If you want to do good, you have to be good to yourself

Reflections on the Wellbeing of Social Entrepreneurs and the Wellbeing Project

Mankind has never been better off than it is today. While our ancestors had to use their main energy to defeat hunger, disease and war, today three times more people die of obesity than of malnutrition. Our life expectancy has continuously increased over the last decades. And contrary to our subjective perception of living in an age of terrorism and crisis, far more people today commit suicide than fall victim to human violence.

It is a truism, however, that every new age and every new stage of development not only comes with new opportunities, but also new challenges. Climate change, social inclusion and gender justice are among our most pressing contemporary problems. Digitalization is also accompanied by an exponentially rapid change that must be actively navigated and shaped.

Complex challenges cannot be met by individuals
These challenges have one thing in common: they cannot be met by individual actors, be they states, companies or civil society actors. Instead, they require the ability to cooperate, form alliances and build networks. Only through diversity and cooperation can we develop adequate solutions for our complex world. Because different actors bring different perspectives to the table, they can co-creatively develop new solutions and thus change the system in the long term.

Social entrepreneurs are particularly affected by this dilemma: with great commitment and competence they try to solve important social problems. However, in order to make systems change really effective, they have to go far beyond their individual organizations. Instead they need to form networks and start movements that change systems and policies for the better.

Stressed social entrepreneurs
So far, this has only happened on a grand scale ony in a few cases. The reasons for this partial failure are multifaceted, but one of them seems to lie in the life circumstances of the social entrepreneurs themselves. Studies by Ashoka and Schwab Foundation showed that Changemaker have a disproportionately poor quality of life. Many struggle with depression, burnout and chronic diseases, high divorce rates and financial pressure. On closer inspection this is not particularly surprising: many social entrepreneurs have experienced traumatizations early in life, which have sensitized and motivated them for the social emergency, which their organizations work against. These experiences can — especially in the foundation phase — provide a positive impetus. Over time, however, the personal shadows can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle that is exacerbated by the “normal” challenges of the social sector — from high financial pressure to persistent social grievances.

Resilience for people who want to change the world
A Canadian Ashoka Fellow, Aaron Pereira, experienced some of these challenges himself. After taking a long sabbatical, he learned from talks with other social entrepreneurs that many were struggling for personal balance and inner satisfaction. They found it difficult to come into contact with their own vulnerability. They talked exclusively about their work. There was hardly any time left for family and friends. At the same time he got to know other social entrepreneurs who had done inner work — e.g. by visiting a coach or therapist for longer periods of time or by learning from a spiritual teacher. This group seemed to live healthier, to maintain close relationships, and at the same time to lead more sustainable and effective organizations.

Aaron, supported by Bart Weetjens, then started a project that could significantly change the work in the whole sector: the Wellbeing Project.

The Wellbeing Project
As part of the 1. phase of the Wellbeing Project, a total of 60 social entrepreneurs undergo a tailor-made programme over a period of 18 months. This consists on the one hand of three one-week group retreats, as well as an individually coordinated accompaniment by a coach, therapist or similar during the remaining time. In the group, they exchange ideas about their situation under the guidance of experienced facilitators. They gain distance from their everyday life, get to know themselves better, dare to share previously unspoken topics.

While we are still waiting for most of the results, it seems that participants undergo a deep transformation process. They see themselves and their roles in a new light and develop a much deeper understanding of what wellbeing actually means to them individually. Many speak about the relief to be able to show up as a “whole person” in the company and in life. They realize how multilayered and multidimensional they are and that until now many were mostly present in public with a certain “professional” part of their personality.

One German participant, an experienced social entrepreneur, described to me that during the retreats he had learned that there was “a second room” in his life that he had not consciously perceived so far. A deep, complex, inner experience, which suddenly became accessible to him and which he integrates into his life today as far as possible.

This so-called Inner Development Program, described here, is the central, very experience-based component of the Wellbeing Project. The second pillar consists of intensive evaluation and research support aimed at finding out to what extent internal and effective external change are really connected.

The third element is called Learning and Convening and brings the experiences of the Wellbeing Project to a group of 50 representatives of influential non-profit institutions from all over the world. I am part of this circle and take part in quarterly zoom conferences, as well as — so far — two very rewarding meetings in “meatspace”. In our circle we are exploring ways of implementing the findings of the Wellbeing project in our respective networks in order to anchor a new mindset, as well as a new ressource-rich infrastructure in the social sector.

The fourth and last pillar is storytelling. The aim here is to disseminate the experiences of the participants in the most diverse formats in order to contribute to the same personal and systemic change.

The first video with a participant in the program sharing her journey with inner work and wellbeing has just been published. I am impressed how Bedrye describes how a small positive change in herself created much bigger positive ripple effects in her organisation and the whole network.

The Wellbeing Project hits an important nerve. Suddenly it seems possible to talk about topics that were previously taboo. In these discussions a great intimacy quickly develops, which surprises and moves many participants. It is not alone in this. Other non-profit experts, including Beth Kanter with her book The Happy, Healthy Non-Profit, are also dedicated to the inner dimension of social change.

How are internal and external development interrelated? And what do we understand by “inner work” anyway?
The premise of the Wellbeing project is that internal and external work are closely linked. At the heart of the Inner Development Programme is the personal inner dimension, i.e. that social entrepreneurs improve their quality of life. At the same time, the initiators and co-creators of the programme, including Ashoka, Rockefeller Foundation, Skoll Foundation and Esalen Institute, are aiming at the necessary systemic social change that can be brought about by these social entrepreneurs.

This correlation between inner personality work and social effectiveness may seem unusual at first glance. But developmental psychologists (starting with Piaget) have in recent decades conducted detailed research into what the human maturation process looks like and what images of the world and forms of organisation are associated with the different levels. Authors such as the integral philosopher Ken Wilber, the Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan and the Spiral Dynamics Model by Don Beck have designed differentiated step models of internal and external developments.

Ken Wilber’s quadrant model AQAL describes how each event can take place and be perceived in different dimensions. On the left side of the model are the internal dimensions, on the right side the external (observable) phenomena. The individual aspects are at the top, the collective aspects at the bottom.

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL

What does it mean to appear “as a whole person”?
In the Wellbeing movement there is much talk of appearing in the world as “a whole person”. The aim is to show oneself much more holistically. For one, it is very exhausting to keep important aspects of ourselves secret from others or to suppress them. If we have no possibility to show anger, anxiety, frustration or sadness, we turn them inwards and prevent ourselves from referring to other people and situations fluently (i.e. dynamically adapted to the respective situation). Misunderstandings, projections and feelings of loneliness often follow.

Most adults have to learn to experience themselves again with their whole range of feelings and thoughts and to show themselves in a more holistic way in the world. For this, what we call “inner work” is necessary. My inner work is about having adequate self-contact — to know and reflect my own behaviour and the feelings and thoughts, patterns, values and needs underlying it better and better.

This learning process leads to a more mature personality. It is essentially a process of consciousness expansion and the ability to deal with increasing complexity. At the beginning of human life, it’s all about survival and the mother’s breast. Later I break away from the symbiosis and learn to perceive myself as an autonomous individual. At the same time I begin to depict the outer world within me and to build a relationship with it.

Both my self-contact and my awareness of the outside world can be developed very differently. External recognition (promotion by the boss, company car, etc.) can play a much greater role for many people than for others whose primary goal is their self-realization. The latter want above all freedom to develop their talents and potential. Likewise, people who have little support in themselves need more structure on the outside when in doubt. Those who are in good contact with themselves and have a solid foundation are more structure-independent and can follow their own inner compass more autonomously.

Spiral Dynamics as an explanation model for development
Development models such as Spiral Dynamics can be helpful to better understand ourselves and others, as they connect external forms of behavior and the underlying levels of worldview or consciousness. At the same time, however, these models also carry the risk of promoting stereotypes and stereotypes, and of ignoring ambivalences and contradictions.

With these dangers in mind, charts like this one can illustrate how different levels of consciousness can affect organizational cultures and leadership styles:

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL and Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics

For a more detailed describtion check out this article here.

If we orientate ourselves on this image, we can locate most companies in the blue or orange plane. Individual companies, such as Ben & Jerrys — but also most social enterprises and NGOs, follow the principles of the green level and focus on egalitarian values such as community, shared value, employee empowerment and personal relationships with customers/beneficiaries.

But neither the values and practices of the orange meme (efficiency, individual success, materialism, etc.) nor the green level (pluralism,equality, community, post-materialism, etc.) are able to initiate the systemic change we need to transform our social and economic systems to make them more inclusive, just and environmentally friendly.

This requires the ability to look beyond one’s own organization, to form coalitions and to be co-creative with other, sometimes very different actors (something that contradicts the “orange” world view). On the other hand, the values and practices of the “green” level are not well suited to focus on complex goals. Green systems are often very consensus-oriented and tend to strive for the (lowest) common denominator. Their egalitarian orientation prevents excellence and diversity from being truly recognised and used productively. But navigating in complex systems requires the ability to distinguish, identify competencies and weaknesses and use them strategically.

The abilities for this can be found on the next higher level, which is yellow in the Spiral Dynamics model (in other schematic representations it is turquoise, e.g. in Frederic Laloux and his influential book Re-Inventing Organisations). At this stage of development, people and organisations pursue overriding goals and put their own particular interests aside. They are not asking “What’s good for me and my organization and our success?” (orange), or “What is good for our team and its people?”(green). Instead, they address the overriding question: “What does the world need and what contribution can I and my organization make?”

For people at this level, the “higher purpose” — the greater sense — is central. They are able to depict their immediate environment (family, company, city, etc.) as well as large parts of the outside world (the world as a whole system). They think in medium- and long-term goals, can take different perspectives (multi-perspectivity), can withstand uncertainty well and navigate in complexity.

It is precisely these skills that are needed to initiate systemic social change and programs like the Wellbeing Project can help us to evolve in this direction.

From “Growing up” to “Waking up”
There is one more question, I’d like to address: How are personal growth and spiritual exploration related? Some authors (for example, Ken Wilber) call these two dimensions of “growing up” and “waking up”.

The process of growing up is about becoming as mature and complete a human being as possible. Waking up, in turn, aims to transcend conventional humanity; to identify less and less with the ego and to experience the world as a unity instead. The first is the field of psychology and psychotherapy, the latter of spirituality and mysticism.

Many of the programs, authors and coaches who deal with wellbeing and increasingly arrive in the mainstream of business and lifestyle propagate mindfulness and meditation as central practices. These contemplative methods are taken from various wisdom teachings — from Christianity to Islam (here especially Sufism) to Buddhism. The mystics of the various religions in particular have used and continue to use techniques such as meditation, prayer or silence as central methods of knowledge that enable deeper, empirical insights into pure consciousness, creation, “the ground of beeing” or “God”.

Where is spirituality?
Today, however, we usually encounter them in a secular guise and they are propagated for better internal centering or external focusing. Their spiritual, explicitly vertical dimension is usually ignored. This applies to the Wellbeing project for social entrepreneurs as well as to Mindfullness courses, which have been booming in business circles for several years (e.g. Google’s Search Inside Yourself). Many mindfullness proponents who would associate themselves with a spiritual tradition keep it out of the mainstream. The danger of coming too close to religion and the New Age seems too great and threatens to discred the Growing-up-path as a whole.

Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Mindfullness movement, recognized this early on. He developed his Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) program for chronic pain patients in the late 1970s, based on his own Buddhist meditation experiences, but cut the link between meditation and its spiritual context and anchored it in science instead (Kabat-Zinn is a founding member of the Fetzer Institute, which has been scientifically investigating spiritual experiences for decades and is one of the co-creation partners of the Wellbeing Project). Just like renaming meditation to mindfulness, this was a conscious strategy to make the technique acceptable to as many people as possible.

My life is a mystery
As much as I can understand this approach, it also comes at a price. Life, including my humanity, seems to me a great mystery, which cannot be explained by natural and social scientific methods and insights alone. When I explore my own well-being, this inevitably includes the question of the origin and meaning of my/ life itself.

Even if in many meditations I am only occupied with my everyday thoughts and perceptions, new spaces of experience beyond the psychological and rational self-awareness open up to me again and again. In the contemplative silence I experience what “pulls” and motivates me. I experience moments of great intuition and creativity, as well as times of magnetic silence in which discursive thinking stops completely.

Waking up is a lifelong process for most people and few practitioners are ever likely to reach non-dual states, moments in which they experience the unity of the world and the original impulse of creation.

However, we have many validated descriptions of the different states of consciousness of diverse mystics at our disposal, which can serve as orientation for meditators. Thus, all great wisdom traditions speak of four main levels of consciousness: physical wakefulness (our everyday consciousness, observation of matter and structure, thoughts and feelings accessible to all of us), subtle perception (continuously refined perception of energy flows, etc.).), causal consciousness (comparable to dreamless deep sleep, in which instead of objects only pure consciousness emerges) and the non-dual state.

In the meditation practice I follow (with the spiritual teacher Thomas Hübl) we focus on silence/space on the one hand and movement/energy on the other. The two are closely connected: if my inner space is narrow, I am easily flooded by experiences and feelings (such as fear or anger). If my sense of space is greater, anxiety or fear still takes place, but it is just one sensation among others. I have the distance to watch these sensations and let go of them faster. The more space/silence I have, the more conscious I become of the many cognitive and psychological filters through which I perceive the world. And the more filters I transcend, the more directly I can experience myself and my environment. This immediacy creates a strong feeling of “flow”; a direct access to happiness and meaning, for one feels anchored in the stream of life.

Wellbeing without taking this spiritual horizon of experience into account is only half as exciting for me. I therefore hope that more protagonists of the wellbeing and meditation movement will become more radical and courageous towards the vertical dimension of growth instead of making contemplation and self-awareness with increased efficiency and RoI (Return on Invest) palatable to their customers.


The Wellbeing project, originally intended to have a 3-year lifespan, has created such a large momentum, that it is now transitioning into a next phase. I’m very excited to see the first research results being published over the next few months, as well as to accompany the diversification of the program into new realms and regions. If you want to stay tuned, sign up here.

These posts appeared earlier in German here, here and here. They have been translated using the fantastic DeepL Translator (disclosure: I am a mini-investor in DeepL)