher. Furthermore, if Jesus was not God then many of their prayers, efforts and beliefs up until that time had been misguided and perhaps meaningless. “Publicly committed to an apparently untenable belief, subjects seemed more concerned with defending and justifying themselves than with dispassionately reading off the logical implications of their statements,” wrote Batson. In order to defend themselves against this new and threatening information, church group members who already believed that Jesus was God had to become even more positive that this was true (Batson 1975).

The same phenomenon has been observed a number of times with doomsday cults. Common sense would suggest that when doomsday prophecies fail to materialize, most members would realize their beliefs were faulty and leave the cult. Conversely, on many occasions cult members have experienced even stronger belief and renewed fervor in spreading their message to others after their doomsday predictions failed to materialize.

The increased faith experienced by church members and cult members in these situations was probably not consciously chosen—it was the automatic process of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the feeling that arises when we perceive a disjunction between our beliefs and our behaviors. Most of us feel a strong need for self–consistency, for our behaviors to match up with our stated beliefs. When they don’t—when our beliefs seem out of line with our behaviors—we’ll often respond in irrational ways.

Some parents, when confronted with evidence that their teenage child is having sex or using drugs, will respond by clinging even more firmly to the belief that their child would never do things like that. They may lash out at teachers who raise the issue or blame one of their child’s friends for any perceived wrongdoing that might have happened. Parents like these will often fail to speak to their children about sex or drug use, since doing so would be admitting their child might possibly be involved with these things—a thought too frightening to accept.

Cognitive dissonance plays a significant role in many of the decisions people make throughout their lives. When we as activists are confronted with evidence that our hard work is not paying off, or that the methods we’re using may not be the most effective ones, it takes serious mental discipline to make sure we don’t respond in the way that our mind instinctively wants to: clinging even more firmly to our failed methods. I myself have been in this position in the past, holding on too long to a campaign that was not worth waging because I had already invested so much of myself in it.

The activist community is filled with organizers who have learned one or two methods of campaigning and one or two issues that can be campaigned about, and who stick with those methods and issues for countless years regardless of their level of success. Such decisions may be due in part to limited experience, and in part to the human tendency to fall into comfortable routines. But cognitive dissonance plays a role as well. Faced with evidence that we aren’t being as effective as possible, or that we could do more good by working on another issue or using another tactic, we inevitably find justifications for why we should continue down our current path: “This is what I know how to do,” “This is what’s right for me,” “This really will succeed soon,” “Someone has to do this work,” etc.

The intertwining of our activist work and our self–identity can have both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand helping others can become part of who we are, which can provide a strong motivation to keep going in our valuable work. On the other hand we need to pay careful attention to whether aspects of our identities are getting in the way of being as effective as possible. Specifically we should watch whether our personal styles of dress and appearance, emotional reactions or desires to express our beliefs are preventing us from being as influential as possible. We also need to carefully consider whether we’re judging the effectiveness of our work logically or whether we’ve become so personally invested in it that we’ve lost the ability to think critically and switch directions (sometimes dramatically) when doing so would lead to better results.

More Stumbling Blocks

In addition to self–identity issues there are other psychological stumbling blocks which can make us less effective in our activism.

Consider for a moment how you came to be doing the type of activist work you’re doing now. Which of the following better describes what led you down this path?

a) One day, or perhaps over a period of time, you thought to yourself, “I don’t like suffering and injustice. I don’t like unnecessary death and destruction. How can I reduce as much suffering and destruction of life as possible?”

b) Personal or circumstantial reasons led you to do the type of work you do: the issue is personally interesting to you, the issue affects you and your loved ones personally, your friends are involved in this type of work, you had been hearing about it a lot in the media, etc.

Chances are that most of us came do be involved in the work we’re doing for personal or circumstantial reasons. It is much rarer that someone will make a dispassionate decision to try to create as much change as possible, as described in scenario a).

The causes that people work for often have an element of self–interest. For example most gay rights activists are gay, most civil rights activists are African–American or Latino, and most people participating in breast cancer walks know someone with breast cancer. Even when causes don’t directly relate to self–interest, people are much more likely to embrace issues that affect those similar to them. 98 percent of donations made in the U.S. go towards human issues (health, social services, arts, religious and educational organizations) with only two percent going to environmental and animal protection organizations, despite the catastrophic state of our ecosystem and the fact that animals experience pain and suffering and have virtually no legal protection (Charity Navigator 2010).

Furthermore, of the donations that do go to animal protection organizations the overwhelming majority go to groups working to help the types of animals that people are most familiar with (cats and dogs), even though other animals (farmed, laboratory, and fur–bearing) suffer much more and in vastly higher numbers. Similarly, Americans give drastically more money to U.S.–based charities than they do to international charities, even though the suffering of people in third world countries is exponentially worse than that of most people in the U.S. Studies have shown that people are more likely to help those similar to them in dress, attitude, nationality and other related attributes (Dovidio 1984).

This bias of concern likely stems in part from our evolutionary biology: caring about those similar to us helps pass our genetic material along to future generations, while caring for those very different from us does not. The bias of concern also reflects cultural values. Americans have some concern for domestic animals like cats and dogs but little concern for farm animals, placing these types of animals in two different ethical boxes. People view human causes as inherently valuable while viewing environmental issues as only marginally important, quickly ignoring them when they interfere with short-term human benefit.

People also gravitate towards flashpoint issues that either receive a significant amount of media coverage or are hot button issues in that person’s social group. As a general psychological principle—called the “availability bias”—people perceive something as more valuable the more they have heard of it (Schwarz et al. 2007). This is as true for the activist cause we choose to work on as it is for the brands of soda we buy and the artists that we choose to admire. As a result societal issues which already get a lot of attention tend to stay popular, and often serve as a point of entry for new activists. Current hot–button issues include the Israel–Palestine conflict, whatever war the U.S. is currently engaged in, Mumia Abu–Jamal, anti–globalization activism, and pro–life and pro–choice activism.

Issues that are confrontational are more likely to be covered by the media, and therefore be seen as more important by budding activists. Many issues that cause a vast amount of suffering get little attention because they are systemic problems and there are no dramatic events occurring to thrust them into the spotlight. Activists are therefore likely to ignore some of the most serious problems and focus instead on the most confrontational.

Those of us who are activists probably consider ourselves altruistic people because we hope to make the world a better place, but our decisions about what issues to work on are strongly mediated by perceptual biases. These biases lead us to prioritize issues that have an element of self–interest, issues that involve others who are similar to us (probably people), and issues that are popular either in general society or in our social group. It is personal and circumstantial factors that have most likely led us to the social cause we’re engaged in.

Is that a problem? After all, what’s important is that we’re activists and that we’re doing good work, right? Since there’s so much work that needs to be done, doesn’t it make sense to focus on the issues that matter most to us?

Working on issues that affect us, that are friends work on or that captivate our attention is a good starting point for realizing the importance of working to create social change. It is to effective activism what recycling is to an environmentally–sustainable lifestyle: it’s the place that pretty much everyone starts out at, but it should not be an end–point. Once we’ve developed the spirit of social concern, once we’ve seen the value in working to create a better world, we need to move forward in becoming more thoughtful about how we spend the limited amount of time and energy we have. We need to begin choosing our activist work from a utilitarian perspective: how can I do the most good, how can I reduce the most suffering and destruction of life?

Slogans like “practice random acts of kindness” feel good and are easy to put into practice. But if we don’t take our activism more seriously than that our motive is probably a desire to feel good about ourselves, to help ourselves or those close to us, or to act out our self–identity. The endpoint of authentic compassion is a desire to do the most good that one can, to be as effective as possible in creating a world with less suffering and destruction and more joy. Figuring out how we can do the most good takes careful thought over a long period of time, and it means moving into new and possibly uncomfortable areas of advocacy. But the importance of taking our activism seriously and approaching it from this utilitarian perspective cannot be overstated. It will mean a difference between life and death, between happiness and suffering, for thousands of people, for tens of thousands of animals and for thousands of acres of the ecosystem.

As we move towards this more thoughtful approach to activism, the question becomes: how can we do the most good?

The Bottom Line

Once we as activists have decided that we want do the most good we can, the next step is figuring out how to quantify the amount of good we’re doing now and compare it to the amount of good we could be doing by using other tactics, engaging in other campaigns or working on other issues entirely. Quantifying the results of our work is incredibly important for every activist and non–profit; without it our decisions will be guided by the powerful perceptual biases discussed earlier, making us dramatically less effective than we could be.

When I give talks about the non–profit I run, The Humane League, I like to point out that we are a non–profit corporation and that just like a for–profit corporation we have a bottom line. Only our bottom line is not dollars and cents, it’s not shareholder dividends. Our bottom line is measured by two things: the number of animals whose lives we’ve saved and the amount of animal suffering we’ve eliminated. Every decision that we make, be it a financial, organizational or campaign decision, we try to make with an eye towards that bottom line. What is going to do the most good? What is going to give us the greatest return for the limited amount of time, money and energy that we and our volunteers have?

We closely track the impact of each of our programs to determine the number of animals whose lives we’ve impacted by rescuing them from euthanasia or by reducing or preventing their suffering. While it’s not possible to achieve the same precision that a financial bottom line provides to for–profit companies, it’s possible to get a very good working estimate of how much we’ve accomplished. For example, we know that for each person who goes vegetarian or vegan over 40 animals per year will be spared a lifetime of suffering on factory farms (Friedrich and Ball). We can also get a decent estimate of the number of new vegetarians and vegans our different outreach methods have created through follow–up surveys and data collection. By multiplying the two figures together we get a good estimate of the number of animals who have been spared a great deal of suffering as a result of our work.

At the moment one of our other main campaigns is getting universities to switch to cage–free eggs in their dining halls. While cage–free does not mean cruelty–free, when an institution switches to cage–free eggs it does significantly reduce the suffering of hundreds or thousands of egg–laying hens. With each campaign victory, we can use dining services’ data to calculate exactly how many hens will benefit from the switch to cage–free.

With both of these activities we can also take the number of animals affected and divide it by the money we spent to find out how much we are spending for each life we’ve been able to impact. While we don’t keep formal track of how much time is spent on each activity, that could be factored in as well. With just a little work, we now have a fairly clear picture of what real world results we’ve been able to accomplish for animals. More importantly though, we can compare the results of different campaigns and outreach methods to see which have the biggest payoff for our bottom line of saving lives and reducing suffering.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of creating a bottom line for our activism. Large for–profit corporations, including those that we often find ourselves fighting pitched battles against, spend millions of dollars each year gathering data to compare the success of different approaches in advertising, audience targeting and product offerings. Imagine what would happen to businesses if, instead of using a financial bottom line to analyze their success, they used the type of information commonly cited by non-profits: anecdotal evidence, raw output and how much they cared.

Dear Pepsi Shareholders,

This has been a very successful year for us indeed. We know Pepsi is the best cola out there and this year we spoke truth to power and really told the public that Pepsi was the superior cola. We passed out a lot of flyers that detailed the many reasons that Pepsi is better than Coke: our higher sugar content (yum!), snazzier bottle, and our Pepsi Generation street cred. We also held bi–weekly protests outside the World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta, GA. Plus we spent lots of money on advertising, and that means people probably bought more Pepsi. Consider the inspiring story of 58 year old Mary Clarence of Butte, AZ. She’d been a Coca–Cola drinker her whole life, but thanks to our work she realized that Pepsi really was a better product and now she buys a 12 pack of Pepsi every week from the grocery store! As you can see, we’re really moving towards a world where everyone’s favorite cola is Pepsi. We’ve also got some exciting street theater planned for next year that is really going to stick it to the Coke drinkers of the world—you’re going to love it!

Yours truly,
The Pepsi Collective

As laughable as this sounds coming from the mouth of a large corporation, for most grassroots advocacy organizations this sort of analysis represents the farthest they’ve gone in measuring their impact. Anecdotes and reports of what was done can’t tell us much about how effective we’ve been and they provide no guidance for how to be more successful in the future. How many people we’ve gotten to make a lifestyle change (for example reducing consumption) is harder to track than the number of Pepsis that have been sold, but it is trackable. For small volunteer grassroots groups a lack of data gathering is somewhat understandable, but even large non–profits often fail to measure their results in any quantifiable way.

A study of one hundred and fifty-five foundations with more than one hundred million dollars in assets found that only eight percent could describe the specific types of information or data that led them to believe they were likely to achieve some of their goals. The study, conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, found that instead of hard data most foundations used anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. Only thirty-nine percent used any tools or indicators whatsoever in assessing even a portion of their work, with even less (twenty-six percent) using indicators or tools to assess all of their work (Mass Nonprofit 2010).

It is true that some non–profit work and some activist campaigns lack the sort of easily–identifiable metrics that could be used to define a bottom line.

For example those seeking wide–reaching changes on the political level (such as the anti–war movement or the pro–Palestine movement) have little to measure other than perhaps whether or not they changed public attitudes on these issues. But because attitude change often does not lead to behavior or policy changes (especially on major political issues like these), attitude change is not a good metric to use in analyzing how successful we’ve been. Of course we as activists would like to change people’s attitudes, but if attitude change doesn’t carry over into behavioral or policy change it means that at least in the short term we are not accomplishing anything. This should be factored into our decisions of what campaigns to work on and what tactics to use.

I’m not trying to minimize anyone’s efforts at creating a better world. I have been involved in plenty of anti–war activism myself, and when the Iraq war began in 2003 myself and a few friends at Hofstra held the biggest protest rallies on campus since the early 1970s when a campus radical named Norm Coleman shimmied up a flag pole to protest the Vietnam War. (Coleman later went on to become a conservative, pro–war senator from Minnesota, and happened to give the commencement speech at my graduation. In 2009 he was ousted from his senate seat by comedian turned politician Al Franken). But in honestly assessing how effective our work is, we need to note that campaigns focused on major political issues sometimes have little or no payoff. We need to keep this in mind when figuring out how to analyze our success, and in deciding what activist issues to work on. We will be much more effective by focusing on issues where we can actually change behaviors and policies.

Effective activism starts with a specific goal and ends with measurable results. The animal advocacy projects mentioned earlier have results that are fairly easy to define, as do others animal advocacy efforts like promoting spaying and neutering, encouraging people to not wear fur or working to end specific laboratory experiments. Environmental campaigns also usually have definable bottom lines: we can estimate the pounds of recycling diverted from a landfill and the resources that saves, the number of trees that won’t be cut down because an institution switched to using recycled paper, and the carbon dioxide savings of mass transit and bicycling. These measurements can be used whether the focus is on influencing the behaviors of individuals, institutions or governments.

For social justice issues, campaigns that succeed by changing individual or institutional behaviors can also be easily be measured: for example how many employers began paying their employees a living wage or how many African children were fed by hunger relief efforts. An even more thoughtful measurement of hunger relief efforts would examine whether systemic change has been created to prevent hunger in the first place, as opposed to just the short-term impact of mouths fed.

The Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has applied a bottom-line focus to analyzing poverty-reduction and public health efforts around the world. Founded by M.I.T. economist Esther Duflo, J-PAL’s mission is to conduct randomized trials of aid projects to see which are successful and which aren’t. Much like clinical drug testing, J-PAL researchers create both a test group for a particular project and a control group and then analyze what impact the project had.

For example, in trying to prevent the spread of malaria is it more effective to give away bed nets (which protect people from malaria-carrying mosquitoes) or to sell them at a low price under the assumption that a person is more likely to use a net if they had to purchase it themselves? To find out researchers divided a segment of Kenya’s population into two groups, giving away free nets to the first group and selling the nets at low cost to the second group. Researchers then tracked how many of the nets were put to use and how they impacted the spread of malaria in each of the two groups. The result: free nets did more to combat the spread of malaria than low-cost nets, at least in Kenya (Parker 2010). J-PAL’s scientific analysis on the effectiveness of different aid programs should serve as a model for advocacy organizations. Any non-profit serious about creating social change should be collecting data on how effective their programs are (and whether they’re effective at all).

As a side point, in measuring our impact we should compare it against a baseline of what would have happened had we not been involved. Even without our work some people will begin using recycled paper, biking to work or boycotting sweatshop clothing. Finding out the baseline rate of change is essential for determining what our actual impact was.

If we are focused on our bottom line, then as a general principle we should look for the low–hanging fruit. That doesn’t mean working for small changes that only do a marginal amount of good; it means finding the most cost–effective and time–effective ways of doing good, situations where it’s easiest to make significant change. Some people and institutions are going to be more receptive to our message and more likely to change than others, so it makes sense to target them with our efforts. Certain types of behavioral change will do more good than others, and those are the ones we should be emphasizing. Doing so is consistent with focusing on our bottom line.

Similarly, creating systemic change will almost always do more good than caring for individuals who are in need. I mentioned earlier how the Humane League is able to calculate a working number of the animals we’ve been able to impact. By taking the number of animals impacted and dividing it by our expenditures we found that in 2009 we spent about fifty-five cents for each animal whose life we impacted by reducing or eliminating their suffering (and for a small portion of those animals by rescuing them). In examining a similar cost–per–animal result for a PA animal shelter, we found that they spent about two hundred eighty dollars per animal impacted. Granted there is a difference between saving a shelter dog from euthanasia and reducing an animal’s suffering or preventing it from being born into a life of misery; one could make the claim that either of those does more good than the other. But no one can make the claim that rescuing a shelter dog does five hundred times more good than sparing a pig from a lifetime of daily misery.

Nevertheless, shelter work dominates the animal protection field in comparison to farm animal protection issues, even though the former costs (in this comparison) five hundred times more per animal. While this example comes from the animal advocacy movement, similarly vast disparities are apparent if you examine the comparative outputs of different environmental protection and human rights/social justice organizations. As was mentioned earlier, creating systemic change so that less people are facing hunger can do far more good than feeding a certain number of hungry people each day. Increasing the use of recycled paper products by major corporations is likely to prevent more deforestation than trying to prevent a specific area of land from being clear-cut.

These facts aren’t presented to glorify some organizations over others, but simply to demonstrate that choosing campaigns based on the impact they have on our bottom line can make us exponentially more effective. If each one of us really wants to do the most good possible during the short time we have to live, we need to always be mindful of the alternative routes of activism available to us and whether those alternative routes would produce more good than what we’re doing now. Some environmental campaigners have switched over to population control work because they realized that they might be able to have more of an impact for the planet by reducing birth rates (and subsequently reducing resource use) than through traditional environmental advocacy methods. PETA Vice–President Bruce Friedrich worked in a homeless soup kitchen for many years until he realized he had the ability to reduce much more pain and suffering and save many more lives by focusing on animal protection issues.

Attitudes such as “do something, do anything,” or “do what is right and let the ripples fall where they may” may sound nice and may make us feel good about ourselves, and they’re better than nothing. But when it comes to our activism lives really hang in the balance. If we truly care about others, then we need to be responsible and put in the mental effort necessary to figure out how we can do the most good. A good parent doesn’t just do “random acts of kindness” towards their child. Nor does a good parent just show up once a week to hold a sign for two hours letting the child know they’re loved. A good parent takes time to read up on child psychology, learns the different development stages and the best ways to raise a happy child, and puts that knowledge into practice every day. We need to be just as thoughtful in our activism, for not just one but many lives hang in the balance.

As Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball put it in The Animal Activist’s Handbook,

Given our limited time and resources, as well as our inherent biases, we should make our choices based on reducing as much suffering and increasing as much happiness as possible, remembering that when we choose to do one thing we’re choosing to not do another. Simply making the ‘right’ choice for ourself isn’t enough. By influencing others, we can make the impact of our lives exponentially greater (Friedrich and Ball).

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