The following is a conversation between Aaron Pereira and Sandrine Woitrin, the Project Leads of The Wellbeing Project, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Social activists have a disproportionately poor quality of life. Many struggle with depression, burnout, high divorce rates, and financial pressure. And while 75% of changemakers surveyed felt that looking after their wellbeing was very important, only 25% reported they actually did to a great extent.
The Wellbeing Project was created 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. They believe that wellbeing inspires welldoing. And here to discuss this work with us is Aaron Pereira and Sandrine Woitrin, the project leads of The Wellbeing Project.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Aaron and Sandrine!
Aaron: Thank you, Denver. Super nice to be here with you.
Sandrine: Thank you, Denver.
Denver: Let me start with you, Aaron. So often, a social entrepreneur will launch an initiative as a result of a lived experience, and that was the case pretty much for you and The Wellbeing Project. Share with listeners your experience with burnout.
Aaron: Thanks, Denver. So I started getting really engaged with social entrepreneurship when I was quite young. So when I was 19, I co-founded an organization with two friends called Canada Helps, which is today actually the largest charity in Canada. We had no idea it was going to become that when we were kids. And in taking that on, about two and a half years into that experience, I found myself in a place where I was utterly burned out.
So the experience of that was one where I found that sound would make my skin crawl. Light was difficult. There was a feeling of fatigue that was present in many different ways. There was that sort of a sense of bone exhaustion. So that was a difficult experience.
And there was this other thing that was playing for me, which was I was 21 or 22 at the time. And there was a part of me where I really was afraid that this was it, that I had sort of “peaked” at the age of 21 or 22. And that basically, I was going to be in this state for the rest of my life. And so that was really, really terrifying to experience that that young. It took me probably about 18 months to recover from that, the physical part. And then the emotional part took quite a bit longer.
And so then, related to this experience of burnout, I got close to the point of burnout again with another social change initiative that I was involved with a few years later. And there, I got to a place where I started to see some of the same signals again. And given how brutal the experience had been the time before that, I stopped basically. I took a break, and this time in taking a break, I began to see that there were a number of things that were happening underneath the surface that were present for me and that were much more fundamental.
What I basically recognized is that it was totally… like there was just a strong feeling of sadness that was present. And despite the work that I was doing in the world, that was there. And I could tell that it had to do with things from much earlier in my life. So it ended up kicking off a process where I started taking time for myself. I started taking time to do a lot of deep, personal work. And that ended up taking a number of years. And from that, it ended up becoming a bit of a backdrop for what has helped with the inception of The Wellbeing Project.
Denver: Let me ask you one more question about that, Aaron. Is burnout generally an organizational problem or an individual problem?
Aaron: So I think the answer in general is both, that it makes a really big difference if there is… like the cultural context that we’re in makes a really big difference. The reason I also say both is because it is also individual.
And in my case, what was very clearly the case is I had had a set of experiences when I was much, much younger that basically I had gotten through… I had survived. But I created a set of ways of protecting myself that made it less easy for me to pay attention and be truly aware of how I was doing. And so, that also really set me up to not have a sense of the levels of fatigue and other things that were present for me. So, for me, it’s really both.
Denver: The Wellbeing Project, Sandrine, it was formed in 2014. Tell us about the forces behind it and how you first became involved.
Sandrine: Thank you. I had been supporting Ashoka for many years, and also I was in a time of my life where this type of work resonated really profoundly with me. So through coincidence, and through a common friend, I met Aaron, who is starting this wonderful journey and shared with me what he wanted, what the vision was, and what he saw as being — he and other people at Ashoka — saw as being a challenge at the time. And I thought it was fascinating, and it really resonated with me.
It became very clear that if we were going to try and take on something like shifting the culture and the field of social change, this wasn’t going to be the effort of one organization. This wasn’t going to be the effort of a new startup. This really had to be a collective effort.
Aaron: So, as I was coming out of that period of many years that I was describing earlier of taking time for myself, I ended up going back to a number of the people, a number of the organizations that I’d been connected to, and sharing a little bit of my experience. Because part of what had happened was that I had talked to many friends in social change about the experience.
And what became really clear was that many of us felt that there wasn’t a space to open up about these kinds of things, to talk about these kinds of things, and to be supported. And I’d seen that for myself or for others. Like when we were supported, it made a huge difference for us personally, but it also opened up really interesting possibilities in terms of social change.
So I approached two people that I knew really well at Ashoka, a board member and, the president of Ashoka, and shared the journey I had been taking, and encouraging Ashoka to actually take this on, to provide this kind of support and create the kind of cultural context for the fellows that are part of Ashoka.
Ashoka turned this around a little bit wonderfully and invited as a fellow project where– what that meant was they were really glad to incubate it. There were three people within the Ashoka team that became part of really helping think through and do some of the initial research for this work. And so, the group of us ended up becoming like the seed crystal for kicking this off.
And then to continue with the question that you’re asking, it became very clear that if we were going to try and take on something like shifting the culture and the field of social change, this wasn’t going to be the effort of one organization. This wasn’t going to be the effort of a new startup. This really had to be a collective effort.
And so, right from the outset, we made the decision to create this as a co-creation and to have it sit between a group of different organizations. And so that orientation has just been absolutely fundamental to the work that we do.
Denver: That in itself is a healthy approach to tackling problems in the sector, so it really is synonymous with it.
Sandrine, is there something about this sector that leads us to not take care of ourselves? Or is there a different kind of burnout that social change leaders have than, let’s say, our counterparts in the private sector?
Sandrine: So, I don’t know if it’s a different type. What is clear is that in this sector, you always have one more person to save, one more tree to plant, one more something to do. And it brings you to a constant unfinished effort.
What we also have seen is that many of the people that enter into the sector come with some traumatic earlier experiences. And often, they haven’t had the opportunity to work on those traumas or difficult experiences. And so, the way they entered the sector is with this anger and this wanting of really trying to solve this problem, and their capacity to take care of themselves is much more limited. So that’s what we have in the last seven years of work I have seen happening.
The burnout rate for young people between the ages of 15 to 24 getting involved with social change was at 59%. Fifty-nine percent of all young changemakers had experienced some type of burnout.
Denver: Those are interesting points. And getting back to your first point, too, it’s probably the downside of being a purpose-driven sector. You said there’s one more life to save or one more tree to plant, and the private sector is like, “Well, did this guy click my website to book his room? Or did he click somebody else’s website to book the room?” The stakes aren’t quite as high. So higher stakes sometimes tend to…
Aaron, are there any studies on the tolls that this has taken on social change leaders?
Aaron: There’ve been a number of studies that have been done both internally within organizations, especially in the last few years as this topic has started to get more attention, and there have been some studies that have been done with different groups in the sector. And COVID has certainly helped with this. The work of our coalition over the last seven years has helped with this. There’s an interest in actually seeing what the situation looks like.
So, for instance, a study was published two weeks ago called “The New Possibilists” that was done by a group called ChangemakerXchange, which is part of our network. And also, the study was done in partnership with a number of different organizations. And in that study, they found that the burnout rate for young people between the ages of 15 to 24 getting involved with social change was at 59%. Fifty-nine percent of all young changemakers had experienced some type of burnout.
The numbers in this field, when you look at them across the different networks, across the different groups, are really, really high. And what we have been trying to do is present more of a comprehensive picture of these. So that together as a field, as a sector, we can start to address it. But what’s, as I said, like the shift that we’re seeing is towards more of bringing this to light, and what’s seen can then be addressed, which is terrific.
Denver: You talked about young changemakers, and I’d just be curious if there’s any data on this, but is it a tendency of younger people to go into social change? Those who are, let’s say, in their late teens, like you were, or in their 20s or maybe early 30s compared to the private sector where private entrepreneurs might be late 30s or 40s or something like that? I just was wondering in terms of the maturity level and life experience, if that plays any kind of role
Aaron: Within the context of the project, the people that we’ve been working with really have been between the ages of 28 and 75. So for us, this piece about the inner aspect of who we are as we come to this work is really about all ages. We’ve been working across 55 different countries. It’s about different types of cultures. We’ve gone with close to roughly equal grouping of men and women. And it’s something that’s true for both men and women. So for us, we see this as something that’s much broader.
Beyond that, Denver, I’m not sure that we would be well placed to answer that question about when people start to work in the sector.
Denver: Sandrine, well, let’s move on to the work and what you do to help people address these challenges. And I know you did an initial set of interviews that show that inner work made a significant difference in the lives of change-makers. So how would you describe inner work?
Sandrine: Well, we believe each person has his own path, and we don’t have one path. There is not one method. So we are very open that everyone finds his way through his own inner work, their methodologies, and some that speak more to one or to others. We have used a few, but then when people would go back to their country, their city, they would continue what makes most sense for them and what was more needed for them as a person. So, we don’t give solutions, or we don’t say there is one only path. There is a path per person.
Denver: Now, that makes a lot of sense. We had Jeff Walker on the show, the chairman of New Profit, and he says, if somebody says there’s one path to solving something or these challenges, head for the hills. But maybe one of you could give me some examples, though, of the kind of things that inner work entails.
Aaron: It’s wonderful to know that Jeff was on, and I think he would have been able to talk about this really wonderfully.
So, I think from our perspective, it’s work that allows you to be more aware of yourself – so that would be one layer – and how do we become aware of the way that we’re present in different situations or aware of what’s actually happening in ourselves when confronted by different types of situations.
A second might be how do we build our capacity, like our ability to be present. And there are a lot of different types of practices for this – from painting, to yoga, to running – those places that we’re really intentionally present.
And then I think the third is where we actually work with those things that we carry within us. Those places where we might be carrying pain or trauma. And that’s more of the therapeutic end of the spectrum, where there are different types of ways that that can happen through body work, through different types of therapeutic processes. So, all of those things together for us would be sort of in that spectrum of inner work.
Denver: Got it. Aaron, do you encounter challenges of getting changemakers to engage in this kind of work? A lot of people are really busy, don’t have the time to do it. They have the urgency of the program at hand. Maybe they’re afraid to find out what they’re going to discover – a whole bunch of reasons. Do you find that to be the case? If so, how do you get them to take this necessary step?
Aaron: So I think one thing that’s really, really important with this work is you can’t… like it really is about meeting people where they are and really paying attention to inviting people into what they’re ready for. So this is not the kind of work that people can be forced into, brought into… like gentleness and that place of welcome is really, really important.
And what we found is that all of us are human even if there are things that are buried, for example. These are places that people are looking to be met. And if they find that in the container, if they can find things in this space that’s being offered, if they can find that in material, if they can find that there’s something in there that speaks to something deep within, those are the ways that people can perhaps be drawn in.
And I’ll come back to something that you said earlier, Denver. On one hand, that’s the individual level and meeting people there and just like really creating that space that’s a safe space. The second part, though, is: what is the enabling culture for this? And so that question of “Can we shift the culture in the field so that it becomes OK for people to take that space, that time they can see peers doing that?” also becomes really important. So that’s why we’ve really been trying to work at these two different levels.
Denver: That makes all the sense in the world. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about what you do, Sandrine in that The Wellbeing Project undertook a model 18-month inner development program, IDP, to offer deep and continuous inner wellbeing. Tell us about that program.
Sandrine: So we would invite different networks, to invite at other times some fellows or these social entrepreneurs, activists, and others to be part of the networks. So, there was this selection program to be sure it was the right– that it would be a safe container for them to be part of.
And so, we had three groups going to a one-and-a-half-year program or groups, sorry, uh, with three in-person retreats, small group calls between the retreats with a therapist, and webinars to give them more tools to go forward. And also a dean that would follow them one by one to be sure they were in a safe space and were doing their work in an environment and with the conditions that were the right ones for them. And then they would receive a stipend so that they could do personal work, the ones that they would consider the one they needed at home also.
And so, in these groups, we also– I’m sure we’re going to speak about research– we had researchers embedded so that there was a constant evaluation, a periodical evaluation of how they were evolving so that could serve as a model for the future.
Denver: Fantastic. Aaron, Sandrine set me up really nicely for this next question. And that has to do with the research. And you’ve issued something called “How Changemakers’ Inner Wellbeing Influences Their Work,” and it happened on a couple of different levels. Why don’t we start with the individual level? What were some of the outcomes of that in terms of how the individual changes as a result of having gone through these 18 months?
Aaron: So, thank you, Denver. And so, some of the changes were really extraordinary to witness.
What we saw were individuals who were able to open themselves up more to the world, to other people, to new ideas; who were able to trust much more profoundly, who were able to be vulnerable. And so, these are the kinds of shifts that have huge effects within oneself, with the people around, and of course, with work and the work of social change.
So, just seeing those shifts and seeing people also shift to identities like: having identities that were not based on their work, identities that were more whole; and having a much more balanced life, people having much more joy in their life and also having the ability to welcome all of the experiences in life. Those were some of the shifts that we saw at the individual level.
Denver: I think I read somewhere about what Sandrine was talking about, about these cohorts who got together. In some cases, nobody even knew what organization they were part of, and that there’s that sense of “Who are you?” And I think that’s a question that we all have.
I got to tell you the truth. The question I sometimes ask, the question I think a lot of men ask. A lot of times when men retire, they begin to lose– I think it happens with everybody– but men have, I think, a closer identity with their work sometimes because they don’t have as many interests. But when they retire, they don’t even know how to introduce themselves. It’s like, “Well, I used to be…” You know what I mean? So, but let me continue with that, Aaron. How does that ripple then and affect the organization?
Aaron: So those individual differences actually opened up a whole world of possibilities for them at an organizational level.
So part of that was about them being open to hearing other people’s ideas, being open to seeing the value in other people’s ideas. Encouraging other people’s ideas within the organizations that they were part of.
Part of it was prioritizing the topic of wellbeing in their organizations and really creating a space where it was okay for people to talk about these things. You could call it a mental health, positive culture, or a wellbeing-oriented culture, but really seeing the value and the importance of that for everyone on their teams.
Part of it was also seeing the value of other people’s work. So while particular organizations might have a certain focus, there can be a tendency sometimes in the field of social change to say this is the approach that matters, but actually being able to see themselves as part of a larger whole and see the value of all of these things together. And so being able to also approach things more collaboratively, both by being open, but also by seeing the value in these different approaches.
And then I think the final two differences that we saw was that there was also more of an orientation to a much broader base of leadership. And so instead of like one person being the person that carried everything, there was like this orientation to a much deeper bench of leadership, which was exciting for the organization and also through the entire organization.
And then finally, that there was a much richer approach of complexity in the world, and that there wasn’t a single answer, and that this, in sort of like the social change argot or jargon, this would be more of a systems change approach. So all of these things together were exciting for us to see.
Denver: I love that idea of embracing the gray because we live in too much of a binary world where it’s either yes or no or something. And the answer is always somewhere in between. But that, as you say, is complex. It’s nuanced. It’s a percentage type of question.
I had a guy on the show the other day, who was saying that the way he gets people to really look at it that way is never ask them, “Will we make it or not?” Always ask them, “What’s our percentage of making it?” And when you say what the percentage is, and you say, “Well, what do you mean 70%?” And you begin to get where the real gold is, which is in that kind of nuance.
Aaron, let me ask you about the sector level and the broader societal level. What is the difference when leaders get together from different organizations, let’s say, all who’ve been through this inner work, and how they interact and what they do compared to let’s say leaders who have not done this inner work? Have you seen a difference in the way that that unfolds?
Aaron: Absolutely. Part of what we have seen emerge is much more of a capacity for collective impact initiatives or systems change entrepreneurship.
The idea of working together as large groups, as collectives at a much more systemic, much more comprehensive level, and in a way that also allows for complexity to be held that this is not about silver bullets, but this is about ongoing work in dealing with issues that are about the root causes of things that we have in society.
So that orientation towards collaborative work and that orientation towards holding complexity has been really wonderful to witness. And there are a number of people where through our research, we’ve been able to see that emerge and efforts that I think are hopeful for all of us to see because the kinds of issues that we face today in our society are much more these kinds of systemic issues.
And then to turn to the societal piece, I think what’s extraordinary about this, about connecting the inner and the outer, is how it gives life to much more profound and rich and complex perspectives about what is actually happening in our societies. So for instance, we have a think tank that we’ve launched in collaboration with Georgetown, which also brings together a number of other universities where that literally is the question that we’re focused on.
And so, for the last year and a half, we’ve been working on understanding and developing a broad perspective on intergenerational trauma. That’s something that, for instance, in connecting the inner and the outer, is something that becomes very, very clear how fundamental that is in all of our lives and in the many different ways that it influences society, but it’s not yet a mainstream perspective in the field of social change. So for us, it’s also these kinds of perspectives that can help give life to seeing the work that we do, social change itself, as something different. So that would be a little bit the cycle of our theory of change.
Denver: Aaron, at the end of these 18 months, did a new understanding, a new definition of wellbeing emerge as a result of it?
Aaron: Yes, absolutely. I think at the beginning when people were first applying for this inner development program that Sandrine described, many of the people that were applying saw wellbeing as certain types of practices or fixes. And what actually ended up happening for them over the 18 months was they discovered it was an ongoing process, that it was a lifelong process, and that there was an ongoing process of discovering who and who we are, who we are in relation to others, working with the things that we have within us.
And so, it became a path in life of paying attention to themselves, whatever that path was for themselves as Sandrine described. So that was the shift that we saw, which was wonderful to witness.
Denver: I think an analog would be the difference between going on a diet and eating healthy for the rest of your life.
Aaron: It’s a fantastic analog.
So it’s been really a place where we meet people where they are. We meet organizations where they are, and we never come with solutions. We offer learning processes where everyone creates their own solution because it’s going to be the one that is the most accurate for each one’s environment and situation.
Denver: And they went to a diet and realized, “Now, I’ve got to do this.” It’s an ongoing thing.
Sandrine, I know you were talking a moment ago about a cultural shift in the field. And you have done this work; you have ambassadors, and you have champions. Tell us how you think about the theory of change of doing this and the kind of progress that you and your ambassadors are making and really changing the field around this understanding of wellbeing.
Sandrine: So I think the way we’ve been working since the beginning is, as Aaron said, is in co-creation, co-working with others. And in that sense, when we started with the inner development program, we also started and created these two groups, which is the learning partner group and the ecosystem network.
And one is focused on the more global, international organization, and the other one is focused on more regional, local and grassroots organization. And with both of these groups, we’ve been doing a journey, which started at the beginning with creating awareness around the challenge that the sector was facing. And then slowly, learning with them as to what the possibilities were to meet the challenge and to find answers to the challenge.
So it’s been really a place where, as Aaron said at the beginning, we meet people where they are. We meet organizations where they are, and we never come with solutions. We offer learning processes where everyone creates their own solution because it’s going to be the one that is the most accurate for each one’s environment and situation.
Aaron: I’ll just add to what Sandrine said. So what was wonderful about these organizations and these groups, they became learning communities where these groups would start looking at how they could take on initiatives that would meet their communities where they were.
So just to give a set of different examples, like the Schwab Foundation, for example, started including wellbeing programming in their convenings of their fellows. Or Ashoka, for example, started including wellbeing as one of their 10 global priorities and creating a whole suite of different programming for their fellows around the world, ranging from retreats, to huddles, to other things. And we’ve just had a large group of organizations that have been putting this into place.
And so to come back to your question about the shifting in the culture, part of this has been about making it credible – credible through having research, credible through some of those organizations that are seen as the leaders in the field, working on this, recognizing it, and actually putting programming in place.
So that has very much been part of our recipe, a collective recipe for taking this into the light and also perhaps creating a bit of a space for showing how this can be addressed.
Denver: I guess maybe a part of that space, Aaron, of showing would be storytelling. I guess that would be one of the components as well, right?
Aaron: Definitely. We actually didn’t do that much sharing out content about this work for the first three or four years because we really wanted to respect the research process, and also didn’t want to put any pressure on any of the organizations that are part of our learning communities. It was really holding space to explore, to learn together, to see what would unfold.
In 2019, we started to get to a place where there were– we had the first research report where we were starting to see results where the community of us felt like there was a lot to be able to share out that we could share out. And so, we started sharing out first video of leaders from different networks, to sharing at a very personal level what their experience had been.
And the idea was: How do we do this? Bringing in leaders from different cultures, different kinds of backgrounds, so we can create a little bit of light around this? But then much more importantly was putting together a wonderful editorial partnership with Stanford Social Innovation Review, with India Development Review, with the Skoll Foundation. And then also with the Schwab Foundation and the World Economic Forums’ Cultural Leaders Program.
And there with that group, we ended up doing a year-long editorial series with an article coming out each week actually from each of the partners. And so that ended up being a way of us sharing out much more broadly what the research has looked like, what learnings have been at a number of different levels.
Starting with oneself is the best place to start.
The work that we do is strengthened by how well we are. And that is really, really clear in the research that we do. So taking that time, giving yourself that permission will do well for yourself, but also for the work that you care about so much.
Denver: It’s a great series. I’ve read most of them. It’s really fantastic.
Sandrine, is there anything that a leader can do immediately, on their own, today, to get themselves in a better place, along the lines that we have been discussing?
Sandrine: I think everything starts with awareness. And so being aware of what he/she has inside himself or herself, and then exploring what would be the best way to respond to what is felt inside. And so, starting with oneself is the best place to start.
So I think it’s just being conscious of what we are as a human being and what we bring and what we carry, and what we sometimes bring into situations that make them lighter or more complicated. And from awareness, then trying to find the right path to respond to what that tackles inside of the leader.
Aaron: And I’ll add to that actually by saying for a lot of people working in social change, just giving yourself permission to take time for yourself. Because oftentimes, to get to that place of awareness, you need space to begin with. And so many of us are doing so much work all the time because there is that one more person to save; there is one more tree to save.
And so, the question becomes: How can you give yourself permission to take a long weekend? To take holidays, to finish work at a reasonable hour. Like all of those kinds of things just so that there’s space. So those are some small things related to giving yourself permission, so it perhaps opens up space for some of these larger questions to be there.
Other questions, like other things that leaders could look at, or changemakers more generally could look at is: What might be an interesting way of reflecting? So to come to that place of awareness, are there particular ways that you like doing that through painting, through writing poetry, keeping a diary? What would it look like to create space for something like that?
And the examples I gave there were all individual examples. It could be through conversation. Is there a peer that you can be in conversation with, where you can hold some questions for yourself? So these are some of the things that might be helpful for those of us who are really, really busy with the work of change-making.
And I just end with this one profound bit of reassurance: The work that we do is strengthened by how well we are. And that is really, really clear in the research that we do. So taking that time, giving yourself that permission will do well for yourself, but also for the work that you care about so much.
Denver: Great insights from both of you. And I guess it all starts with: take a pause. Just pause for a second. You’ve got to pause and reflect.
Sandrine, tell us about the website and the kind of information visitors will find there, and maybe how they can help support this work if they’re so inclined.
Sandrine: So, our website is https://wellbeing-project.org/. And you can find a summary of what we are doing, who is part of our community. There is also, what you said before, Denver, the series of articles that I think are very useful. We invite people to– everyone that wants to be part of our webinars, so we have a series of webinars that is going on at this time, once a month, every Tuesday. Depending on where you are in the world, it’s morning, afternoon, or evening.
We also have a series of voices, which are testimonies of leaders that went to the inner development program. It’s really interesting to watch them because it probably will give some insights for leaders that want to grow to this process, and will enable them to see how all this resonates with them.
And then we have the donation button, which is always there for everyone who wants to participate–
Denver: Aaron was waiting for you to get around to that.
Sandrine: And otherwise, if there is some other, something else that’s popping up with someone that wants to be part of it, we are always happy to have conversation and to see, and to explore new opportunities, new collaborations. So, that’s how we work, and that’s what we are. And that’s how we feel we’ll be able to reach our mission.
Denver: Well, I applaud you both for the work that you’re doing and your commitment to open access and really sharing this with the entire community. I want to thank you both so much for being here today. This was just a wonderful conversation, and I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Sandrine: Thank you, Denver.
Aaron: Thank you.
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