In our first edition of the CEO blog, The Vegan Society's Chief Executive Officer Jasmijn de Boo discusses how a recent visit from two international vegan organisations aided her understanding of the separate yet similar challenges faced by differing European vegan groups.
As we wandered through the streets of Birmingham, trying to find dinner at a nice little cafe serving simple but wholesome vegan food, we were forced to make a detour. Although vegan cakes were available at the Canalside Cafe, which we enjoyed, the kitchen was closed for hot meals, so we decided to have a vegan pizza following our dessert at Pizza Express. I was hosting a visit from the CEOs and their Assistants of the German organisation VEBU and the Austrian Vegan Society for four days in February.
As part of an EU grant-funded project we exchanged experiences in running vegan organisations in Germany, Austria and the UK. While The Vegan Society is the oldest vegan non-profit organisation in the world, fast developments and progress in other European countries show us that the UK is almost starting to lag behind in the growth of veganism. What can we learn from others, and what do we have in common?
VEBU used to be the ‘Vegetarierbund’ (Vegetarian Society) since the late nineteenth century but their outreach has been nearly all vegan for the past 7 years under their visionary leader, Sebastian Zösch. Their membership increased from around 2,000 members, which had been stagnant for decades, to well over 12,000 in 2014. As most members pay 5 euro a month, the main source of income for VEBU comes from members and supporters, unlike The Vegan Society, where membership and donations combined make up about 10-15% of income, while the cost of servicing the membership is nearly the same.
VEBU are active throughout the year, and they have an impressive list of achievements. Some of their activities include:
• Organising indoor and outdoor veggie events attracting tens of thousands of visitors per event, and partnering with other events, such as the recent Biofach fair, the largest organic trade fair in Europe
• Running EU-funded projects such as ‘Vegucation’, which includes providing chef training in vegan cooking and nutrition
• Hosting a ‘VegMed’ conference about plant-based nutrition and health for the medical profession
• Providing business advice and consultancy for new vegan start-ups, including lending occasional seed funding
• Disseminating tens of thousands of monthly copies of a veggie newspaper through whole foods and independent stores throughout Germany
• Raising the profile of VEBU and veganism in the media, with an estimated monthly reach of over 6 million people in 2014
The German government helps people into work by providing paid internships or apprenticeships to non-profit organisations. For nearly every paid worker in VEBU a government-sponsored volunteer is linked to the organisation for six to 18 months. VEBU has nearly 30 members of staff and government-funded volunteers. This extra capacity helps VEBU, along with their ‘activist’ network of over 200 local contacts throughout Germany, to run events and provide training. Several members of staff work part-time, including a lobbyist. VEBU work with a range of businesses and politicians to raise awareness of the need to change laws, including tax regulations and to better define and regulate ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ labelling. VEBU estimates there are up to 7 million vegetarians and vegans in Germany, including about 900,000 vegans (1.1%).
With a turnover of well over a million euro VEBU is a medium-sized organisation. The charity regulations are very different in Germany, and they seem to be less bureaucratic or restrictive compared to the UK system. However, the UK Gift Aid scheme, where every donation of £1 by a tax-paying donor results in a 25p tax refund for the charity from HMRC, is unique and not directly applicable in most European countries. Tax payers in many EU countries can declare how much they have donated and receive tax relief when they submit their self-assessment, but this does not directly help charities. Equally, UK schemes such as CAF vouchers or salary sacrifice schemes are not as widely applicable in Europe, and it also seems that UK charities benefit a lot more from legacies and bequests than do other European charities.
VEBU and The Vegan Society are similar in the sense that we pay modest salaries; they are unfortunately not competitive compared to most other charities. However, we attract people who really believe in promoting veganism, and who are passionate about making a difference. This was similar for the Austrian Vegan Society, VGO, which has been going strong since 1999.
Vegan balls and other events
The day after running another very successful and enjoyable Vienna Vegan Valentine’s Ball, VGO CEO Felix Hnat and Head of Education, Olivia Ladinig travelled to Birmingham, tired but satisfied. Balls are a traditional Austrian pastime and the vegan version, accompanied by a five-course gourmet dinner by a famous chef and other entertainment, results in the event selling out to over 300 international guests every year. Having never been to Vienna, this has tempted me to go to attend this great event next year!
VEBU and VGO make a small profit from events. However, both organisations admit that organising major events, even if assisted by events management companies, still require a major effort, and that some staff members are involved in events pretty much full-time. Having a Vegan Society presence at around 10 events in the UK takes up a fair amount of time of The Vegan Society Events Coordinator, Jess, and Volunteering and Engagement Manager Alex, as they organise people, merchandise and logistics. And we are lucky to already have great vegan teams organising festivals across the UK.
Media on side
Like VEBU, VGO is equally successful in attracting substantial positive media coverage. Despite the country being significantly smaller than Germany, and VGO’s staff only counting 7 paid employees and several volunteers, their track record is impressive. Having positive press relations is crucial when being asked to comment on the growth of veganism, nutrition or animal rights issues. This clearly helps promote the vegan cause far beyond the direct reach of our organisations.
VGO is also involved in the Vegucation programme for students and chefs, and they run other education projects. VGO are also agents for the Vegan Trademark, as the Austrian vegan product market is growing rapidly. Felix Hnat estimates that up to 2% of the Austrian population is vegan, which is awesome. A similar figure has been floating about in Sweden. VEBU, VGO and The Vegan Society have all recently been contacted by an increasing number of journalists wanting to find out more about the reasons why veganism is becoming so popular.
The exchange visit was inspirational, and I can’t wait to visit Vienna and Berlin, hopefully later this year.
More learning opportunities through the EU Erasmus project
The Vegan Society are hosting a Social Media and Digital Communications training workshop for organisations from 5 EU countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Croatia from 30 March until 2 April. Find out in a few weeks how this went by returning to The Vegan Society website.
By Jasmijn De Boo, CEO of The Vegan Society
The views expressed by our bloggers are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.