How Philanthropy in Farmed Animal Advocacy Reinforces White Bubbles

I’m white. My parents, brother, and partner are also white. Growing up, most of my teachers and peers at school were white. I lived in a mostly white neighborhood, and I worked alongside mostly white colleagues. When I went vegan after watching a heart-wrenching video of pigs on factory farms, I turned to a network of mostly white friends and mentors for support. These are the facts, as plainly as I can state them. The facts feel both unsurprising and uncomfortable.

In 2017, my inaugural year of veganism, I went to events, volunteered, and started working at my dream job to help farmed animals—almost entirely next to white people. It took three years, until the murder of George Floyd, for me to belatedly, foolishly realize that I live and work in a bubble—not just a vegan bubble, which I cultivated and appreciated, but a white vegan bubble, which I let happen through pure negligence. My negligence particularly stings because Black, Indigenous, and other people of the global majority make up the majority of vegans and vegetarians worldwide.

This realization inspired me to want to do better. Like hundreds of other white-led foundations, companies, and nonprofits newly aware of their white bubbles, I wrote a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in summer 2020. Armed with a commitment to do better, now comes the challenge of implementing it. I’m lucky to have a platform to implement; I work with Farmed Animal Funders, a donor learning community whose members give to charitable initiatives fighting factory farming. In this role, I spearhead the group’s quest to give more thoughtfully and collaboratively to reform our global food system through philanthropy. When it comes to giving more to charities led by people of the global majority, however, we fight an uphill battle.

Money to and from white people

What strikes me most when I follow the money in farmed animal advocacy is its color: all 10 of the top biggest nonprofits (by budget size) fighting factory farming are led by people who identify as white. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of philanthropy fighting factory farms goes to charitable initiatives in North America and Europe, which, as I’m sure is clear, have disproportionately white power structures and deep histories of racism. The funding picture is undoubtedly male, Eurocentric, and white. It says a lot that as a white woman, I’m considered a “diverse” leader within our movement—even though the majority of people working full-time in this movement are white women like me.

Of course, this whiteness did not arise randomly. The global wealth gap is heavily racialized. Majority-white countries, on average, possess significantly more wealth than countries of the global majority—and, within those white countries, white people possess significantly more wealth than people of the global majority. The majority of members of Farmed Animal Funders identify as white and live in the United States, and that’s at least partially because, in the United States, the median white family has five times more wealth than the median Hispanic family and eight times more wealth than the median Black family. To a large degree, more funders are white because more white people have funds.

Like writers encouraged to “write what you know,” philanthropy has historically encouraged funders to fund what they know. Place-based grantmaking is one of the oldest forms of grantmaking. They say “home is where the heart is,” and many donors start by donating to people or projects close to home. The United States is more diverse now than ever, but its neighborhoods remain segregated—which means that when people donate to projects close to home, they risk circulating money within a segregated bubble. Of course, this approach to philanthropy isn’t universal and many emerging philanthropic approaches aim to de-emphasize personal connections. While we hope to see that trend continue on an upward trajectory, it’s hard to escape the human psychological preference for familiarity. Add this preference for familiarity to the racialized wealth gap, and you end up with what we see today: donors (mostly white people) supporting projects whose leaders are similar to them (mostly white people), who in turn hire staff who culturally mesh with them (mostly white people). It’s a triple-decker homogenous sandwich—and it’s hard to swallow.

We’re all bystanders

I’m often asked why more funders don’t just donate to more projects led by people of the global majority. I don’t have a satisfying answer. I’m not a funder, and every funder is different. I’d hazard a guess that many funders feel that they, individually, are not part of our movement’s diversity problem. No funder in our movement intends for their philanthropy to entrench racial inequity—yet not doing something isn’t enough. In isolation, each funder’s individual decision about where to donate might make sense for their philanthropic portfolio. Then, when you look at funders’ donation decisions in aggregate, you see the harsh statistical skew toward whiteness. The problem belongs to everyone, and therefore it belongs to no one. Racial inequity in farmed animal philanthropy has thrived off of the bystander effect.

On top of that, not everyone agrees that racial equity is a problem that activists fighting factory farms should tackle. Some funders see fighting racism as separate from their goal of fighting factory farming. Donors who take pride in prioritizing projects that wouldn’t exist without their support may consider diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as too popular to warrant their strong consideration.

The bystander effect similarly thrives among grantees. Some white-majority nonprofits fighting factory farming don’t prioritize DEI partially because they say funders won’t fund it, and fundraisers don’t want to risk alienating them. On the other hand, funders who prioritize a redistribution of power and wealth say many farmed animal advocacy initiatives don’t prioritize DEI, so why should they fund a footnote to the organization’s mission? In both cases, people of the global majority are missing from the conversation. Both funders and grantees seem to model the other imprecisely, to the detriment of our movement.

Where do we go from here? 

The movement to fight factory farming cannot afford to neglect racial equity until the murder of another Black person shocks us to attention once again (and again, and again). As we build a more equitable movement, we can’t merely replicate the same approaches to grantmaking that led us to this point and expect a different outcome. We can’t hope to dismantle power structures that hold back people of the global majority from the top-down when people at the “top” are disproportionately white.

White nonprofit executives and funders of all racial identities have a responsibility to make space for people of the global majority at the top of farmed animal advocacy. This means funding, partnering with, spotlighting, and hiring nonprofit leaders of the global majority. It also means educating ourselves, promoting racial equity in day-to-day conversations, and advocating for it behind the scenes. 

There aren’t superheroes waiting in the wings to make our movement more racially equitable; we’re it. There are relatively few people in the world focused on fighting factory farming—and even fewer people calling for racial justice within that group. If racial equity happens, it will happen because we recognized that we can’t possibly hope to dismantle one form of oppression on factory farms while letting another form of oppression within our movement reign free.