“From the inside out”: connecting inner work and social good with The Wellbeing Project


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The work of social entrepreneurs and activists is often tireless and all-consuming. Worldwide, these hard-working, unwearying individuals lead thousands of people in making a difference in the lives of others. The hours are long and the campaigns are extensive. How do you ensure that, while taking care of others, these leaders are taking care of themselves?

This is where The Wellbeing Project comes in. A co-creation between Ashoka, the Esalen Institute, the Fetzer Institute, and Social Connectedness partner, Synergos, the project aims to provide the world’s changemakers with the emotional and physical support they need to see their work come to fruition. The brainchild of social entrepreneur Aaron Pereira, the project began through research and interviews with Ashoka Fellows around the world. What Pereira and his colleagues initially found was that a significant number of the social entrepreneurs involved in their study expressed feelings of inner turmoil, which ultimately affected the work they set out to do.

The team was motivated further by seeing a small number of fellows who “had undertaken inner work” and were inspired by “the beauty of what emerged: healthier lives, more sustainable collaborative and inspiring organizations, and much deeper work with the people they were engaging.” They realized that by supporting these social entrepreneurs more deeply, and helping them to connect with their inner selves, they were creating the perfect conditions for successful social development movements.

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The Wellbeing Project involves four pillars: 1) The Inner Development Program; 2) Research; 3) Learning Partner Program; and 4) Storytelling. The first pillar, Inner Development, involves supporting experienced social entrepreneurs on their journey to find and nurture their personal wellbeing. The second pillar, Research, entails conducting evaluations that examine the relationship between inner work and social change. The third pillar, Learning and Convening, involves establishing an “eco-system of social entrepreneurship and change organizations,” as well as a community of leaders, who can all learn together. Finally, the fourth pillar, Storytelling, encourages these individuals to share their stories of personal growth and professional impact.

Bart Weetjens, a Dutch social entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow, and founder of APOPO, initiated a landmine destruction project using trained giant African rats. The organization has found success in their “Land Release approach” for deploying detection rats, which has since expanded to six African and South East Asian countries. APOPO’s rats are also now being trained to detect tuberculosis.

Bart knows first-hand the struggles of a busy, hard-working social entrepreneur. For the 2016 SKOLL World Forum, an annual event for social entrepreneurs in Oxford, Bart explained why he joined the Wellbeing Project team. He learned that while focusing on their aims for good, social entrepreneurs can often feel isolated and depleted. His conclusion is that “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.”

Today, the Wellbeing Project has a working team of almost 20 activists, creators and advisors helping to run the project’s ambitious international program. Last month, they announced the official launch of their Ecosystem Network – a two-year “learning journey” for 50 world organization leaders and their support of inner work. The team has found that, for social development initiatives to be truly successful, the leaders involved must also find and foster their own social connections.

Mahatma Ghandi’s famous call to action reflects the guiding principle of the project: in order for true social change to take place, those who wish to implement it must look inward. Gandhi’s quote truly encapsulates the work of the Wellbeing Project – so much so that it is the motto for the program. Go forth, changemakers, and “be the change you want to see in the world.”