Caring for the changemakers: Funders need to put mental health front and centre

Linda Bell Grdina and Aaron Pereira

Supporting mental health and emotional well-being for changemakers boosts resilience, retention, and social impact, experience from The Wellbeing Project – an initiative co-created with Ashoka, Impact Hub, Porticus, the Skoll Foundation, and the Synergos Institute – suggests.

Covid-19 has underscored the importance of creating workplace cultures that actively work to support emotional and mental health. Within the social change sector, a culture that values ‘sacrifice for the greater good’ has traditionally ignored the importance of emotional and mental well-being. Individuals working for social change frequently identify so strongly with their organisation’s mission they disregard signs of burnout and ignore unhealthy workplace practices, choosing instead to soldier on and, frequently, to self-medicate. Some of this comes from the fact that many people working in the sector have a direct personal experience of the issue they are working on.

Moreover, people working for social change also operate in chronically stressful, under-resourced environments. To learn more about these challenges and catalyse a culture of wellbeing across the sector, The Wellbeing Project interviewed social change leaders from around the world and also conducted a sector-level study with an international group of 300 plus changemakers from 55 countries over a period of six months. Our research revealed that there was a significant need for well-being support and a need for a cultural change in the field. Although 75 per cent of respondents felt that looking after their well-being was ‘very important,’ merely 25 per cent reported that they looked after their well-being ‘to a great extent’.

In order for mental health services to make a difference, the people providing these services need themselves to receive support for their mental and emotional well-being.

In response, The Wellbeing Project created model programmes to explore the types of supports that are needed by changemakers as well as the effect these supports have in their personal and professional lives. Initially, programme participants expressed guilt about taking care of themselves, but they came to recognise that a commitment to well-being is essential to their own and others’ long-term health and work. We learned that supporting the mental, emotional and social health of changemakers led to greater trust and delegation to colleagues, increased collaboration with peers, and healthier, more human-centric organisations.

Going beyond the general mental health of the social change field, we have also been learning that it is also particularly important to advance a mental health positive culture in society. In order for mental health services to make a difference, the people providing these services need themselves to receive support for their mental and emotional well-being. A mental health positive society is created through thousands of touchpoints that illustrate the many ways we engage with one another and in society. These touchpoints create the broader network of care that is provided by the whole of civil society – through the provision of Social-Emotional Learning for Children, or through the support provided to those who have been abused, or through programmes for supporting adolescents. In each of these cases, successful outcomes are connected to the mental health and emotional well-being of the providers. Research from Duke University shows that there is a direct link between the well-being of early childhood caregivers and the physical, emotional, and intellectual outcomes for children.

We encourage funders to support efforts to normalise emotional and mental health support and recognise that individual and organisational resilience are critical components for effective social change work and the flourishing of society at large.

The coalition of The Wellbeing Project includes leading foundations like the Skoll Foundation and key grassroots networks like Community, who have been collectively taking steps to prioritise well-being and take it into the mainstream. For example, the Ford Foundation has woven wellbeing support into their BUILD programme and members of the Big Bang Philanthropy collaborative are supporting the well-being of their staff and grantees. Ashoka has designated well-being as one of its 10 global priorities and is providing well-being programming in countries such as India, Mexico, and Canada. Among regional and local networks, Impact Hub Vienna has integrated well-being into its major acceleration programme. All have seen a tremendous positive response from their stakeholders.

Many social change organisations interested in cultivating staff resilience and organisational sustainability through well-being initiatives have been unable to do so due to a lack of support. Covid-19 has resulted in an increased demand for services as decreased funding and staff reductions tax the physical, the mental and emotional well-being of people working for social change. Recognising the impact on the sector, there is an increasing interest from funders and intermediary organisations in providing support for mental and emotional well-being for staff and grantees. These are hopeful signs. And more action is needed from funders.

Funding for well-being: individual resilience and institutional effectiveness

Although growing evidence reveals the benefits of supporting well-being, up until now, funders have been hesitant to provide support for mental and emotional well-being more generally and particularly for those working in the social change sector. Historically, foundations have funded initiatives that are shorter-term and easy to measure. Cultivating mental and emotional health and human-centric workplace cultures that support well-being is an ongoing and evolving process that takes place over time and requires a sustained commitment from funders.

Investing in mental health and emotional well-being improves resilience, builds trust and relationships, and increases retention in the social change sector. Funders can help prevent sector burn-out through offering multi-year support as well as providing funds that target mental health and emotional well-being to grantees to use in ways that respond to their teams’ needs and the context of their work. Although funders are beginning to recognise that supporting the inner well-being of change-makers can boost capacity for innovation and collaboration, funding for emotional and mental health greatly lags behind the need for support.

Drawing on some examples from the coalition of The Wellbeing Project provides some examples of possible paths forwards for funders:

  • The creation of targeted funds for well-being – The Peery Foundation and Luminate have both launched grant-making pools to support well-being. The programme allows existing grantees to address and support the mental health and emotional well-being needs of their respective organisations. It has proven to be very popular and constructive for the grantees.
  • Creating wellbeing programming for grantees In 2015, the Schwab Foundation discovered that concerns about mental health and emotional well-being were a significant issue for its community of awardees. One of the major points of interaction for the foundation with its community is through convenings. They have now integrated sessions focusing on wellbeing at each of their convenings. These have become the most popular sessions offered by the Foundation in its over 20-year history.

Each of these approaches provides funders with a way forward to recognise, respond, and support emotional and mental well-being across the sector. Now is a critical time for funders to recognise the connection between individual resilience and institutional effectiveness, to revisit their funding practices, and integrate support for well-being into their funding strategies

Prioritising mental health: A necessity for societal stability

The past two years have taken a heavy toll on the people and organisations working for change. In addition to supporting the work of social change organisations, it is essential that those doing the work are supported as well. This is important for the people working in the field, and for the work of the field. Moving forward, we encourage funders to support efforts to normalise emotional and mental health support and recognise that individual and organisational resilience are critical components for effective social change work and the flourishing of society at large. By providing regular support to support integrated well-being initiatives within social change organisations, funders will contribute to reducing burnout for changemakers, enhancing the stability of these organisations, and furthering mission achievement.

Linda Bell Grdina is Research Elder for The Wellbeing Project, and Aaron Pereira is Project Lead for The Wellbeing Project.

Upcoming issue: Mental health philanthropy

This issue of Alliance will explore the present state of philanthropy for mental health (who is doing what and where the gaps are), the intersections with other issues, the factors which have limited mental health philanthropy and the steps that are needed to bring philanthropists together to make common cause in the area. Guest edited by Krystian Seibert, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University Australia and chair, Mental Health First Aid, Australia.

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In addition, those who labor for social change function in circumstances that are chronically stressful and lacking in other resources.

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