How One Enterprising Crowdfunding Campaign Takes on Commercial Farming

Let me say first: This post is not going to be a tirade on the evils of commercial farming. It actually has a happy middle—the ending is still being created, and all you power-of-the-crowd believers are about to be given an opportunity to harness some of your muscle to create change.

But first the backstory.

Months ago I stumbled on a Facebook page that would change me considerably. Though Esther the Wonder Pig sounds like the sequel to “Babe,” and I’m not sure how well that film did at the box office, by my calculation Esther’s fan base weighs in at about 261 fans per pound. And that’s not counting Instagram and Twitter.

Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, an ordinary couple of animal lovers living just outside of Toronto, Canada, launched her Facebook page in 2012. This was shortly after they added to their menagerie what they thought was a “mini pig.”

Surprise, surprise! Esther ended up being a regular ol’ workaday commercial pig. You know, like the ones that live for the sole purpose of being our dinner?

Not long after looking at the photos of Esther—all 530 lbs of her —hanging out with the family, with a smile you could just gobble up, I took my last forkful of her kind.

ESTER1 Esther3

The mental commitment was the easy part. Alas, I’d find myself having to revisit Esther’s Facebook page whenever I got a hankering for barbeque.

Pork is everywhere! At an Asian restaurant recently I struggled to find anything on the menu that didn’t include some pig part. When I told friends at the table about my dilemma, and how Esther’s big moony face tugged at me, I was met with polite amusement. I guess it’s true: a picture is worth 1,000 words. I should have pulled out my iPhone, we’d all have settled for the tofu.

I spoke with Steven Jenkins recently and tried that story one more time, figuring I’d find a more receptive listener. He surprised me by saying that a large percentage of Esther fans come from Asia! Is it possible they cutting down their pork consumption, too?

Maybe! He wasn’t sure. . .

. . . And maybe not.

Despite efforts—and great strides—by animal-rights advocates, however, for most people there remains a cavernous disconnect between our diets and how those farm animals wound up on our plates. (Warning about that last link. It contains graphic video images I still cannot shake from my brain.)

Meat-eating has always been a messy business, shadowed by the shame of killing and, since Upton Sinclair’s writing of The Jungle, by questions about what we’re really eating when we eat meat. Forgetting, or willed ignorance, is the preferred strategy of many meat eaters, a strategy abetted by the industry.

– Michael Pollan, journalist and author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

But here’s the thing: If I used the narrative above to frame my crowdfunding pitch, Esther’s campaign to purchase property for a pig farm sanctuary would probably be suffering a slow, unnecessary death.

Check out what her people did with Esther’s campaign instead. From the beginning it’s upbeat, celebratory, and all-around entertaining! Even the video, (the VO of which just may be a nod to “Babe”) doesn’t make us feel overwhelmed or saddened.

Or guilty.

Just like her Facebook page Jenkins and Walter were smart enough to meet people where they are. They share the ups and downs of accidental big pig ownership and definitely do not recommend it. No looking down on the unenlightened meat eaters or preaching a vegan or vegetarian diet. No violins or tears. At least they don’t lead with that.

Through it all, however Esther becomes more and more emblazoned on our psyches. A living and breathing integral part of their family—just like our dogs and cat companions (albeit with cloven feet)—and a lovable stand-in for all the anonymous farm creatures we never before bothered to give much thought to.

It’s just great.

Social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations remember: People tune out when they are lectured to or inundated with sad-sack stories and images. You’re not putting your best face forward when all you do is highlight the problem.

Make no mistake, people understand there’s a problem when they read about Esther the Wonder Pig; they just won’t feel assaulted. In fact, they’ll probably become more curious and do a little research on their own. (Like I did when I stumbled on that horrific video documenting pig treatment on commercial farms.) Then they’ll come back to you— enlightened and primed to fund you—and feel grateful for going easy on them.

What else did this campaign do right?

They let social media do the heavy lifting

From the beginning Jenkins and Walter used social media brilliantly. Launching a Facebook page for Esther was a natural since it’s a haven for animal lovers, and they are actively targeting celebrity animal lovers on sites like Twitter.

They got their proof of concept before launching

Jenkins told me he and Walter were shocked to see how quickly Esther’s star shot into the social media stratosphere. So by the time they decided to run a crowdfunding campaign, with hundreds of thousands of followers spread across social media channels they had every reason to believe they could be successful.

They created a business plan

Their goal is not a small one: They need $400K just to purchase the property and the buildings on it. They wisely hired professionals and wrote a business plan they call The Esther Effect Farm Animal Sanctuary. This gives them much-needed credibility and leadership thumbs up.

They are not relying on crowdfunding as a sole source of income

The crowdfunding campaign represents only phase one of their plan. As their accountant told me (yes, Esther has an accountant) the ultimate goal for the sanctuary is that it becomes self-funding through their registered foundation for daily operations, with supplemental revenues coming from a farmers market and educational programs as well as special events and entry fees.

They are building an army

Esther has a second Facebook page. It’s called Esther’s Army. Why does she need that? Forget about teams! With their ambitious goals Jenkins and Walter were smart enough to realize that they needed a dedicated place where their true fans could go to share ideas, offer suggestions, and brainstorm on next steps. “It’s a way to avoid spamming people,” Jenkins said. I love that.

My only concern, which I shared with Jenkins, is that an awful lot of perks are going require considerable man (and pig) hours to fulfill. Life with Esther is busy enough. Will they be able to pull it off? Jenkins is sanguine about it, but it remains to be seen how Esther feels about Skype.

My suggestion to all of you fans who plan to contribute is please do Esther and her people a favor and check that little box that says No Perk.