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How Funders Can Support Individual Well-Being

(Illustration by Helena Pallarés)

In another day and age, we would have written that supporting the well-being of grantees was the easiest way to become a nonprofit’s favorite funder. Whether funding poverty or climate solutions, or supporting communities in Baltimore or Bahrain, we would have argued that individual well-being could generate broader social outcomes, because healthy people create healthy things. Today, it’s clear that all of us in the funding world need to support grantee well-being—not to become the favorite funder, but to help social change organizations survive the pandemic right in front of us, and then ensure that they have the resilience, as well as the capacity to innovate and collaborate, that they need to effectively navigate challenges to come.

Physically, mentally, and emotionally adapting to COVID-19 has proved especially challenging for people working in social change. Social change organizations are facing extraordinary demand for their services, often with insufficient staffing and resources. Some have had to reduce wages, cut hourly staff, or lay off full-time staff amid great uncertainty. Meanwhile, as previous stories in this article series have pointed out, nonprofit leaders and others often struggle to maintain even a tenuous line between work and home life. For many, the two are now forcibly and inextricably merged. The world has called on the social change workforce to both prevent and respond to the consequences of COVID-19, and there are already signals that people are reaching their physical, mental, and emotional limits.

Centered Self: The Connection Between Inner Well-Being and Social Change

This series, presented in partnership with The Wellbeing Project, India Development Review, and The Skoll Foundation explores this important but often overlooked connection between inner well-being and effective social change.

We funders have relied on this army of professionals day in and day out, crisis after crisis. Yet, we have never fully equipped them for the everyday work they do, let alone for the kind of work COVID-19 is demanding of them. It’s not efficient, effective, or humane for them to work without well-being support, and it shouldn’t take a global disaster to convince us of this. Investing in grantees’ health, retention, and resilience will equip them with abilities they need to create the world we want to see, as well as strengthen and draw new talent to the social sector.

Of course, how we invest in well-being depends on each social change organization’s needs and context. Research by The Wellbeing Project (TWP) shows that organizations addressing well-being generally began doing so because their grantees or fellows expressed the need for support. In most cases, leadership from the senior team helped prioritize the issue, starting with one initiative and gradually building from there, through listening, experimentation, and iteration. Gradually, organizations came to understand the kind of support grantees or fellows most needed and responded to that. They also introduced staff to the issue and developed knowledge on how to support grantee well-being. But there are variations. In this article, we share three examples of successful initiatives—drawn from the pool of 85 organizations that have participated in TWP over the past five years—as well as some ways funders can support the well-being of their grantees going forward.

1. Trusting Grantees to Define Their Needs

One way funders can protect people at social change organizations from reaching their physical, mental, and emotional limits is to provide multi-year grants specifically for mental health and well-being—funds grantees can use as they see fit for their teams and context.

In 2017, the Peery Foundation began a grantmaking pilot program in response to vicarious trauma frontline workers were experiencing while serving families that faced eviction in East Palo Alto, California. The program expanded to support three additional grantees in the San Francisco Bay Area the following year, and in 2019, the foundation partnered with the strategy and evaluation firm Learning for Action to review well-being support in the field, as well as evaluate the pilot program’s impact.

Learning for Action started with a literature review on the availability and outcomes of well-being practices in the sector, and learned about a broad range of positive outcomes at the individual and community levels. Employees with access to well-being programs experienced increased job satisfaction, decreased depression, and improved mental and physical health. Organizations saw reduced absenteeism, fewer reports of vicarious trauma, and less turnover. There was also evidence that increases in employee well-being carried beyond the workplace, and had positive effects on their homes and communities.

Based on the findings from the review, in 2020, the foundation decided to extend its multi-year funding for staff mental health and well-being. It began providing $35,000 per year to a subset of 12 grantees, including two outside the United States.

While evaluation of the pilot program is still in process, after the first year of support, the initial well-being grantee reported that team members were less stressed and enjoyed more camaraderie as a result of access to individual and group counselling. This aligned with the foundation’s original goal of addressing mental health-related issues such as trauma, stress, anxiety, and burnout for frontline staff.

Based on other feedback, however, the foundation decided to adjust the grants’ parameters. At first, the grants were prescriptive and supported only a single counselling provider for each grantee. But it became clear that organizations wanted and needed more autonomy to determine the type of support their staff needed. Some social change organizations wanted to give staff access to therapy; others already had comprehensive medical insurance with mental health counselling services. A couple of organizations felt that hosting a staff retreat would boost team well-being more than anything else, and used the funding to support a retreat for strategic thinking, planning, and celebration of accomplishments.

Now the foundation’s broader goal is for grantees to use these funds to bolster well-being across teams and organizations by supporting team morale, team education (on topics like sexual harassment, and diversity, equity, and inclusion), or other aspects of well-being that suit their unique needs and thus help them meet the demands of their mission.

2. Creating Space for Open Sharing

Foundations and other investors in social change can also support grantees by dedicating time to the discussion of well-being issues at convenings. This opens up space for grantees to explore deeply personal issues related to their well-being and sends a signal that their well-being should be a high priority.

In 2015, the Schwab Foundation discovered that well-being was a significant issue in its community of awardees. At the World Economic Forum’s “summer Davos” meeting in China, about 70 social entrepreneurs in the Schwab network convened for a closed-door meeting, where community members were invited to wear stickers printed with an unfinished sentence: “I want to talk about…”. Each awardee finished the sentence with their own topic and then participated in a “speed-dating” activity. This fairly standard ice-breaking activity turned into a pivotal moment. One courageous soul’s sticker read, “I want to talk about burnout.” This opened the flood gates, and Schwab leadership heard loud and clear that many social entrepreneurs wanted and needed a space to talk about what many considered a taboo and sensitive subject. A survey later confirmed that a significant percentage of its social entrepreneur awardees were experiencing anxiety, depression, or both.               

The foundation experimented with a variety of formats for exchange at later convenings, including exercises facilitated by psychologists, guided visualizations, and cathartic plenary sessions focused on imposter syndrome and burnout. Eventually, it discovered that well-being programming tended to work best when someone willing to model “radical transparency” shared their personal experience with either a sensitive topic or the harder realities of their work. This allowed other community members to see they weren’t alone in their fears or struggles. Small, carefully chosen, peer-to-peer groups proved most effective in helping people overcome their inhibitions, and slowly the masks began to come down.

In these groups, awardees unpacked their inhibitions, and formed a community around safety, vulnerability, and much-needed peer exchange. Participant feedback collected after each convening showed that sessions focused on well-being were among the most meaningful programming the foundation had provided over its 20-year history. What’s more, the foundation learned that by investing in the inner well-being of the founders, they were also investing in the health of awardees’ organizations as a whole. Awardees reported higher-performing organizational culture, decreased micromanagement, and more trusting interactions with other organizations and funders.

3. Building a Comprehensive Program

Starting with a single intervention and developing a larger, more comprehensive program from there helps build internal knowledge and support for well-being efforts. As the other examples illustrate, it also gives funders time to understand and adapt to grantees’ real needs.

Echoing Green began supporting well-being after recognizing that the health of its fellows was important to both them as individuals and their ability to solve complex social problems. This insight emerged after listening to fellows, who experienced personal challenges associated with their work and its effects first-hand.

Echoing Green decided to enhance its support for fellows by revitalizing and expanding a chaplaincy program. The program was first piloted in 2009 by three Echoing Green fellows. Today, the services under the secular program include individual pastoral sessions; workshops on grief, loss, and relationships; and email outreach to the fellows. Individual sessions, which happen in person or over the phone, form the heart of the program. Fellows interact with the chaplains, who are available 24-7, based on the fellows’ needs; some interact regularly, while others meet only once or twice a year. The program draws chaplains from the Echoing Green community itself and trains them to provide meaningful peer support.

Echoing Green also wove well-being into its curriculum for incoming fellows. The curriculum comprises several “pillars of social innovation,” one of which focuses on well-being topics. It also created a protocol for how to respond to and support fellows in moments of crisis, and designated resources to support their mental health and safety. In this way, the organization has gradually developed a more comprehensive program that supports fellows on first arrival, in the day-to-day, and even in their most difficult moments.

Three Things Funders and Intermediaries Need to Do

Whether our motivation as funders is to see more change in the future, protect the continuation of positive change we’ve already invested in, or demonstrate solidarity with the people who make the change we claim with pride, we should be actively preventing the sacrifice of people’s well-being and mental health at our altar of outcomes.

Prevention begins with recognition—recognizing that well-being is a necessary and essential ingredient of successful social change. Though funders have some catching up to do, many leaders of social change organizations have known this for some time. Case and point: The Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ and Packard’s Resilience Initiative launched in 2017 after interviews with Packard Foundation grantees highlighted the importance of organizational and staff resilience to social change. The initiative provided more than 60 grants of $15,000 to organizations over three years. When grantees had complete control over the allocation of these resilience funds, the vast majority used them to support individual staff resilience and well-being.

Secondly, understanding: If funders understand the ways social change work puts the social change workforce at risk, we can start to understand how to mitigate that risk. According to a study conducted on the impact of the secondary traumatic stress faced by social workers, the lived experiences of nonprofit staff, which both informs their work and mirrors the communities they serve, also exposes them to negative mental health outcomes through proximity, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other symptoms of secondary trauma. For social workers, this vicarious trauma is an occupational hazard of such magnitude that organizations have a practical and ethical responsibility to support staff with coping skills and resources. What’s more, many nonprofit staff are more qualified for and successful in their work precisely because they come from a community facing the issue their employer addresses. This could mean they are both personally and professionally exposed to first- or second-hand trauma associated with the issue, or that they are in a financially precarious situation and more at risk of stress and other challenges to their well-being due to financial instability. It’s important to be aware.

Finally, demonstration: To truly support the well-being of the social change workforce, funders must demonstrate that well-being is a priority to us too. We can do that by explicitly enabling social change leaders to prevent and respond to these risks. This includes but isn’t limited to providing support for:

  • Leadership coaching for all levels of staff at social change organizations. This builds, models, and reinforces a culture of well-being, in addition to deepening skills that foster greater collaboration, trust, and growth within teams.
  • Well-being stipends to support everyday personal recovery and rejuvenation. Employees often use well-being cash stipends disbursed with payroll on classes or subscriptions that help them maintain physical health, access mental health treatment, and engage in personal development activities that support overall health and resilience. All of these things can positively impact professional performance and longevity.
  • Sabbaticals for tenured staff to step away from work for an extended period of time. Sabbaticals support the recovery and rejuvenation of experienced and knowledgeable individuals after years of service, and result in greater retention. A recent, 20-year retrospective evaluation of the Durfee Foundation Sabbatical Program also found that “sabbaticals quickly and organically create lasting change at the personal (attitude/perspective), structural (job descriptions changed, teams restructured), and system (leadership, mission/impact) levels.”
  • Multi-year well-being grants for organizations to use on exactly the type of well-being support when and how they need it, as illustrated by the Peery Foundation case study.
  • Increased core funding to support competitive salaries and retirement benefits, and staff capacity. All of these also go a long way toward creating a more supportive context in the field of social change by: decreasing staff stress around personal finance and retirement, minimizing the gap between nonprofit and foundation compensation, and enabling organizations to attract and—even more importantly right now—retain staff through the challenges of their work and our world.

Funding well-being—including the research, implementation, and continuation of support over time—gives social change organizations permission to prioritize and do it. Over the years, funders have effectively influenced thousands of social sector organizations to focus on results, growth, and scale. For better or worse, our priorities become their priorities. Let’s use that privilege to encourage, support, and drive a new standard of well-being in our sector—one that, from here on out, recognizes, understands, and demonstrates the critical role well-being plays in social change.


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