This is how wellbeing drives social change and why cultural leaders need to talk about it

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(Carl Barcelo, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Pavitra Raja, Community Specialist, Social Entrepreneurs – Europe and the Americas, World Economic Forum


  • Social entrepreneurs suffer widely from burnout, limiting their potential to make change.
  • A Schwab Foundation collaboration with the “Wellbeing Project”, explores the integral yet often overlooked link between wellbeing and transformational social change.
  • Drawing on the voices of the Forum’s Cultural Leaders, the project examines the role of artists in appealing to hearts and minds to drive social change.

Social entrepreneurs are disruptors in the services of others, especially in situations where the traditional actors or the market have failed. The Schwab Foundation Impact Report, showed how social entrepreneurs in the Foundation community alone have made an impact on the lives of 622 million people in more than 190 countries.

Social entrepreneurs are tackling the world’s most urgent issues, but they often work under intense pressure in chronically under-resourced environments. As they seek to address the needs of the most vulnerable, marginalized and forgotten, social entrepreneurs and their staff often overlook their own wellbeing, which in contrast can seem trivial.

The result: high incidences of burn-out, serious mental health issues and personal relationship breakdowns, which have a severe impact on organizations and the whole social change sector.

Nearly 50% of social entrepreneurs who attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in 2018 reported to have struggled with burnout and depression at some point.

This figure is alarming, especially considering that these are the “most successful” social entrepreneurs with highly evolved operations. But it is not entirely surprising.

Social entrepreneurs inspire us with their humanity and their commitment to those they represent and serve. The path of social entrepreneurship is still lonely, however, and as they address the needs and traumas of others, their own wellbeing is often neglected. The Schwab Foundation has always prioritized the wellbeing of social entrepreneurs, and will continue to do so especially during these dynamic times.

— Hilde Schwab, Co-Founder and Chair of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

There is increasing evidence that effective change can only be achieved if the wellbeing of the change-maker is secure. It can be cultivated in the first instance through greater awareness and a better understanding of self. This in-turn can have a positive ripple affect across organizations, improving innovation, collaboration and creativity.

Interdependency of wellbeing and well-doing

The Schwab Foundation was one of the first organizations of its kind to recognize the interdependency of wellbeing and well-doing. It was the first to launch programmatic work for its social entrepreneur community around mental health, and provided these change-makers with a safe space to discuss their unique struggles.

“Making the world a better place shouldn’t require sacrificing your mental and physical health. And yet, too often, that’s exactly what happens to those on the frontlines of social change”, says François Bonnici, Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. “There is a profound need to support the wellbeing of changemakers, so they are able to continue addressing the global challenges of society. The Schwab Foundation conducted its first survey on mental health and wellbeing over a decade ago, and has been actively creating spaces for peer support for many years. Today we recognize that this is more critical than ever, particularly if we value the sustainability of social change work”, he said.

The link between pressure and performance: social entrepreneurs can’t change the world if they’re burnt out.

Image: Delphis.org.uk

Along with others supporting social entrepreneurship such as Skoll and Stanford Social innovation Review, the Schwab Foundation is promoting a global movement, through its Wellbeing Series. The idea is to support the human aspects of entrepreneurship to unleash the potential for social change.

As part of the movement, a series of thought pieces will be published to explore the integral yet often overlooked link between wellbeing and transformational social change. The series aims to be a resource for all those in the social-change sector looking to nurture greater individual, organizational and societal wellbeing and well-doing.

It’s so important for social entrepreneurs to take care of themselves emotionally, spiritually and mentally in order to serve the purpose and have a greater impact.

— Luvuyo Rani, CEO of Silulo Ulutho Technologies, Schwab Awardee

The power of art and culture to drive change

The Schwab Foundation is partnering with the Forum’s Cultural Leaders’ network to explore the nexus between culture, wellbeing and social change. The idea that art and culture frames consciousness and processes individual experiences is not new. Throughout history, people have used art to heal and to make sense of the world. In turn, many insights into society’s systems, failures, aspirations or successes are captured by cultural outputs.

Creative expression has taken on a sense of urgency during the COVID-19 crisis – for example – illustrating the power of art to address existential threat.

How does a culture withstand the onslaught of a pandemic? We survive first of all with the presence of culture within us. It is to our inner culture that we turn, the culture we carry in us through years of unconscious osmosis and conscious acquisition. Art and literature bring this spiritual reserve to the fore, make it visible, give it form and character.

— Ben Okri

A Canadian business survey conducted in 2008 found that 86% of respondents believed art made for more integrated and healthier communities, while 88% thought it had a positive impact on health and well-being. In economic terms, art more than pays its way. Another report published by the World Health Organization confirms that art and culture have positive overall effects for mental and physical health at all stages of life.

“Culture is the glue of society. It is what ties communities together and its role is crucial in shaping social change in a constantly evolving world”, says Linda Peterhans, Specialist, Cultural Leaders, World Economic Forum. “The Cultural Leaders network brings this voice to the wider remit of the Forum, engaging all stakeholders to empathise and think creatively about how to shape a more resilient and inclusive world”.

Good art can educate and create empathy, and empathy leads to change.

— Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, documentary filmmaker & Crystal Awardee

Cultural Leaders appeal to hearts and minds, and are drivers of social change. Through this series, these pioneering voices will connect, inspire and elevate the social entrepreneur community to encourage them to keep fighting the good fight.

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