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Should you work in alternative protein startups or animal charities?

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

Over the past decade, there’s been a race to the top between animal advocacy charities and alternative protein startups.

To take a couple of striking examples, investment in alt proteins and advocacy-driven reforms for chickens have both shot up from near irrelevance to become major challenges to the factory farming industry.

Cage-free and broiler welfare corporate policies secured over time
Cage-free and broiler welfare corporate policies secured over time

Capital invested in alternative protein and plant-based foods

Capital invested in alternative protein and plant-based foods
Capital invested in alternative protein and plant-based foods

With so many exciting developments in both directions, which option is best if you want to help animals through your career?

This article walks through some key considerations:

We’re using “alternative protein” as a shorthand for animal product alternatives, so we cover cultured meat jobs, cellular agriculture jobs, and plant based food jobs. But we’re not including insect protein, which might be far worse than conventional animal products.

We’re also focusing in this article on which opportunities are best for helping animals — we’re not trying to answer more personal questions, like whether sustainable food systems jobs could be your dream job.

Charities need you more than you know

Alt protein companies raised 25 times more money than farmed animal advocacy nonprofits in 2021, according to Farmed Animal Funders' state of the movement report and GFI's investment data.

Alt protein companies raised 25 times more money than farmed animal advocacy nonprofits in 2021
Alt protein companies raised 25 times more money than farmed animal advocacy nonprofits in 2021

The upshot? Alternative protein companies probably pay higher average salaries than cash-strapped animal charities. And higher paid jobs attract more candidates.

Animal charity jobs are a great fit for lots of people, but they might not look it at first glance. So while animal advocacy nonprofits often need to fill roles from the limited ranks of dedicated activists and altruists, their for-profit counterparts might more easily tap into a wider talent pool.

This makes you less replaceable if you take an animal nonprofit job; you’re essentially increasing the (limited) talent pool, freeing up the activist/altruist who would have taken your role to work on something else that helps animals. But if you take a for-profit role, you’re more likely to be just freeing up someone to work in an unrelated, low-impact role in another company.

The missing middle between alternative protein startups and animal welfare jobs

The first cultivated meat hamburger was cooked and tasted live on TV in London in 2013.

cultivated meat hamburger
Cultured burger images: Mark Post holds the uncooked cultured burger in a petri dish and later holds the cooked cultured burger in a bun. Image credit: David Parry/PA Wire.

The burger itself was created by Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University, funded by Sergey Brin’s foundation; this had been coordinated in part by the nonprofit New Harvest, and built on earlier research funded by the Dutch government.

The cultivated hamburger bursting into the public eye goes to show that you don’t need to work at a company to work in alternative protein:

And of course, there are nonprofits!

Careful reader might have noticed that a lot of the hyperlinked sources in this article are to nonprofits:

  • The Good Food Institute, which supports the development and marketing of alternative protein through lobbying, research, funding, and community-building.

  • New Harvest, which focuses more specifically on “advancing the science behind cultured meat,” such as funding open-access research.

  • Sentience Institute, which has conducted various strategic research about how to successfully develop the alternative protein market.

  • Animal Advocacy Careers! We research and write careers advice, like what you’re reading now, which we summarise in our online course. Our job board helps you land new high-impact roles.

The fact we’ve relied so heavily on these nonprofits for this article shows the vital role they play. And of course, there are many others doing great work: Plant-Based Foods Association, ProVeg International, CellAg Deutschland, Cellular Agriculture Australia, and more.

We often think in binaries like “social change vs. food technology”. If we have to go all-or-nothing, it’s a moot point which option is best. Social change is hard, and the disappointing results of decades of vegan activism might push us towards tech to disrupt the food system. But tech isn’t looking like a quick-fix either, despite the blistering pace of investment and innovation that we’re witnessing.

This binary is wrong.

There are many types of activism, and the arguments against them don’t apply equally. It’s true that individual diet change activism has struggled to make much progress, but there are many other tactics that might have wider effects. [3]

And as we’ve seen, there are many different nonprofits that focus on growing the alternative protein market. Put it this way: there are vegan food jobs where you don’t actually make vegan food, just as there are animal jobs where you don’t actually work with animals.

So nonprofit jobs are the ‘middle’. But why the ‘missing middle’? Well, alternative proteins are alternative activism, too; they’re a relatively small chunk of farmed animal nonprofit spending:

farmed animal nonprofit spending
Farmed animal nonprofit spending

Alt protein companies don’t have much incentive to do this activism themselves. Why would they pay for open-access research (technical R&D, market research, strategic social science) that would benefit their competitors as much as themselves? Or spend money on lobbyists who won’t bring back profits? There’s a lot of potential for market failure, and nonprofits like GFI are stepping up to fill the gap.

Best of both or worst of both? Earning to give in alt protein companies

Upside Foods (fka Memphis Meats) raised the ridiculous sum of $400 million in Series C funding in early 2022, including investors ranging from Bill Gates to Tyson Foods to SoftBank. That’s about double the entire annual global spending on farmed animal advocacy. The Founder & CEO, Uma Valeti, has pledged to give away a chunk of his personal profits to charity. The mind boggles at how many animals he could help if he chooses to give to the fight against factory farming.

Valeti’s vast wealth might be an exception, but we’ve already seen that jobs in the plant based food industry and in cellular agriculture tend to pay pretty well. Could you earn a hefty income in alt protein companies then donate the proceeds?

Effective animal advocacy nonprofits report that a lack of funds is the most important barrier preventing them from achieving more to help animals, so your contributions would be welcomed with open arms. You might have direct impact with your day job, earn enough to donate 10% or more of your salary, and still be one of the richest people in the world.

Sound too good to be true? The catch is that maybe you can’t have it both ways. Trying to optimise for too many things can lead to optimising for nothing in particular.

Direct impact and earnings might sit neatly together a lot of the time. More senior roles in animal product alternatives companies might have more leverage and be better paid, so you’ll probably want to aim to advance through the ranks. And founding a brand new startup is high-risk, high-reward from both an impact and financial perspective.

But at times there will be tradeoffs. Maybe you think that working at a plant-based seafood startup seems like it would have the highest direct impact, but you’ve noticed that Beyond Meat careers pay better. You should also think outside the alt protein box: you might be able to earn more in a different industry or, as we’ve seen above, help animals more by working in a nonprofit.

Getting practical: Don’t waste your edge

Eitan Fischer, the CEO of cultured meat company Mission Barns, used to be the Executive Director of Animal Charity Evaluators in its early stages. Kristie Middleton, Vice President Of Business Development at plant-based meat startup Rebellyous Foods, first worked as a manager at The Humane Society of the United States for over a decade.

People in alt protein companies
Some people working in alt protein companies and animal charities

People do switch from vegan companies to charities or vice versa — many skills can be transferred between them. But some career capital is much more specialised, and would be wasted in the wrong context.

Take Vicky Bond, President of The Humane League, who brought a mix of veterinary and nonprofit experience to her role at THL. We’re sure Vicky could have done great work at alternative protein startups. But there wouldn’t have been all that much use for her seven years of veterinary science training in that context — this brings credibility to her animal welfare advocacy.

Likewise, Dr Sandhya Sriram, Group CEO and Co-Founder of Shiok Meats, could probably have made waves in a nonprofit context, but her biology and business background seems almost tailor-made for alternative protein careers.

Roles in promising animal advocacy nonprofits or alternative protein companies both seem like great options. In this situation, differences in the impact potential of specific opportunities still matter, but whatever seems best suited to your skills and expertise might be a crucial deciding factor. If you have stronger personal fit with one option than the other, don’t waste your edge.

One major caveat here is that even technical or business backgrounds that would set you up perfectly for vegan food jobs would also be a boon for working at related nonprofits. Liz Specht applied her decade’s worth of academic research experience in synthetic biology, recombinant protein expression, and genetics to science and technology leadership at the Good Food Institute, rather than taking it to the for-profit world.

Note also that your skills, abilities, and aptitudes probably matter more than your experience; we’ve discussed experience in our examples here because it’s easier to get your head round, but you can read a detailed analysis of how to think about your comparative advantage here.

Your next steps

If you’re ready to start applying, you can find nonprofit opportunities on our job board or any other vegan job boards we list here. But if you first want to be guided through the process of working out which jobs are best for you and best for animals, we recommend that you sign up for our free, introduction to animal advocacy online course!


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