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What You Should Know About Fundraising for Nonprofits in Effective Animal Advocacy

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

fundraising for nonprofits in effective animal advocacy

If you are going to take part in Animal Advocacy Careers’ Fundraising Work Placement or are a fundraiser, it is crucial to reflect on the impact your work might have.

Not all fundraising is equal. In fact, some fundraising might even do more harm than good.

Our fundraising skills profile provides an introduction to fundraising for nonprofits in animal advocacy. In this article, we take a deeper dive into some of our most important research that will help you make the most of your fundraising work - and actually create a high positive impact.

Here’s what we will cover:

Let’s dive in!

Is fundraising for nonprofits a “zero-sum game”?

It has been suggested that fundraising for nonprofits is what economists would call a “zero-sum game”; a gain in funding for one nonprofit requires an equal loss in funding for other nonprofits. This loss could be spread across vast numbers of other nonprofits, so even a large gain for a particular nonprofit would probably be imperceptible to other nonprofits.

Indeed, the total amount of charitable giving in the US seems to have hovered around 2% GDP for years (source here, plus here and here relative to GDP) suggesting that most additional fundraising for charity doesn’t really “raise” money — it just moves it from one nonprofit to another.

Bad news? It gets worse, unfortunately. (But don’t give up hope yet… there’s good news below.)

Fundraising for nonprofits can cause harm

If fundraising for nonprofits is a zero-sum game, we should expect that, as 80,000 Hours explain, “most fundraisers at the margin are shifting money to charities that are less effective than the average charity.” Here’s why:

If you graph how cost-effective charities are… the median is significantly less than the mean. In other words, the effectiveness of the majority of charities is less than the effectiveness of the average charity. That sounds a bit odd, but it’s just because the average effectiveness is pulled up a long way by the small number of really good charities at the top. (Similarly, the average wage at a company is normally higher than what the majority of the staff are paid).
This means that most fundraisers at the margin are shifting money to charities that are less effective than the average charity. So, they are reducing the overall effectiveness of the charity sector. They are actually reducing how much good gets done!

This may seem demoralising. However, there are a couple of reasons to be cheerful.

Fundraising for charity isn’t quite a zero-sum game

Firstly, charitable giving isn’t entirely fixed. Widespread use of effective fundraising techniques (or any long-term, indirect processes mostly outside your control) could plausibly change the total amount of funding raised for nonprofits.

I said that the total amount of charitable giving in the US seems to have hovered around 2% of GDP for years, but it has in fact increased a small amount, from around 2.11% to around 2.25% between 2016 and 2020. This isn’t very reassuring though, because that’s quite a small increase.

Some nonprofit fundraising is very impactful anyway

Secondly, and much more importantly, as highlighted by 80,000 Hours’ article: if you “work for charities that are more cost-effective than the mean,” you are “shifting money from less effective charities to more effective ones, potentially doing a huge amount of good.

The total donated to the combined category of environmental and animal causes by US donors increased by 46% from 2016 to 2020 ($11.05bn → $16.14bn, an increase that beat cumulative inflation of 7.84% by a substantial margin).[1] Farmed Animal Funders note that, having surveyed groups a few different times, funding in the farmed animal movement is “growing at what could be described as a quick pace.”

 fundraising for nonprofits - Money donated to animal charities
Money donated to environmental and animal causes

So, sure, fundraising for charity in general might not do much to grow the overall amounts of money donated, but you might be able to increase the total funding for a particular cause area by attracting donations that would otherwise have gone to other cause areas.

This could be incredibly impactful.

Some charities are plausibly orders of magnitude (i.e. 10, 100, 1000, or more times) more impactful than others. Large differences might occur between different cause areas.

For example, this comparison between The Humane League (an unusually cost-effective animal charity) and the Against Malaria Foundation (an unusually cost-effective human health charity) concludes that, “in expectation, THL is >100x better than AMF,” although they note a lot of uncertainties. Global health is in itself arguably a cause area with opportunities to do a huge amount of good relatively easily. So consider that fundraising for effective animal advocacy charities might look even more impactful if you thought that most of the funding would be redirected from other cause areas.

This principle of large potential differences in the cost-effectiveness of different charities might also hold when comparing the cost-effectiveness of different animal advocacy charities.

As a simple demonstration of this claim, consider that there are roughly 1,000 times as many vertebrate farmed animals alive as vertebrate lab animals: very roughly about 150 billion, compared to (at least) 100 million.[2] Now imagine that, for the same cost, one group of charities might reduce the number of farmed animals by 0.1% and another might reduce the number of lab animals by 0.1%. Given the huge differences in the relative number of animals, the former group would likely reduce orders of magnitude more suffering.

More concretely, the mid-points and best guess estimates of expected value for different intervention types given by Animal Charity Evaluators (at least, in their archived intervention reports) and Charity Entrepreneurship also suggest that several orders of magnitude of differences in cost-effectiveness are possible between different farmed animal interventions.

Animal charity fundraising can be high-impact

So, what are the key takeaways?

  • Most fundraising doesn’t really raise money for charities overall, it just redistributes money between charities.

  • Nevertheless, if you can redistribute money to a cause area – like animal advocacy – that tends to be unusually impactful, you can do a lot of good.

  • What’s more, if you can redistribute money to specific charities that are unusually cost-effective, then that’s even better.

Reflection questions

  • What do you think? Is fundraising a zero-sum game?

  • Do you buy the argument that some animal charities are plausibly not just two or three times as effective as others, but perhaps 10 or 100 times more effective?

  • Can you think of any other implications that this has for how to make your fundraising most beneficial for animals?

Effective fundraising: Are all dollars equal?

Consider the following four donor types:


Mixed Causes

Fixed Amount


A donor that wants to maximise impact for animals, but always donates a fixed amount each year.


A donor that wants to do good in various ways (animals or otherwise), but always donates a fixed amount each year.

Flexible Amount


A donor that wants to maximise impact for animals, has lots of money, and will give money to any charity or proposal above a certain bar.


A donor that wants to do good in various ways (animals or otherwise), has lots of money, and will give money to any charity or proposal above a certain bar.

When we think about the idea that fundraising is mostly a “zero-sum game”, and think about counterfactually, what the raised money would do otherwise, then the effects of fundraising for nonprofits that help animals looks pretty different in each of these scenarios:

  1. Here, you are directly competing with other animal advocacy nonprofits. Any money that you raise for your organisation from this donor will be denied to another potential animal advocacy organisation. This is a good thing if your organisation genuinely helps animals more cost-effectively than the other potential recipients, a bad thing if it is less cost-effective than the others, and roughly neutral if it is similarly cost-effective.

  2. Here, the element of competition is removed; you’re no longer directly competing with other animal advocacy organisations, since both you and they will get funded if (the donor believes that) the work is above a certain bar.[3] The bar could be in terms of cost-effectiveness (e.g. only funding charities that seem likely to spare 1 animal life or more per dollar donated) or something else, like how much they liked / resonated with the organisation or project.

  3. Here, you are directly competing with other nonprofits, but not solely animal advocacy nonprofits. The pros and cons are similar to in the first scenario, but the differences in cost-effectiveness between potential recipients of the money are probably larger, because they come from different cause areas. This is especially promising if you believe (as we do at AAC) that animal advocacy is one of the most cost-effective causes in the world. For example, let’s say that the average animal advocacy charity removes 1,000 times as much suffering as the average homelessness charity (this number is made up, it’s not based on a careful analysis). If your fundraising proposal causes that donor to give to your animal charity instead of a homelessness charity, then you might have caused that money to have 1,000 times as much impact as it otherwise would have had.

  4. Here, the element of competition is removed; you’re no longer competing with anyone, since both you and they will get funded if (the donor believes that) the work is above a certain bar. So money raised from contexts like this are essentially entirely impact wins.

It’s hard to tell which dollars are worth the most

So, all else equal, money raised from situation 4 does the most good, and money raised from situation 1 does the least good. But, of course, all else is not equal. For example, it’s probably going to be a lot easier to fundraise from a donor who focuses exclusively on animals than a donor who is interested in a wide range of causes. So you might end up doing more good overall by focusing on those sorts of donors; the improvement in usefulness of each dollar raised is lower than it might be if you’d focused on donors who give to a wider range of cause areas, but you might raise more dollars overall this way.

And of course, in real life, it will often be very hard to tell how flexible a donor is (i.e. whether you just need to make sure that your organisation clears their bar, or whether you’re competing from a limited pool).

You might be able to make a guess about how flexible particular major donors or grant-makers are, and check how focused on animals their giving tends to be. For example, there are subgroups of Open Philanthropy and EA Funds that focus specifically on animal welfare, and that tend to give a roughly similar amount each year, but have some degree of flexibility (e.g. see these calculations and these discussions).

Open Philantropy spending on animal welfare - fundraising for animals
Open Philantropy spending on animal welfare from 2016 to 2021

A grant-maker on the farmed animal team at Open Philanthropy told us that, as the total amount they are able to spend is increasing, they are moving from a model focused on giving away a fixed amount to a model focused on assessing whether potential grantees meet their bar for cost-effectiveness; they actually try to model the what each organisation or grant is able to achieve in terms of Disability-Adjusted Life-Years, a metric commonly used in assessing human health interventions.

You might not be able to access any data like this about donors giving smaller amounts, though it may be possible to somehow target your messaging and outreach towards donors with certain interests or past giving history.

At other times, however, the donor’s category will be pretty clear cut. For example:

  • A Giving What We Can pledger who gives 10% of their income every year and who only gives to effective animal advocacy charities would be in category 1.

  • The Pollination Project’s daily grants programme gives out $1,000 every day either to animal advocacy or other cause areas, so is pretty clearly in category 3.

  • A wealthy vegan who gives varying amounts to animal advocacy groups, environmental groups, and whatever else tugs on their heartstrings enough for them to open their wallet would clearly be category 4.

Reflection questions for participants in the Fundraising Work Placement:

  • Are these questions worth thinking about during your Fundraising Work Placement? Or should your focus solely be on learning how to do whatever your placement organisations currently do?

  • Can you think of ways that participants in the Fundraising Work Placement programme could collaborate to better understand the value of raising money from different donors?

How much money do you need to raise to make fundraising for animals worthwhile?

In theory: raise $1 per $1 spent

Theoretically, from an organisational perspective, fundraising makes sense as long as it raises more than $1 for every $1 spent on fundraising.

For example, let’s imagine:

  • Your salary is $50,000 per year

  • Your manager’s salary is $75,000 per year, and they spend 20% of their time supervising and supporting you.

  • You spend $10,000 per year on software, travel, and marketing.

Then the organisation would gain money overall if you raised more than $75,000 in a year.

In practice: aim higher!

However, usually, the bar for fundraising work should probably be much higher than $1 raised for $1 spent.

  • Organisations are not solely bottlenecked by money, so the salaries of staff under-represent their true value. For example, nonprofits are sometimes bottlenecked by management capacity, so 20% of your manager’s time is actually worth far more to the charity (and therefore animals) than $15,000, even if they are only paid that amount for that time. The less you think funding is a bottleneck for your organisation relative to these other bottlenecks, the higher your bar should be.

  • Even if it is just about worth it from the organisation’s point of view, it might not have been worth it from your own point of view, because you could potentially have worked on higher impact activities yourself. For example:

  • You could potentially have just taken paid work in the for-profit sector and tried to earn and donate as much as possible.

  • You could have taken another nonprofit role and added more value to the organisation there.

  • When we account for the idea that fundraising is mostly a zero-sum game (at least when we compare across all charities, rather than just specific types of charities), you might actually be having a negative impact overall by spending money from a limited pool of funding.

  • Even though it arguably doesn’t make sense from the perspective of having high impact, at least some donors and reviewers care a lot about expenditure on overheads. So money spent on overheads without a comparable increase in money spent on “programmes” or direct work might indirectly cause reduced donations.

So how high should the bar be for returns on fundraising investment in order to make it worthwhile, all-things-considered?

Of course, it depends a lot on the specifics of the above factors, such as the most likely alternative uses of the donated money, what other work you could have done. It would be very difficult to create a generalisable model, but our intuition is that the return for an animal advocacy charity would need to be at least two times the amount spent on fundraising, and likely much higher than that (e.g. closer to five times).

This does seem to be achievable. For example:

  • A few years ago, 80,000 Hours found that “for each £1 spent on fundraising, studies have shown that charities typically raise £4-10.”

  • More recently, the Effective Altruism Foundation estimated that for every $1 spent on fundraising projects, they raised another $32. (You can see a few more “meta charity” examples here.)

It’s okay to raise less while you’re learning

However, there is also an important reason why, for anyone reading this who is participating in the Fundraising Work Placement, the bar should be lower than it ordinarily would be: you’re not just here to have direct impact, but also to evaluate, explore, and prepare for high-impact career paths in the animal advocacy movement. I.e. you’re gaining information and career capital relevant to effective animal advocacy, which may enable you personally to have more impact in the long-run. In the same way that it is often worth paying for a training course, the Fundraising Work Placement could be valuable overall even if you raise less money than is spent on your placement.

So you shouldn’t worry too much, but you should still aim to raise lots of money for your partner organisation! (Ideally from situations where the counterfactual value of the money raised isn’t as high.)

It can be tough to know what you’ve actually raised

Note also that it might be difficult to estimate what you personally raise for your placement organisation, for a number of reasons:

  • Organisations might receive some funding even if they invest no effort into fundraising. For example, individuals who read about or participate in their campaigns or services might donate money without much prompting. Fundraisers shouldn’t claim credit for raising money if that money would have been donated even without them.

  • If you work as part of a larger fundraising team, it will be hard to tell what role you played in raising the money that was raised. Options for how you could estimate this include:

  • Guess the proportion of the overall money that was raised due to you. E.g. in a fundraising team of 5, it might be reasonable to assume that you (as a temporary team member) were responsible for 10% of whatever was raised.

  • Compare the amount that was raised while you worked there to the amount of money that was raised in the previous few months (and perhaps the few months after you leave), and/or in the same period in the previous year. Before you look at the figures, it could be a good idea to list out factors other than your personal involvement that might have led to an increase or decrease in the period that you worked there, relative to those other periods. For example, if your Fundraising Work Placement ends shortly before the end of year “Giving Season” fundraising push, you shouldn’t be surprised if the total funds increase shortly after you leave – that doesn’t mean you were a poor fundraiser!

We won’t explore research on best practice in goal setting here, but bear in mind that goals should be both ambitious and realistic/achievable.

Discussion questions:

  • To what extent are you prioritising your own career development and exploration (to enable you to have greater long-term impact for animals) relative to supporting your placement organisation to achieve their goals? (The more focused you are on the former, the less ambitious your fundraising goals might be, e.g. if you want to spend time exploring other types of work while you are at the nonprofit.)

  • You are being paid $12,500 for three months of full-time-equivalent work. How much will you aim to raise?

Animal fundraising: Who can we fundraise from?

When we were researching and writing our fundraising skills profile, we asked our interviewees their thoughts on trying to reach donors who don’t usually donate to farmed animal advocacy or animal-free food nonprofits.

A few of them highlighted that:

  • Health, poverty alleviation, or environmental arguments seem more promising for reaching these people.

  • People engaged with the effective altruism community seem to be more amenable than average to starting to donate to animal advocacy causes if they do not already do so.

  • It’s very difficult to reach these people, so it feels like a low priority for fundraisers, day to day.

An analysis of data from the “Classy Fundraising Suite” suggests that “recurring donors are 440% more valuable than one-time donors.” Several interviewees emphasised that it tends to be much easier to get existing donors to increase the quantity or effectiveness of their donations than to bring in new donors.

But don’t forget: not all dollars are equal, so funds raised from new audiences might be more useful for helping animals overall.

Faunalytics found evidence from their 2019 survey of donors to animal charities that “the smaller proportion of donations to non-companion animal charities can be partially explained by their lack of visibility rather than donors’ lack of motivation.”[4] That is, fundraising efforts from farmed animal advocacy organisations could successfully raise more donations from donors to animal causes other than farmed animal advocacy. Faunalytics also found evidence in an online experiment that it is not substantially harder to raise donations for farmed animal a