Vegetarian Action

Encouraging Humane Organizations to Go Vegetarian for Fundraising Events

by Mark Rifkin

Since animal rights has become popular over the last 20 years, humane and animal adoption organizations have been challenged about their typical reluctance to eliminate meat from their fundraising events. However, at least one such organization needed no encouragement. Animal Rescue, Inc., a sanctuary for stray and abused dogs and cats based in rural southern Pennsylvania, has been led by two ardent vegetarians, Grace Froelich and Phil Staelens, since its founding in 1976. Although Grace and Phil have many vegetarian supporters, most of their supporters are more ‘conventional’ and not vegetarian.

As Phil tells it, what was originally a vegan employee holiday party was opened to the public in 1998 as a fundraiser. Catered by a local Chinese restauranteur known for his wonderful variety of tofu, seitan, tempeh, and yuba dishes, the absence of meat at Animal Rescue’s Annual Dinner Dance Auction has not been a major issue. Although one might think that ‘conventional’ animal people would object, Phil reports 75 percent of the attendees are completely satisfied with the event’s menu, and only 5 percent are dissatisfied enough to complain. Advertising and promotion efforts now contain the word ‘vegan’—a monumental achievement, considering the term was more or less unknown by mainstream America five years ago. The annual event has been doing so well that they’re considering adding a second vegan caterer with American-style cuisine.

Phil summarizes, “How can you have one animal as a pet and another as food?” While he acknowledges there may be cultural differences between those who eat dogs and those who eat cows, he says that, for most Americans, there should be no difference.

The impact of such consistent ethics may be spreading. Phil reports another local animal nonprofit had an all-vegan menu at a professional seminar—much to Phil’s surprise and delight.

However, vegetarian leadership does not guarantee success with such an event. Just ask Frank Branchini, a longtime vegetarian and Executive Director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County in Maryland. When he was appointed seven years ago, he continued the vegetarian traditions at the Black Tie and Tails fundraising event. For two years, he says, everything was fine, but complaints about the menu started coming in. Moreover, the complainers were louder than anyone else, particularly any vegetarian members. Frank says eventually two influential non-vegetarian event chairs planned a ‘revised’ event and menu before taking it to the Board of Directors, and few objections were raised. Even the vegetarians on the Board were quiet, despite Frank’s requests for help.

The Board agreed to the new menu, although vegetarian and vegan options are still available; two smaller HSBC events remain vegetarian. However, supporters of the original format spoke up later and quit the planning committee. Frank believes their protest was too little and too late and thinks they might have believed that the vegetarian menu would never be overturned.

Frank warns similarly situated vegetarians, “Don’t assume you’re not going to backslide.” Frank also agrees that part of the problem may be that vegetarians may avoid more ‘conservative’ animal organizations. Now, we see the drawbacks of such decisions.

Despite the setback and frustration, Frank says he is not planning to resign. Ever hopeful, he points to the success they did have and notes that many organizations are discovering that vegetarian food can be fabulous, not at all limited to a combination of lettuce, tomatoes, and sprouts. “These were people who didn’t necessarily believe vegetarian food could be attractive and delicious.”

For information on the Food for Thought campaign to promote adoption of vegetarian menu policies at such events, visit the Animal Place of Vacaville, CA, website.

Mark Rifkin wrote this article while doing a dietetic internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.