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The Humane League — Corporate Cage-Free Campaigns

Photo by Stephanie Frankle at Animal Place, courtesy of the Humane League
Organization Name 
Award Date 
Grant Amount 
To support the Humane League's corporate cage-free campaigns.
Topic (focus area) 

Published: February 2016

Humane League staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Humane League is an animal advocacy organization that engages in a variety of activities, including campaigning for corporations to end the use of cages to confine egg-laying hens. We believe that corporate cage-free campaigns are a particularly effective method for reducing animal suffering, and that The Humane League has played an important role in the success of many of these campaigns in the past. We think it is likely that the effectiveness of The Humane League’s corporate campaign model will scale as it expands.

Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $1 million over two years to The Humane League (THL) to support its campaigns for corporate cage-free egg reform.


The cause

Farm animal welfare is one of the Open Philanthropy Project’s focus areas within U.S. Policy.

This grant aims to significantly reduce the suffering of caged hens. Roughly 260 million hens are currently confined in battery cages in the US.1 Peter Singer has called these hens “the most closely confined, overcrowded and generally miserable animals in America.”2

Benefits of cage-free systems

We believe that cage-free systems provide a significant improvement over battery cages in terms of hen welfare, though we are aware of some animal welfare advocates who disagree with this assessment.

Battery cages cause suffering by depriving hens of three of their most basic needs: nests, perches, and enough space to move around.3 The best systematic evaluation of egg-production systems that we know of places battery cages at 0 on a 0-to-10 scale of relative hen welfare while all cage-free systems were rated at least a 5.8, mainly because they do provide hens with these three basic needs.4 For example, the American Humane Association standards, which cover two thirds of all U.S. cage-free egg production, require that hens have access to nests, perches, and at least 1-1.25 square feet of space per hen.5 (A standard battery cage provides 67 square inches, though some have as little as 45 square inches.)6

Effectiveness of corporate campaigns

We estimate that corporate campaigns to date have resulted in cage-free pledges from around 100 companies to spare about 60 million hens annually from battery cage confinement.7 (The pledges typically take a few years to go into effect, so pledges currently outstrip the actual number of cage-free hens.) We have strong reason to believe that animal advocates have caused the cage free pledges to be made, and that the pledges would not have been made without a dedicated advocacy effort. The following points are based on Lewis’ knowledge of previous efforts:

  • In April 2012, Burger King pledged to go cage-free after advocates worked with the company. But in May 2012, McDonald’s pledged to eliminate gestation crates for pigs from its supply chain, and advocates switched focus and helped push more than 60 major companies to follow suit on gestation crates. As a result, any potential momentum created by Burger King’s cage-free move was lost. From early 2012 to late 2014, no other major food company pledged to go cage-free. It was only in late 2014 that advocates re-focused on battery cages, and the spate of major corporate pledges followed soon thereafter.
  • Many of the companies that have pledged to go cage-free have done so in joint press releases with the Humane Society of the United States or THL. We understand that these releases were the products of negotiations between the parties.
  • We know of a number of specific cases in which companies said they made cage free pledges in reaction to threatened or actual campaigns, which matches the timelines involved. We also confirmed the narrative of events that we had heard from advocates with senior executives at two major companies that pledged to go cage-free.

If we assume (fairly arbitrarily) that these campaigns brought about cage-free reforms about five years earlier than they would have occurred otherwise, then these campaigns are likely to spare about 300 million total hens one year of cage confinement. We estimate that about $2.5 million has been spent in total on corporate cage-free campaigns, suggesting that these campaigns have likely spared about 120 hens one year of battery cage confinement per dollar spent. If we were to include the funding spent to pass Proposition 2 in California in 2008, which banned battery cages in the state and may have been necessary to enable the later corporate campaigns, the estimate would drop to something more like 20 hens spared a year in battery cages per dollar spent.

As a point of comparison, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) estimates that its top charities (including the Humane League) spare 13-14 animals an average of about a third of a year of factory farming per dollar spent across their full range of interventions.8 We do not have much confidence in the accuracy of these estimates, but if they were accurate, and if sparing a hen a year of battery cage confinement were equivalent to sparing an animal a third of a year of life on a factory farm altogether, corporate cage free campaigns would be many times more cost-effective.

The organization

The Humane League (THL) has grown rapidly in recent years, expanding from only a few staff to 27 staff today. ACE recently produced an in-depth write-up of the group.

THL’s main activities are:

  • Corporate campaigns
  • Producing online ads, which direct viewers to factory farming videos
  • Grassroots organizing, through its 11 regional offices and network of student organizers across the country

We believe that THL has a particularly positive corporate campaign track record. THL has been involved in at least 67 corporate cage-free victories to date, including five of the seven largest victories (in terms of number of hens affected): Costco, Grupo Bimbo, Starbucks, Compass Group, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Other leading organizations in corporate campaigns have consistently reported to us that THL plays a key role in these campaigns.

THL appears to us to have played an important causal role in securing pledges to go cage-free from many major corporations. For example, from our conversations with THL staff:

  • Sodexo pledged to go cage-free after dozens of its campus clients, prompted by THL, requested it go cage-free. Sodexo also later asked THL staff about steps it could take to avoid similar campaigns in the future.
  • Cheesecake Factory pledged on the same day that THL met with one of the company’s major institutional investors in New York.
  • The president of Annie’s Organics told THL that its campaign targeting General Mills had succeeded after just three weeks.
  • Shake Shack pledged on December 17, after less than a week of campaigning by THL.
  • Carnival Cruises also pledged on December 17, less than 24 hours after the launch of THL’s campaign targeting it.

THL’s reputation as an effective campaigning group appears to be strong enough that, in some cases, the prospect of a campaign has been enough to help secure a cage-free pledge. For instance, according to THL:

  • After meeting repeatedly with Grupo Bimbo without success, Ana Ortega (THL’s Mexico Campaign Coordinator) told the company that THL planned to launch a corporate campaign on December 5. On December 4, Grupo Bimbo produced a global timeline to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025.
  • Following months of negotiation, THL told the holding company of Einstein Bagels, Caribou Coffee, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea that it would launch campaigns against those brands on December 15. On December 14, the three brands announced plans to go cage-free.
  • THL met with Royal Caribbean’s company leadership on December 3, and the company pledged to go cage-free later the same day.

Case for the grant

This grant will allow THL to expand its corporate campaign division in order to push more companies to go cage-free. Up until a year ago, THL had achieved 2-4 corporate victories per year with two part-time staff working on corporate campaigns. Since putting four full-time staff on corporate campaigns a year ago, THL has achieved about 35 victories, although many of these were with smaller companies. We view THL’s campaign model as replicable but labor-intensive, requiring extensive background research, online mobilizing, and grassroots protests. To date, THL has only had resources to negotiate with or campaign against a fraction of the roughly 400 U.S. food companies on its target list.

We believe the effectiveness of THL’s campaign model is likely to scale with its growth, and believe there is some chance that a grant to THL will generate superlinear returns: the possibility of reaching an industry-wide tipping point, particularly in the grocery industry, may potentially lead to higher returns than in the past. THL’s past corporate campaign budget accounts for less than $250,000 of the roughly $2.5 million that we estimate advocacy groups have spent in total on corporate cage-free campaigns. However, we believe that THL is likely responsible for more than one-tenth of the impact of these campaigns. If about a quarter of the overall impact is attributed to THL, then THL’s activities have spared about 300 hens from cage confinement per dollar spent.9

Proposed activities

THL plans to use this grant to roughly triple the size of its corporate campaign team by hiring eight new staff, including:

  • Three campaign coordinators
  • A corporate outreach specialist
  • A lawyer
  • An in-house designer
  • A website developer
  • A media specialist

THL plans to use this extra capacity to launch more and larger campaigns, especially targeting the grocery sector (which has so far largely resisted pressure to go cage-free). THL has shared its plans with us for reaching out to the nation’s 400 largest food buyers (ranging from fast food restaurants to regional grocery chains) and launching campaigns against them if necessary.

The grant’s two-year timeline will likely allow THL to offer greater job security to its new hires and to plan longer-term campaigns than it has been able to so far. In addition to funding new hires, THL plans to spend roughly $84,000 a year on campaign travel costs, $66,000 on campaign materials, and $45,000 on office space and utilities.10

Budget and room for more funding

THL’s budget has increased by about $400,000/year over the last few years (from $555,000 in 2013 to $968,000 in 2014 to between $1.3 and 1.4 million in 2015). However, most of these funds are earmarked for programs other than corporate campaigns. About a third of THL’s budget is earmarked for online ads. Roughly another third of its budget is raised at local events run by THL’s grassroots offices. Although these funds are not technically earmarked, donors give with the expectation that they will fund the local office. The remaining third of THL’s budget is split between corporate campaigns and all other activities, including administration, fundraising, and a number of other expansion priorities.

THL shared two potential two-year budgets for its corporate campaign expansion with us: for an additional $250,000/year, or $500,000/year. We have decided to fund THL’s full corporate campaign expansion budget of $500,000/year for the next two years. We believe it is unlikely that THL would have raised this amount without this grant. THL Executive Director David Coman-Hidy has told us that, despite THL’s own view of its corporate campaigns as high impact, it has exhausted the relatively small pool of potential donors interested in funding its corporate campaign work in particular.

Risks and offsetting factors

Two of our initial concerns about this grant, which have been addressed by THL, were:

  1. THL’s ability to absorb a large grant, given its small size. Mr. Coman-Hidy has what appears to us to be a fairly robust plan to expand THL sustainably. THL has already grown, in five years, from two grassroots offices to 11 and from two grassroots organizers to 13 (a scale-up similar to THL’s planned expansion of its corporate campaign division from three staff to 10, using the funds provided by this grant).
  2. The sustainability of THL’s relatively low salaries. Coman-Hidy has told us that THL has increased staff compensation and continues to do so. When Coman-Hidy joined THL, staff salaries were about $15,000-$20,000 a year and did not include benefits. Currently, all THL staff receive at least $29,000 a year as well as health insurance. Coman-Hidy also reports that THL has almost no staff turnover, has never lost staff for financial reasons, and that recent staff surveys show high morale (though we did not attempt to independently verify these claims).

We do believe there are risks associated with some of THL’s campaign tactics. In particular, some of THL’s campaign tactics seem to have irritated companies and their leaders in the past. THL reports that it uses these tactics because it has found them effective for bringing companies to the negotiating table, and that they do not target anyone by name except company CEOs.

We also see two broader scenarios in which this grant might be rendered ineffective:

  1. The U.S. food industry pledges to go completely cage-free before these grants have an impact. For example, Costco’s recent pledge to go cage-free might help initiate a broader trend across the grocery sector. Similarly, the egg industry might conclude that the cage-free trend is inevitable and transition its production voluntarily. Major egg producers Rembrandt and Rose Acre Farms have both indicated that all new production capacity they build will be cage-free. Cage-free egg production is growing rapidly: the USDA estimates that as of September 2015, there were 23.6 million cage-free hens, up 37% from the previous year.11 One egg industry analyst predicts that the industry will install enough capacity for 19 million more cage-free hens in 2016.12

    However, we believe the food industry is unlikely to go 100% cage-free without continued pressure from advocacy groups. The most recent survey of egg producers (accounting for a third of U.S. egg production) found that these producers plan to install new cage capacity for about 3 million caged hens, in addition to new cage-free capacity for 4 million hens.13 Since caged systems have a long use life, we see the fact that producers are still planning to build new cage capacity as an indication that these producers do not expect a complete cage-free transition in the near term.

  2. The current trend toward a cage-free transition stops, despite the efforts of advocates. For example, if Walmart were to transition to “enriched cages” instead of cage-free systems, other food companies might view this as an opportunity to do the same. In such a scenario, THL’s cage-free campaigns might become significantly less effective, even with the additional capacity brought about by our grant.

    However, this would be a major reversal of the current trend among both U.S. and European companies of moving away from enriched cages in favor of cage-free systems. In the case of such a reversal, we suspect that our grant would become more, not less, important to supporting THL’s work to overcome it.

Follow-up expectations

We expect to have a conversation with THL staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. At the one-year mark, we expect to provide an update on this grant, either by publishing public notes or by producing a brief write-up. Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.

Our process

We identified corporate cage-free reforms as a promising area for grantmaking within our farm animal welfare program. As THL is one of the main organizations running these campaigns, we contacted THL to discuss its plans and funding situation with the organization’s leadership in more detail.


American Egg Board, About the Egg IndustrySource (archive)
American Humane Association News Release January 21, 2010Source (archive)
American Humane Association, Animal Welfare Standards for Laying HensSource
Animal Charity Evaluators, Animal Equality Cost Effectiveness Estimate (2015)Source (archive)
Animal Charity Evaluators, Mercy For Animals Cost Effectiveness Estimate (2015)Source (archive)
Animal Charity Evaluators, THL Cost Effectiveness Estimate (2015)Source (archive)
De Mol et al. 2006Source (archive)
Humane League, 2016-2017 Proposal for Campaign ExpansionSource
LayWel 2004Source (archive)
Marsh 2010Source (archive)
O’Keefe 2015aSource (archive)
O’Keefe 2015bSource (archive)
Our internal estimates of cage-free pledges as of mid-February 2016Source
Singer 2015Source (archive)