In 2008 I was talking to social entrepreneur Vera Cordeiro of Saúde Criança—a Skoll Awardee and, like me, an Ashoka Fellow. I was in the midst of a sabbatical, and it had sparked a conversation about our need as changemakers to find support for deeper personal exploration. She put it so powerfully: “I need this, I want this for myself.” I was having many conversations like this, and they touched me deeply.

That same need and want was why I had chosen to take a sabbatical. In my late teens I had co-founded the charity CanadaHelps, and later Vartana, which tried to launch a new financial institution for the social sector. But I had begun to see that underneath the frenzy of working on exciting things, I was unhappy.

So I decided to put my entrepreneurial projects aside, travel, and learn to meditate. I also started doing some deep personal work—healing trauma, becoming aware of the structures underlying my personality, and learning to bring compassionate attention to these structures as they revealed themselves layer by layer.

I began to see how I had reached the point of burnout. I’ll share two examples. I had found it hard to be vulnerable, to trust others, and so had carried too much responsibility. I also began to see how much of my identity was woven into being a social entrepreneur. I didn’t know who I was away from that. My sabbatical became a moment of inner reconciliation, even as my personal journey continues today.

Slowly I shifted from being obsessed with work to loving my life. And I began to see how this new orientation fed my social impact work. As I finished my sabbatical, I came back to the conversations I had had with peers. I’m sharing my story here as part of a community of people involved in the Wellbeing Project, people who all have similar and extraordinarily human stories.

Our project started with research—deep conversations with people working for and leading social change. We were touched by their personal struggles—the vulnerability, the lack of time for families, the inability to have conversations unrelated to work, the struggle for happiness and balance—and the need for support that many of them expressed.

We were also inspired to see that some social entrepreneurs had undertaken inner work—such as seeing a coach, therapist, or spiritual teacher over a long period of time—and by the beauty of what emerged: healthier lives and relationships, and more sustainable and collaborative organizations.

About the Wellbeing Project

The Wellbeing Project was formed to explore and meet the inner needs of social entrepreneurs. It is co-created with Ashoka, Esalen, Fetzer Institute, and the Synergos Institute, and is cultivating a shift in the culture of the social change field, towards one that is healthier and more supportive of inner wellbeing. Our three-year project is focused on catalyzing change and sharing everything we learn.

The project is comprised of four pillars:

  • Inner development program: Supporting experienced social entrepreneurs in finding and nurturing a deeper sense of inner wellbeing, through an 18-month program of retreats, peer group work, an individualized program, and seminars with wisdom teachers. The participants are drawn from four networks: Ashoka, Schwab, Skoll, and Synergos.

  • Research: A large-scale research study exploring the connection between personal development and the quality and effectiveness of social change work.

  • Learning and convening: Bringing together global and regional leaders in the field of social change to learn from the research, work together to shift the culture, and build a new infrastructure of support for everyone working in the field.

  • Storytelling: Exploring the personal stories of social entrepreneurs and sharing those experiences broadly.

Participants in the Wellbeing Project’s inner development program.

What we’ve learned so far

Though it’s early in our three-year project, we can already see that we are touching a deep need within the world of social change, both for the people working in the field as well as for our organizations and movements. The Wellbeing Project has kept open the concept of wellbeing, and the participants’ understanding of the concept is evolving.

The social entrepreneurs who are participating in the program say they are grateful for an opportunity to be seen for who they are as people, not just as representatives of their organizations. Everyone expressed relief at not having to introduce themselves to the community by talking about their work or accomplishments.

Given their passion and purpose, it’s not surprising to learn that social innovators try to live up to a “hero archetype” which stresses accomplishments and project scaling, and which emphasizes organizational rather than personal sustainability.

Although they may realize they need support, social entrepreneurs are often hesitant to voice this need. Many find it difficult to give themselves time or permission for self-care and to determine how to integrate wellbeing practices and personal development into daily life.

Participants are grateful for the opportunity to focus on wellbeing, which they view as a privilege in a world where self-care can feel indulgent. They identified numerous challenges in trying to take care of themselves: feelings of scarcity of time and resources, repeating unhealthy patterns, feeling isolated, feeling overwhelmed, and experiencing health issues.

Explorations of identity seem to be at the core of many people’s inner work, as they ask, “Who am I without my passion? Who am I without my anger? Who am I without my organization? What if increasing my wellbeing makes me lose what makes me a great social entrepreneur?”

As participants wrestle with these tough questions, they also express interest in seeking a new relationship with their organization and their work, and a desire to connect more deeply with others in the field.

It’s clear that participants are seeking to make meaningful connections between their inner work and their action in the world.

Early trends

Even at this early stage there is a clear sense of movement and momentum, with significant evidence of meaningful inner work facilitated by individual exploration and group process.

Participants describe changes in their lives in concrete terms and see participation in the project as a growth experience that may not have otherwise been possible—if they had pursued such a path to wellbeing at all.

We are finding that committed inner work fosters both personal transformation and an increased sense of wellbeing—which has the potential to rejuvenate, focus, and support social innovation in the world.

As one participant said: “I am beginning to trust my instincts in being able to work through the challenges I have been unable to deal with in the past, the stress and anxiety that leadership created in me, the inability to process loss and grieve, and not giving myself the space to learn and reflect.”

Connecting with a movement

Our hope is that the culture of our field can begin to shift in a meaningful way, and that there can be many more opportunities for support for all of us.

One of the ways we are supporting that shift is through our work with an ecosystem of key local and regional institutions, who see the wellbeing of changemakers as an important issue. They are exploring how our learnings can be implemented at the local level around the world.

You can also get involved. We will be hosting conversations in cities around the world—watch the Wellbeing Project website for details. And starting later this year, people will be invited to interact online with the Wellbeing Project. We welcome your voices and perspectives.