On Animal Charity Evaluators' Review of the Save Movement

There’s been a back and forth for the past few years about Animal Charity Evaluators’ research, and I have sympathized, in most cases, with both camps. As I’ve said before I have tremendous respect for ACE. I think their promotion of impact and evidence has greatly benefited the movement, and some of the subsidiary conclusions, that we should focus on farmed animals or that we should think about counterfactuals, are totally correct. At the same time, I think their research has had flaws that critics have correctly pointed out. A further reason for my support is my sense that ACE is steadily improving, and for this reason I wanted to note that I think ACE missed an opportunity to really follow its own growing body of research with its review of and decision not to recognize the Save Movement.

The Save Movement is a collection of people around the world who organize vigils at slaughterhouses to bear witness to the animals killed there. I participated with Save from around June 2017 through last July and left because of a combination of graduate school, personal reasons, and shifting interests. I was confused when I first heard of it as to what the point was of having people protesting in the middle of nowhere to people who do not care. What Save is doing is building a movement: according to ACE’s review, which is in line with my understanding, the number of chapters participating has roughly doubled for each of the past few years, going from around 50 chapters just under three years ago to around 500 today. As far as I know, that outpaces the actual establishment of communities by the more centralized nonprofits.

ACE has been saying for a while that individual veg advocacy does not look very promising (contrary to earlier ACE research), and recently ACE put out a report on protests that came down thinking that while protests may not be the most promising tactic, more of them would be better on the margin relative to other activism in our movement. One reason for this was their contribution to growing the movement.

If that is the case, then I think that Save is very effective at an advocacy tactic that ACE recognizes our movement ought to do more. A counterargument might be that while movement growth is indeed important, we need a specific type of movement growth, i.e. growth in activists doing effective campaigning. This is a reasonable argument, but I don’t think it’s correct. While it’s true that movement growth is important only in that it leads to direct impacts down the line, that puts movement growth without a specific campaign in basically the same basket as research or symbolic lawsuits aimed at changing social norms. It is several degrees removed from direct impact, with the intervening degrees relying on an assumption that a rising tide raises all ships.

This is far from an ironclad case for Save’s activism, but again, as ACE has been realizing for a while, the current state of evidence in the movement is weak. Every recommendation requires a judgment call, and as much as the "stand out" distinction smacks of confidence, the reasoning behind all stand out designations is explicitly tentative and uncertain. I think that if we treat the weak but existent evidence on Save the same way as the tentative evidence on other charities, its tactics look promising.

P.S. It could still be the case that stand out status does not make sense for Save because of another reason. For example, Save could be very good at what it does but not be constrained by funding, in which case it would not make sense to recommend for donations. From what I can gather, this is not the case. If it were, though, it would highlight another area for improvement: it would show that “top” or “stand out” charity just means best marginal giving opportunity, and not best marginal volunteer opportunity, most effective organization, etc. This should probably be reflected in the title of the “top” and “stand out” charity categories.


  1. I have several concerns about Save. First, in my experience, Save is more about the protestors, like a right of passage or ritual, than it is about influencing public opinion. Tolstoy's concept of bearing witness was based on his Christian, perspective . It wasn't about changing norms. I've heard activists frame Save vigil as rituals or rites of passage. Second, I suspect a "one trick" organization has limited shelf life. It won't be long before Save folks lined up at slaughterhouses become part of the landscape, like the ubiquitous blue tee-shirted protestors at food festivals. Finally, movement growth can't be quantified simply as people who protest or bear witness. Movement growth implies increasing complexity and dynamism, So far, Save hasn't demonstrated either.

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  3. Thank you for this post Zach! This sort of deep engagement with our reviews is really important and I think you make some good points. One of the reasons we publish these comprehensive reviews and not just categorical recommendations is so that people can have the evidence needed to be able come to their own informed conclusions. As you mention, every recommendation is a judgement call, and in this case, as in several others, we didn't have unanimous agreement on what that call should be—in fact, some of our team are quite sympathetic to the points you raise here. When there wasn't unanimous agreement, we made decisions by a majority vote. Our decision making process is described in the recommendations section of this blog post: https://animalcharityevaluators.org/blog/the-process-leading-to-our-2018-recommendations/. The recommendation categories aren't intended to be thought of as any final opinion on the matter—rather, they represent our group effort at making a decision democratically based on our collective opinions and values as people who deeply engaged in the process of reviewing these 11 charities.

    1. Thanks Aaron, makes sense, and thank you and everyone at ACE for all the work you put in to these largely excellent recommendations. I'm very grateful for all you do.

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