2020 was Fish Welfare Initiative’s first full year of operations. In it, FWI changed significantly: we shifted from focusing primarily on research to focusing primarily on institutional outreach and on-the-ground implementation. We set our strategy in India, and hired our first staff member there. And similar to other organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges we never anticipated.
Our mission is to improve the welfare of fish as much as possible. In this post, we discuss to what extent we’ve succeeded in living up to this goal. We’re writing this for the sake of transparency and accountability, and in the hope that our successes (and failures) can provide useful insight to other similar organizations.
Below is an outline of what we discuss. We have aimed to provide a thorough account, and readers should thus feel free to skip around to whichever part(s) most interest them.
At its simplest, FWI’s approach can be summed up as the following (essentially the explore-exploit tradeoff):
Identify the most promising ways of helping fish.
In 2020, our focus was largely the former. We sought to identify the most promising country, species, approach, and welfare improvement(s) for our fish welfare work (see Operational Mistakes for more commentary on this). Through our research, we determined what we believe to be satisfactory answers to these questions, and are now thus working with local NGOs to implement water quality improvements (amongst other changes) for farmed carp in India.
You can read more about what we planned for 2020 in our 2020 plan.
Estimated Impact and Accomplishments
We judge our work based on its impact. Unfortunately, we do not have any numbers to share with you as for the number of fish we helped in 2020. This is both because our primary focus was on research, not implementation, and because the direct impact-focused projects we did undertake had impacts that were sufficiently difficult to quantify such that we do not think it would be helpful to attempt such an estimate.
We believe the following are our most significant accomplishments in 2020:
Building a plan for work in India. We believe that our approach and plan in India will enable FWI, starting this year, to be one of the most cost effective avenues of helping animals available. With our recent partnership, it is showing early signs of success.
Research. We completed ten research projects. These included scoping reports on China, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam, a guest report on the welfare of farmed salmon, and our flagship “Fish Welfare Improvements in Aquaculture” report, which we believe to be the only report to date to thoroughly discuss welfare improvements for Indian species. While the primary purpose of our research is to inform our own decision-making, we hope that other organizations will find it useful as well.
Hiring. We grew our team from 2 to 5 full-time staff, and added several interns and contractors. This included hiring a Managing Director for our work in India. Our staff are our most valuable resource.
Farm Visits. We visited over 40 farms in India, as well as farms or markets in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Nigeria, the US, and Germany. We believe these visits are critical for actually understanding the conditions of farmed fish as well as the situations of those who make a living farming them.
Collaboration with other organizations. We’re proud to have collaborated with and helped enable the work of several other organizations, including the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations, World Animal Protection, the Aquatic Animal Alliance, the Aquatic Life Institute, Straw India, and Mercy for Animals.
Goal 1: Conclude initiative research and publish report(s) with preliminary answers to our 4 questions (priority country, species, welfare improvement, and approach).
Status: Completed. See our findings.
Goal 2: Be implementing welfare improvements on 1-4 farms and measuring and evaluating this.
Status: Not completed. We expect this to be occurring by this May with the launch of our pilot study. We significantly underestimated how long this would take, which was further exacerbated by our insufficient understanding of the complexity involved in robustly making welfare improvements (see Operational Mistakes).
Goal 3: Gain some early impact wins (i.e. somewhere where we can find a relatively simple lever to reduce fish suffering).
Status: Completed (although the goal is vague). We consider our work with Straw India to develop educational materials on fish welfare for school children to fulfill this category, as well as our participation in the Aquatic Animal Alliance to improve certification scheme standards.
Goal 4: Establish in country (with at least 1 in country staff).
Status: Completed. We hired Karthik Pulugurtha to be our Managing Director in India.
Goal 5: Establish a strong positive team culture that is intensely dedicated, goal-oriented, kind, and fun (i.e. on a survey question “How would you rank FWI’s overall team culture?”, the average score is at least a 4 out of 5).
Status: Somewhat completed. We altered our internal survey to later ask specifically for each of the desired traits. The following are our scores in the latest team-wide internal survey:
As we believe in both the instrumental and intrinsic value of a fun workplace, we are currently thinking of ways to make FWI more fun.
Goal 6: Register as a legal charitable organization.
Status: Not completed. We submitted our Form 1023 to the IRS in August, and are still awaiting our letter of determination (see Operational Mistakes).
Goal 7: Have strong industry connections (i.e. there are at least 10 people in industry that FWI knows well and could reasonably ask a favor of).
Budget and Financial Information
In 2020, FWI had an annual turnover of $150,000. About 68% of this went to programming (primarily research for the first three quarters, and then shifting to work in India in the final quarter), 30% to admin/hiring, and 2% to fundraising. You can learn more in our 2020 budget. In 2021, we are estimating an annual budget of $330,000.
Our funding in 2020 primarily came from a couple major gifts, including two grants from the EA Animal Welfare Fund, and a grant to fund our Philippines scoping work from World Animal Protection. We also had an increasing number of smaller donations supporting our work.
Our donor demographic primarily consisted of supporters of the Effective Altruism and animal protection movements. In 2021 and the coming years, we are putting more energy into diversifying our funding base.
We are extremely grateful to those individuals and organizations who donate. You enable our work--our impact is your impact.
FWI began the year with only its cofounders, Tom and Haven. During 2020, we hired three additional full-time staff: Jennifer, our Research and Project Strategist, Marco, our Fish Welfare Specialist, and Karthik, our Managing Director in India.
We were also pleased to be able to work part-time with Isla Gibson and Ethel Wagas on our scoping reports, and to have worked with a number of talented interns: Caleb Rose, Nia Personette, Jay Stonestreet, Jasti Sriram Kumar, and Naresh Rathod.
We said a sad goodbye to Sophia Babb, our Communications Specialist, who left in the fall. We're grateful for all the work that Sophia did at FWI.
We are also grateful to all the volunteers who regularly support our work. If you are interested in volunteering, consider signing up to our database.
The following are a few of the elements of FWI that we believe have been most critical for our success:
Hiring full-time staff slowly and deliberately. Much of the advice we’ve heard on hiring has said to hire slowly. And with our 5-6 stage hiring processes, that is what we have done. We believe that most of our success is due to the talented people we’ve been able to attract and identify, people whom we may not have selected in a less rigorous process. (Although two caveats on this point: First, we don’t actually know the counterfactuals, so this argument is mostly based on intuition and should be viewed as such. Second, we are generally in favor of hiring temporary staff quickly, as needs arise.)
Building relationships on the ground in India. At this point we have completed a number of field visits in India, and we believe this has been critical to demonstrate to our current and potential partners that we are worth collaborating with. Relationship building with a variety of organizations, not just those currently involved in animal protection, has been crucial.
Collaborating widely within the animal protection movement, especially in India. In our first visit to India, we made a point of meeting with as many of the local animal protection organizations as we could. In addition to understanding their views on fish welfare work, we also aimed to understand whether they thought FWI would add value by conducting such work in India. As we’ve conducted farm visits, hired a managing director, and began our own local legal incorporation, their advice has significantly improved our work.
We believe that the following were the biggest mistakes we made in 2020. We intend to improve on each in the future.
In some ways, we were too systematic. In an ideal world, we would have all the time we needed to research the best ways of helping fish before acting. But that is not our world: farmed fish (and many other sentient individuals) are suffering now. We now believe that we spent too much time on our initial research. A large part of this issue arose from our earlier focus on more context-independent research: for instance, we researched a number of different fish species, when the reality is that the target species must be largely dependent on the region.
Our annual goals were not actually useful in guiding action, and were not widely known to the team. We believe that goals are only valuable to the degree that they either inspire or inform action. Our 2020 goals, as listed above, were not particularly effective at achieving either. Additionally, our team was not very familiar with our goals. We believe our current Objectives and Key Results are much more valuable for both informing and inspiring action. All of our full-time staff have key results they are tasked with achieving, and their performance is primarily evaluated based on their success in achieving them. We believe this creates greater ownership.
We grossly underestimated how long some projects would take. For instance, as part of our annual goals we had planned to launch a pilot study last summer, but that has still yet to begin (it’s now scheduled for May of this year). There were several other examples of this, especially with research projects. We believe that a large part of this failure is due to us not properly visualizing all the steps that needed to occur for a project to succeed. To correct for this, one technique that has helped is enumerating the specific milestones and mini-deadlines needed for the completion of a project. These can be further visualized with a dependency chart.
We waited too long to file our 501(c)(3) in the US. We filed in August, and as of this writing are still awaiting our determination letter. Not having the 501(c)(3) status, and subsequently operating through a fiscal sponsor, creates somewhat more operational expenses. We recommend that other organizations in similar positions file early, and expedite the process if they can.
Impact of COVID-19
The pandemic began to seriously impact our work in March, at which point we were midway through our initial field visits in India. COVID-19 had a couple impacts on our work:
Instead of conducting further field visits and scoping reports with our current staff, the pandemic led us to hire local contractors to complete the work. This caused certain delays, and limited the number of countries we could seriously consider. However, given the added benefits that working with a local contractor brought, we now believe that this is an avenue we should have utilized more from the beginning.
The pandemic also increased the logistical and financial cost of our field work in India, as it became harder to safely meet with people and more expensive to safely travel.
Looking Ahead to 2021
We are feeling optimistic about our impact going into 2021. For instance, in the first few weeks of the year we secured our first commitment in India, which we believe will impact several million fish. Although much work is still required on our end, this is FWI’s greatest achievement to date, and we hope and expect the start of many more.
The majority of our budget and staff hours will be focused on implementing changes with our current partner, securing additional commitments and partnerships, and demonstrating the viability of our welfare improvements in a formal study. You can learn more about our 2021 plan here.
Thank you to all those of you who make this work possible.