Case Study #3: The Wellbeing Project
Social activists have a disproportionately poor quality of life. Many struggle with depression, burnout, and chronic diseases, high divorce rates and financial pressure. This is why Aaron Pereira created the Wellbeing Project. Its mission: “To change the culture of the field of social change to one welcoming of inner wellbeing, and to catalyse an infrastructure to support everyone working in the field.”
It is rare to meet someone accomplished who stresses what he doesn’t know. It is also rare to meet someone with a mission, who founded an organization that has an expiration date of three years. And it is still rarer to meet someone who is radically devoted to co-creation and letting other people shine.
Please meet Aaron Pereira and the Wellbeing Project.
I first met Aaron at a gathering of the BMW Foundation, where he presented the project together with one of his co-leads, the social entrepreneur Bart Weetjens. I was immediately hooked by their mission: “to change the culture of the field of social change to one welcoming of inner wellbeing, and to catalyze an infrastructure to support everyone working in the field.” Working in the social entrepreneurship space myself, I had met many burned out social change leaders who had no boundaries about work and often gave too much, compromising their physical and mental health. I worried how people coming from a place of scarcity could be effectively working for a healthy society and planet.
Aaron had the same experience. Born in Goa in 1980, he moved to Canada as a teenager. It was there that the gifted twenty-year-old set up CanadaHelps, a fundraising platform for NGOs. Moving on to found Vartana, a community bank, Aaron became an Ashoka Fellow at age 24. But, as he writes in a blog post, “I had begun to see that underneath the frenzy of working on exciting things, I was unhappy.”
Aaron took a long sabbatical — seven years — during which he traveled, learned to meditate, and started some deep personal work. Speaking to other changemakers, he realized that he wasn’t alone in his struggles. Research by associations of social entrepreneurs also confirmed the anecdotal evidence: Social activists have a disproportionately poor quality of life. Many struggle with depression, burnout, chronic diseases, high divorce rates and financial pressure.
On closer inspection this is not surprising: Many social entrepreneurs experienced trauma early in life, which motivated them to work for social causes. These experiences can — especially in the early phase — provide a positive impetus. Over time, however, traumatic experiences can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle that is exacerbated by the “normal” challenges of the social sector, such as high financial pressure and persistent social grievances.
However, the nascent Wellbeing Project discovered that activists who had undertaken inner work — such as seeing a coach, therapist, or spiritual teacher over a long time — were leading healthier lives and more sustainable and innovative organizations. Thus the theory of change for the Wellbeing Project was born: Support social activists in nurturing a deeper sense of inner wellbeing and they and their organizations will flourish and be more impactful in creating the necessary systems change.
The initial core of the Wellbeing Project consisted of an 18-month Inner Development Programme with facilitators and therapists for 60 social entrepreneurs from the Ashoka, Schwab, Skoll, and Synergos networks. During this time, participants went on three retreats (each over a week long). In the period between retreats, they received individualized support from therapists or coaches and engaged in peer group work. The participants’ experiences were intensely evaluated. Results indicate people underwent a deep transformation, seeing themselves and their roles in a new light. Some realized, for example, that they had used long work hours to compensate for lack of friends or family or to avoid confronting painful emotions and memories. Many were relieved to be able to show up as a “whole person,” not the “hero” that funders or the media desire them to be. They developed new self-care practices and some made radical changes in their lives and organizations. For example, participants shared more about their emotions and inner experiences with partners and friends or learned to delegate better at work.
“The project hit an important nerve,” says Aaron. “Suddenly it seemed possible to talk about topics that were previously taboo, like vulnerability and people’s over-identification with their work.” The programme also raised challenging questions: Who am I without my anger? What if increasing wellbeing makes me lose what makes me a great social change leader?
Listening to what the sector needs
An important question for Aaron was how to set up and grow the project. “We could have created a large institution. I had done that before, with CanadaHelps, which is very successful, having channeled 1 billion USD to NGOs. But to build such an institution would have taken years, and success is not guaranteed. Instead, we asked ourselves: Why try changing the culture of the social sector on our own? Let’s ask those organizations who have a lot of experience with social change how they perceive the problem of well-being and how it might best be addressed.”
And that’s what the team did. They met with funders and associations around the world to find co-creators for the programme. They practiced radical listening in order to really discover what was needed. Ironically enough, this approach often met with disbelief. For example, the CEO of a large foundation couldn’t believe that Aaron didn’t have a fully-fledged plan in his pocket, and that he wasn’t only interested in getting funding. “I went into these meetings without any preconceived ideas. I really wanted to listen. But people were so used to being ‘engaged’ in a purely rhetorical way, that some groups were even a bit grumpy when asked for their honest input.”
Aaron came to understand: “The structures in our field are not set up to be responsive. Funders support an action plan and NGOs deliver against the results they have promised. The space for discovering what is really needed to foster effective social change is not present. But how can we bring about change, if we are not able to listen deeply?”
In conversation Aaron himself often takes a step back, quietly asking questions, helping his counterparts to deepen their own understanding. As he tells me: “One of my great pleasures is that this project is so utterly human that it is not best told through a one-person story but through everyone’s story. Everyone has a unique story and it shines light on what the Wellbeing Project is all about.” (Listening to this, I felt slightly embarrassed to have insisted on interviewing Aaron himself and not any other member of his team, as he had suggested.)
The ability to hold space for emergence and the unknown led to an unusual setup of the programme. Over the space of a few months, a handful of co-creation partners came together, each supporting a specific part. For example, Esalen, the famous Californian retreat centre, provided first-class facilitators, while the Fetzer Institute steered the research about the role well-being can play for more effective social change. Social entrepreneur associations like Ashoka and Skoll provided funding for their fellows to participate in the programme.
In order to create a wider movement, the Wellbeing Project formed an additional Learning and Convening pillar. Consisting of more than 50 global organizations this group learns directly from the research about the effects of the Wellbeing programme. Coming together at regular intervals, they are discussing how to build a new infrastructure of support for everyone working in the field. Storytelling — i.e., sharing the personal stories of social entrepreneurs broadly — is another important pillar of the programme.
To summarize: the whole Wellbeing Project consisted in its first phase of 4 different pillars:
- The Inner Development Programme
- The research accompanying the Inner Development Programme
- The Learning and Convening group
Over the past three years, I’ve had the privilege to speak both to a number of participants of the core inner development programme, as well as be part of the Learning and Convening pillar. Many stress the fundamentally transformational impulses that the programme generated for them. They have a much deeper understanding of themselves, including their needs and vulnerabilities. Many discover their longing for deeper human relations. For some, their view of the world radically shifts, including a more spiritual outlook on life. Outside of the week-long retreats, groups of participants form vibrant WhatsApp groups, offering support to each other.
Many video testimonials can be found online, such as this one from Caroline Casey from the Aisling Foundation.
Caroline Casey - The Wellbeing Project
By Alana Cookman and Caroline Casey 'Wellbeing gave me a place to stop hiding, under this archetype of positivity…
Expire or continue?
At times the radical listening practiced by the team challenged its own convictions. Aaron describes one situation: “The whole project was supposed to end in 2018. But in mid-2017 people asked us to prolong our work. They felt that even though our impulses showed effects, they were not yet fully sustainable and that we still had a role to play.”
Aaron, on the contrary, felt that Wellbeing’s lean co-creative approach, focused largely on the social systems level (through the Learning and Convening group, as well as the sector wide storytelling), had already created an impact that would normally have taken many more years. He was inclined to stick to the original plan of wrapping up the organization. “We wanted to be a catalyst and gradually disappear. The world is ephemeral and we create things for a particular moment in time. Once the context changes, it doesn’t make sense to continue.”
To solve the dilemma, the team again decided to listen. They collected feedback from their network and 18 months and thousands of comments later, decided to continue for another three years. “Our strategy for the next phase was fully formed by the partners. None of the directions we are taking now — focusing on organizational development and bringing the wellbeing agenda to universities — came from our core team.”
The Wellbeing Project on the AQAL
Let’s take the Wellbeing Project through the analysis outlined in Post 4 The Ecology of Innovation in order to better understand how organisations like the Wellbeing Project are able to establish real innovations for the common good. In that post we referred to Spiral Dynamics as a useful model to assess the maturity of innovations, especially their capacity to adequately represent complexity. Spiral Dynamics works with colours in order to identify specific world views, the „orange“ level representing current mainstream corporate practices, the „green“ standing for egalitarian community-oriented structures and the „yellow“ representing the newly emerging paradigm. „Yellow“ stands for qualities such as the unfolding of our individual and collective potential, and the capacity to collaborate, self-organize and navigate complex systems.
The first three questions I outlined in that post were the following:
- Where does the impulse begin? What is it aiming at? Is the idea one which comes from a “yellow” impulse? Does it aim to create new structures, processes, attitudes, behaviours or values which fulfil the latent potential of a progressive future? Is it innovative in the sense that borders are explored and something new is added to life?
- Where does it “land” once created? Does the project’s realisation reflect the original impulse or is there a regression?
- How integral and coherent is the organisation, company or innovation? Does it affect only the external aspects, such as new business models or production techniques, or does it also manifest in the other three quadrants ? (Remember the 4 quadrants: outer and inner, collective and individual spheres, see graphic below)
Applying these questions to the Wellbeing Project I come up with the following:
- Where does the impulse begin? What is it aiming at? What is the strategy?
Aarons initial impulse came from his own experience as an exhausted social entrepreneur, who understood that a path of inner work and growth was needed for social changemakers to maximize their own potential and create the change they want to see in the outside world. We can situate this orginal impulse in the upper left quadrant on the yellow level.
But Aaron already had a strong systems perspective and the original model, even though it was the result of co-creation with many partners, was very holistic, i.e. touching all four quadrants. It started with the individual social entrepreneur being invited to do inner work, exploring and learning about him- or herself, their own needs and interests, personal patterns and shadows/traumata (upper left quadrant). During this inner journey, participants were encouraged to develop new habits and practices (upper right quadrant) which allowed social entrepreneurs to establish better self-contact as well as deeper interpersonal relations and lead a healthier work-life balance.
The impulse and strategy of the Wellbeing Project’s 1 phase mapped on the AQAL
But right from the start it seems as if Aaron knew that the change had to occur also at a wider collective, cultural level (lower left). Thus the retreats for the original batch of social entrepreneurs, were explicitly designed to model the new kind of collective structure an organisation or a wider field of actors could develop into. Also for this reason the Learning and Convening Pillar was designed, which enabled a large group of social sector stakeholders, such as funders, to undergo similar experiences and based on these influence their own networks accordingly.
The only quadrant not made explicit in the original design was the lower left quadrant, consisting of the outer collective structures and processes, that is the organisations of the participants as well as the social or environmental change they had devoted their lives to. To defocus on this topic was an explicit decision, as Aaron felt that social entrepreneurs needed real distance from the work which normally took up so much of their time.
2. Where does it “land” once created? Does the project’s realisation reflect the original impulse or is there a regression?
This question can, in the case of the Wellbeing Project, be answered together with question 3:
3. How integral is the organisation, company or initiative? Does the innovation affect only the external aspects, such as new business models or production techniques, or does it also manifest in the other three quadrants?
In the implementation phase many of the initial intentions have been fulfilled. The Wellbeing Project stayed true to its theory of change of firstly empowering individuals, who then develop their own individual wellbeing strategies. The retreats had a strong cultural influence on the participants, who later spoke enthusiastically about their newly found friendships, including much more open communication and peer to peer learning. In parallel, the Wellbeing Project implemented the Learning and Convening Pillar, enabling a wider network to participate in and learn from the change from mid-distance.
The area which had been intentionally left out of the programme, the social enterprises themselves — their own organisational structures, as well as the real-world challenges they were working on — also stayed in the background during the first three years of the Wellbeing Project. It was only in the second phase (which started in early 2019) that this area (lower right quadrant) moved more into focus, when participants asked to be supported in “organisational wellbeing”, looking at concrete structures and processes which can enable a more holistic and healthy organisational culture. At the same time participants showed a stronger interest in understanding how inner wellbeing can impact the effectiveness of the organisation. One of the hypothesis, which remains to be proven, is that organisations with a healthy well-being culture are better able to collaborate with each other. Better collaboration, in turn, could lead to more effective change.
Very crucial to the implementation phase of the Wellbeing Project has been its own modus operandi. I suspect that the inner work Aaron, as well as his co-leads, have done, enabled them to design the programme in such a way that spoke to participants both on an analytical, as well as an emotional level. Innovation, in order to really work, needs to be visionary AND embodied. In order to satisfy the analytical needs of the participants and funders, as well as provide a sound empirical proof for the project’s theory of change, the Fetzer Institute funded the accompanying qualitative and quantitative research. It sought to develop a better understanding of the importance of well-being for individual change makers as well as the role this might play in the effectiveness of social change. But new ideas can only “stick” and be sustainable if they are felt in our bodies. Once they are grounded in our physical and emotional self, they suddenly seem “obvious”. We “get” them. We understand more about life than we did before.
The Wellbeing Project managed to transmit this emotional and embodied experience to its wider audience (especially the Learning and Convening groups) by getting them together in similar retreat settings as the core participants of the programme. In this way, “men in suits” were able to access a new experience, which made them empathise much more with the project’s core goals, i.e. to introduce a well-being culture in the social sector.
Throughout the process, Aaron seems to have been aware of the necessary ingredients for emergence to take place. Not only was he able to hold space for many different actors - from foundations and social entrepreneurs to therapists and the media — but his willingness to actively listen to partners and let ideas and formats develop seemingly by themselves makes him a kind of midwife for innovation (in this case a new culture in the social sector) to emerge. He seems to understand the notion, explained in Part Four of this series, that innovation at the yellow level consists of “movement watching movement”, where the innovator is a facilitator of change that wants to happen.
The question above also refers to possible regressions of the project during the implementation phase. One area which proved challenging was recruitment of personelle for the organisation. Because the topic of burnout and inner work resonated strongly with many people in the social entrepreneurship community, many people with burnout experiences felt drawn to apply for job openings with the Wellbeing Project. Some of these people hadn’t done enough inner work to have fully recovered from their traumatic experiences and found it difficult to prioritise the interest of the project before their own needs. Accordingly there has been some friction between leadership and team, which resulted in employees leaving the project.
Having participated in a number of meetings and retreats of the Wellbeing Project myself, my impression is that some of the gatherings of the various stakeholders (social entrepreneurs, funders and other social sector intermediaries) have a more communal and relationship focus, thus tending towards a more green than yellow level. Whether the emphasis is on creating safe and harmonious “green” structures or building capacities for a more mature, systems-oriented inner work, largely depends on the facilitators chosen. It seems to me that the Wellbeing Project’s core team could have more clarity around the kind of therapeutic interventions chosen in order to fully realise the potential of the programme.
Overall, however, I admire the coherence Aaron and his team have been able to establish between different areas of life, represented by the four quadrants. The same applies to the consistently high level of cohesion between the analytical, emotional and physical aspects of the project.
In the AQAL this over all analysis looks like this:
Of course, the overall impact of the Wellbeing Project on the social sector is still unknown, as both the 1st phase hasn’t been completely evaluated and the 2nd phase has only just started. Yet many important ingredients are in place, and there is a good chance that the project can be a good platform for the social sector to create a sustainable and healthy culture in which changemakers and their work can flourish.
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A shorter version of this article first appeared on TwentyThirty as When you burn out while changing the world