Social impact professionals are stressed out. Here’s how funders can help.

Future of Good spoke to Jack.org and Malala Fund to learn about the funder-fundee relationship, and how it impacts workers’ mental health

Why It Matters

The challenges of the pandemic are threatening the well-being of workers in the social impact sector — just when communities need them the most. Funders and grantees say to prevent a burnout crisis across the sector, building trust between them is more important than ever.

This story is in partnership with RBC Future Launch.

When the pandemic demanded that work go remote for the tight-knit group of employees at Toronto-based Jack.org, they were able to accommodate everyone with the technology and gear required to work and communicate fairly quickly. But as they worked to replicate the amiable atmosphere of the office through virtual “hobnobs” — one-on-one morale check-ins with different members of the team, matched up randomly — Development Lead Ryan Martin says that the lack of face-to-face interactions still takes a toll on the mental health of his team.

“I think the social piece, the lack of human interaction with my friends/colleagues, has been the biggest influence on my wellness when I think about working at Jack.org,” says Martin.

As one of the leading youth mental health organizations in Canada, the team at Jack.org are well-aware that their well-being is crucial to their ability to support the mental health of the youth they serve. Everyone is experiencing health strains such as isolation, new schedules, increased screen-time, financial stress and/or loss of community — and Martin says they felt an increased sense of urgency and responsibility to be there with support.

“What we heard was, very quickly, for the young people that were struggling before COVID, there’s a really good chance that they’re struggling more now,” Martin says. “And that there’s a huge spike in the number of people that weren’t struggling before COVID who are now having their first experiences with more of an uphill struggle.” 

Last November, Future of Good hosted a #BuildBackBetter digital conversation featuring four leaders from the social impact sector to find out how the pandemic was impacting their organizations and the work they do. 

Their message was both concerning and crystal clear. The pandemic has created new economic and social stressors worldwide, putting more pressure on the sector to respond and help. But because workers are grappling with many of those stressors themselves, there could be a looming burnout crisis ahead — unless new strategies are implemented to support the well-being of the social impact workforce.

They also shared some valuable insights on how to improve conditions to ensure this crucial work can continue. One key concept they recommended is re-evaluating the relationship between funders and grantees, explaining that funders can sometimes add to stress. By strengthening trust between funders and grantees with improved communication, reallocating funds, integrating more flexibility when it comes to deliverables, and supporting workers with virtual social engagements, could make it easier to reach their goals.

But in practice, what does it really look like?

 

Providing resources without micro-managing

While they had listed many resources and materials on their site, the bulk of Jack.org’s work pre-pandemic involved delivering mental health training to a network in-person. As public health restrictions evolved and made travel impossible, Martin and his team had to move quickly and pivot to digital — first, with a page filled with materials and resources tailored to issues related to COVID that could arise, such as anxiety-fuelled negative thinking or how to be supportive to friends in a physically distant atmosphere. From there, Martin says they’ve worked “relentlessly” to translate all of their training and programming to the digital context in similar ways.

They wouldn’t have been able to do this nearly as quickly and effectively without the trust of their funders, he says, which is evident in their funding model. With multi-year funding partnerships from their funders, they have resources to do what they need to.

We see what young people need, we create it, and then we start looking for additional support and funding, rather than looking for funding first, and then starting to build something,” Martin says. “Because we have the luxury of having the funding available to do things first, and then start reaching out for that additional to support the future of those programs as we create them. So we were able to move really, really fast.”

Providing COVID-specific wellness supports

Washington, D.C.-based Malala Fund is focused on challenging barriers to ensure all girls can have access to 12 years of free, safe, quality education. Fouzia Bencheikh, Malala Fund’s applied learning officer, says they’re working in eight countries where girls aren’t in school for reasons such as social norms, gender stereotypes, natural disasters, child marriage or other factors. Because barriers are regionally specific, they support educators and activists in those communities who belong to what they call their Education Champions Network. 

The pandemic is exacerbating these barriers through a number of ways. Lack of access to technology for remote learning or pressure to work or take care of sick family are just a few examples of how the pandemic is putting more pressure on those on the ground.

“Before, more than 130 million girls were out of school, and Malala Fund researchers estimate that 20 million more girls will be out of school by the time the pandemic is over,” Bencheikh says. Malala Fund launched a COVID-specific site to emphasize to potential donors how the pandemic could further complicate barriers to girls’ access to education and clearly outline their priorities in countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan, to improve that access in these particularly difficult times.

Bencheikh says the mental health of the workers they fund has always been a priority, and so she and her team are cognizant of additional stressors the pandemic brings and how they put the work they’ve achieved at risk.

“So many of our activists are witnessing their colleagues, their fellow community members and the girls impacted by COVID-19 on top of their own increasing workload and obligations with family members and caretakers,” she says. “So right now, it’s really critical for us to have these feedback loops and listen to what our partners feel like they need to care for themselves and their teams. And for us to develop a multi-pronged approach to providing that support.” 

That approach includes adding more flexibility by extending grant deliverable timelines, or allowing grantees to reallocate some of their funding to operating expenses such as sick leave, or medical expenses related to COVID-19. 

They also expanded the wellness and collective care support that Malala Fund already provided after members of the Education Champions Network requested it. They partnered with a Seattle-based organization called Perennial to co-design and implement a four-week series on individual wellness and collective care, much of which emphasized how crucial communicating and sharing is through this time.

Since it was delivered in December, they are still waiting to see how much activists have benefited from the series, but early indicators are positive. They will continue to listen to their partners and provide what’s needed — which helps build trust between the two so they can continue their targeted, international work.

“We have our partners on the ground that are able to give us information as to how [they] are dealing and coping with the crisis,” she says. “And then that is great information for our awareness, and then we can figure out how to continue providing the support intentionally.”