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Supporting resilient and healthy workplaces: Luminate’s Wellness Stipend Program

A staggering toll

Luminate’s partners — journalists, activists, organizers, and other human rights advocates working to build more just and fair societies — engage daily in courageous, difficult, and important work. They are at risk of, or already struggle with, burnout, stress, exhaustion, depression, and trauma.

An international survey from Columbia University found that human rights advocates have concerning rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sub-threshold PTSD, depression, and burnout.¹ Furthermore, the researchers found that large majorities of survey participants had accessed little to no counseling, received little to no education on potential emotional impacts of their work, and reported little to no mental health support from their employers or schools.

While funders have neither the ability nor the resources to prevent every situation of high need, there are ways we can better support organizations’ wellbeing. These include understanding better the context in which our partners work, providing unrestricted multi-year funding, listening empathically, sharing best-practices policies, and making occasional rapid response grants. Luminate strives to engage in all of this, but we wanted to prioritize wellbeing specifically.

In response, Luminate’s Partner Support team launched a pilot “Wellness Stipend” program in January 2020, with small allocations of protected funding solely dedicated to wellness. The objective of these stipends was to give our partners the ability and license to take small but important steps toward support, healing, and resilience.

Inspiration

Luminate’s wellness stipend initiative was inspired by, and drew lessons from, many others.

Closest to home, The Omidyar Group’s Rights & Dignity Working Group (comprised of Humanity United, Luminate, Democracy Fund, Omidyar Network, and Imaginable Futures) disbursed several wellness stipends in 2019, which sparked our interest and led us to look for other examples of funders focusing on staff well-being. We were delighted to find a variety of organizations doing this, such as The General Services Foundation which launched a small-grants wellbeing program “to fund resilience, safety, and joy”, and published lessons here, and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice which published an excellent report about their work around Healing Justice. This report also included case studies from Latin America & Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights and the Groundswell Fund with information on how they’re disbursing these types of funds.

Furthermore, Luminate joined the Ecosystem Network of The Wellbeing Project (an initiative co-created with Ashoka, the Esalen Institute, Impact Hub, Porticus, the Skoll Foundation, and the Synergos Institute). Through experiencing their excellent research, wellbeing series, events, and community, our conviction grew that wellness and wellbeing were important areas to support.

My hope is this blog may in turn inspire other funders who are looking for ways to prioritize and promote wellbeing at the individual and organizational levels.

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Severns Guntzel, J. & Murphy Johnson, N. 2020. Wellbeing Inspires Welldoing: How Changemakers' Inner Wellbeing Influences Their Work [Report].

Criteria for funding

For this pilot year, we asked our funding leads to consider, based on regular check-ins, which of their partners may be experiencing one or more of the following:

  • The organization has been through, or regularly faces, primary or secondary trauma 
  • The leader and/or staff are regularly under threat 
  • The leader and/or staff have demonstrated instances of severe exhaustion or burnout 
  • The organization works in a high-stress environment (polarized, unjust; few resources; crises)
  • The funding lead believes the organization could significantly benefit from dedicated funding for wellness for reasons other than those listed above

Program design

My goal is to be transparent about how we designed and allocated resources to this initiative, which may be of interest to our partners and other civil society organizations.

  • Structure: All wellness stipends went to existing Luminate partners. Wellness Stipends were $10,000 on average, but differed from case to case. The amount was mutually determined by the organization and funding leads, based on need and context.
  • Proposals: Insights from similar efforts indicate that these types of grants should be as flexible and simple as possible. Therefore, our proposal process was simply a short verbal or email exchange. Every organization that said they could use a wellness stipend received one, unless they declined. We did not want to reject any requests.
  • Flexibility: It is important that our partners hold the power, discretion, and agency to determine how to spend their stipends, so we never stipulated specific uses. That said, when asked, we offered examples of the range of ways these stipends could be used. For instance: counseling, celebrations of recent successes, facilitated sessions on important or sensitive issues for the organization, mini-sabbaticals, gift cards for employees for determine how they’d like to spend it, etc.
  • Reporting: Learning and research from other funders’ wellness and healing justice programs indicate that requiring extensive reports on such grants runs counter to the goal. That said, we hope to learn what worked and did not work, and we have certain legal and accountability responsibilities. Therefore, we requested either a conversation or an email about how the funds were spent, what the organizational reflections were, and what Luminate should learn from this endeavor.

In total, we delivered 34 wellness stipends ($361,500) to our partners in 2020, and we hope to continue to support organizations’ efforts to be healthy workplaces. In my next blog, we’ll share more about how the funds were spent, as well as our reflections on our lessons learned.


¹ Satterthwaite, Margaret & Knuckey, Sarah & Brown, Adam. (2018). Trauma, Depression, and Burnout in the Human Rights Field: Identifying Barriers to Resilient Advocacy. Columbia Human Rights Law Review. 49. 267.