Fierce compassion: what a stimulating theme for deep connection at the 2016 Skoll World Forum.

At first, fierce compassion may sound like a paradox. We tend to associate fierceness with aggression, and compassion with its opposite: altruism, care for others, and selfless love. In exploring the tension between these concepts, I looked fierceness up in the dictionary, and learned that it also conveys “heartfelt and powerful action”—a label that undoubtedly fits every single Skoll awardee.

Social enterprises are powerful tools for righting injustices, while providing sustainable models for inclusive change. Social entrepreneurs fiercely tackle the most difficult and complex challenges facing humanity, but they are also vulnerable on a personal level.

The vulnerability comes with the “heartfelt” part, the part that connects to vision, intention, and motivation. All social entrepreneurs have been, at some point in their lives, provoked by contact with injustice. All of them opened their hearts to embrace it and allow it to inform their speech, action, and livelihoods.

Whether the injustice was poverty, climate change, neglected diseases, child abuse, landmines, or whatever other scourge, their hearts and minds were shocked to the extent that they felt compelled to dedicate their time and energy to innovating, cracking the code, and changing the paradigm to one more harmonious, peaceful, and prosperous.

However, too often there is an imbalance between the achievements of these social entrepreneurs and their own personal sustainability.

I have learned how important it is for social entrepreneurs to recognize and embrace their own personal vulnerability, and to be supported in their need for personal development.

I transitioned from my leadership role in APOPO to focus on the practice and dissemination of meditation—even more important to me than my passion for mine-detecting rats. While exploring the field I encountered Aaron Pereira, an Ashoka fellow who was supporting seasoned social entrepreneurs in doing inner work through the Wellbeing Project. I joined forces with his team.

The Wellbeing Project is based on the holistic vision that “being well informs doing well,” and is inspired by a sense of care and compassion for all the people who work to build a better world, as well as to support the many causes and movements for which they work. It is focused on both modeling support for social change leaders, and cultivating a shift in the field of social enterprise toward one that is healthier and more supportive of inner wellbeing.

Through interviewing social entrepreneurs, we learned that too many of them live an imbalance between their work and their personal sphere, which results in all kinds of undesirable physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual states. While creating value for the common good, too many social entrepreneurs feel alone, isolated, misunderstood, depleted, and in distress on a personal level. Moreover, we learned that their personal imbalance threatened the effectiveness and the quality of change their organizations are pursuing.

These findings are as important for social entrepreneurs as they are for the individuals involved in their organizations. The field of social change needs not only fierce compassion for the people it serves. To be really effective, social entrepreneurs need to start by being fiercely compassionate toward themselves.