The Inner Well-being of Social Sector Professionals — Part 2

Kapil Dawda
9 min readDec 23, 2022


In my previous article in the series, I spoke about the brewing crisis of well-being in Indian Social Sector Organisations based on my observations. I was also hopeful that many organisations have begun recognising their employees’ needs for well-being and are taking steps to respond to it.

Today, I share an example of an organisation that has taken an integrated well-being approach. These are excerpts from our conversation with Rohit Kumar, the Founder and CEO of Apni Shala, a nonprofit that builds social-emotional learning competencies in individuals ​​for a harmonious co-existence.

As you read Rohit’s input, reflect on the following:

  • How is the well-being of internal and external stakeholders at the front and centre of your work?
  • In what ways does your organisation's culture mirror the world you wish to create for your stakeholders?
  • What is the quality of listening and sensing that underlies the micro and macro shifts in your workplace?
  • What is the nature of power and relationships?

How did this journey towards well-being begin?

(Rohit’s Response) Apnishala’s work started in 2013. The biggest question was how we ensure students’ well-being is at the centre. If we are talking about students’ well-being, socio-emotional development and mental health, how do we teach the skills if we don’t have a lived experience?

This was a big question for me when I transitioned to the CEO role in 2019. I started asking —

What is my understanding of wellbeing? If people don’t understand what wellbeing means for them, not in a cognitive way but in their mind and body, then the work will not truly translate to the classroom.

Each person can create ripples of well-being when they experience and embody it themselves (Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash)

Since then, we periodically pause to ask ourselves: Are we truly keeping well-being at the front and centre of our vision? Is our current work impacting the well-being of our students? Is the way we work enabling the well-being of our team? It is not that we don’t stumble, but we can pause and catch ourselves consistently now. After every pause, we again clarify our direction and take small actions towards the change.

How did your identity and life experiences play a role?

Our personal experiences bring us to the development space. We cannot do developmental work based on cognition alone. We must step into our psychosocial landscapes.

Despite going to a ‘good school’ in North India, I experienced bullying and exclusion as a young gay person. Even ‘good schools’ didn’t have the systems and processes for day-to-day well-being. As a result of this experience, I would go out of the way in my personal and professional life to prove myself and to feel a sense of acceptance by others.

Before moving to the social sector, I volunteered in schools with a nonprofit. There was a lot of focus on care. I worked with groups of people living with systemic poverty to build youth leadership. It made me feel overwhelmed. How authentic could I be with others? What is my comfort in speaking my truth with others?

While I work with others, I realised the need to work on myself. I had to pursue therapy. In working with others, I also found ways to work on my personhood, and by doing the inner work, I better understood the need of my students.

The inner work is essential for the outer work (Photo by Михаил Секацкий on Unsplash)

Besides my journey, one of my co-founders has experience with mental health conditions, and the other has grown up in systemic poverty. We also have diverse experiences of thriving in community with each other. All our experiences have shaped how we see well-being in Apnishala.

How did you take your team along on the journey?

We have arrived at this stage after several years of trial and error. One thing I learned is that you have to ask and listen to people who you are designing well-being for. Not just from an operational lens, but truly understanding what well-being means for them.

I will give you an example. In my first year as CEO, I was excited about the mindfulness training we had just done. I mandated a silent lunch. It flopped because that was the only day the entire team was in the office. People wanted to talk to each other. Instead of creating well-being, it created distress.

The hierarchical systems of leadership create distress. We moved from centralised leadership to distributed leadership in 2018. Many organisational decisions were taken together. I would have burnt out as CEO had this system not existed.

We created hubs of leadership at each level, so decision-making didn’t feel like a lonely process. Consultation has become a critical part of the way we design and shape our work and our organisation. Ownership increased at the ground level.

Rohit with his team at Apni Shala

What are some other changes you made to create a culture of well-being?

There were chances at a macro level and micro level.

Values: At a macro level, we revisited our values and cultures. Not just once, but in every quarterly review. For example, we had a value called ‘excellence’ that began getting questioned repeatedly. Who defines excellent? In terms of equity, do we consider the impact of identity, like gender and caste, on how people can deliver in their work? We had to review our values. Our current values are compassion, trust and equity, centred on well-being.

People Processes: The leadership team and HR revisit our people practices regularly. For example, we reviewed our entire employee handbook. If we have trust, why do we need a sign-in sign-out process? If we stay with a particular process, how can we see them from the lens of compassion, trust and equity? Depending on the bandwidth, sometimes, we involve the entire team, and sometimes, specific groups come together to discuss.

Goal-Clarity: We are also recognised that people are here to work. If their work is unclear, it causes distress. We prioritised working on clarifying goals, and where it was not possible, we also communicated proactively that this clarity is emergent. In the latter cases, consultation and co-creation with team members were the only ways.

People Management: We did not know compassion, trust and equity-based supervision because we have never learnt it. Our leadership frameworks were derived from our education and previous work experience. We started co-creating our supervision framework that is aligned with our values.

We asked ourselves, “How am I reviewing their work? How am I managing my relationship with my team?” We came up with three areas:

  • Normative, concerning progress on work and alignment on milestones
  • Formative, concerning growth and learning and addressing capacity gaps in a way that works for team members
  • Restorative, concerning the whole person and their well-being

What about the micro level?

Rituals: At the micro level, we do the small things, like our check-in rituals. Every meeting starts with an opportunity for team members to connect with their inner selves and surface where they are.

Training: Some training is critical. For example, mindfulness training happens once a year to build individual capacity. In training, we also address systemic factors, like the impact of identity in the workplace. We have quarterly training on diversity, equity and inclusion every quarter for everyone from the CEO to program staff to helpers. Conversations from training often move into supervision spaces, school team meetings, etc.

Funding is something that many organisations struggle with for well-being-related work. How do you manage budgets for this work?

Our work is intentionally slow. Losing funding is always a fear, but we are learning to be okay with it. We recognise our work cannot be driven by funding. It took us a while to understand and accept that. We have structured our fundraising in a way where we can take these calls. Some funders are more evolved and support specific work linked to staff well-being. They even advocate for our choices. We also use crowdfunding as well to support these activities. We use concessions from partners to help our team members avail of counselling and therapy services and to support our training needs.

There is a lot we wish to do but haven’t been able to due to resource constraints. For example, our office is not inclusive of people with disabilities. We do not have budgets for counselling and therapy. Our facilitators’ execution load, while lower than most other organisations in the ecosystem, is slightly higher than what our insights from the ground and global best practices are informing us about. We keep surfacing these factors and acknowledging the gaps. At the same time, the team understands our commitment to making this shift happen.

What perspectives have helped you on this journey?

The understanding that everyone is interconnected is important. The individualisation that my well-being or success is my responsibility was deeply rooted in my mind. I had to let go of it, and therapy played a critical role.

Once you understand interconnectedness, the need for collective leadership becomes deeper. I don’t have to do the work alone. Not just within my organisation, but in the ecosystem. Many organisations lead the work of well-being — Dream a Dream, Kshamtalaya, the Wellbeing Movement, etc. When you see the collective, you draw a lot of strength.

If my leadership choices do not demonstrate well-being, my team will not experience it. Once the connection was clear, my resolve was set! I have built tools and support systems for my well-being.

I also recognise that nothing is going to shift overnight for anyone. It took ten years to get here, and my team will take time too. What systems and support can I create so that their journey becomes meaningful?

My Narrative Practices supervisor, Jehanzeb Baldiwala, asks me — what will happen if this work shuts down? I realised it was my ego. I want to build this great organisation that lasts beyond me. Even if this doesn’t happen, the work we did over the last ten years did have an impact on many people. That realisation was such a relief. I draw so much strength from this perspective.

Through my experiences, I was trained to think that only fear and competition can drive you to do something exemplary. Now I realise it is a hoax. In conversation with our mindfulness trainer, Sadia Saeed, we have been exploring: What will happen if we can work towards our goals without craving, aversion or attachment and with deep present-moment focus, wise attention, compassion and love? Do we need to be driven by the fear of what is not there? Or can we also be driven by the love and joyfulness of possibilities, without getting too attached to the outcome or the process and letting our ego get centred?

Lastly, why is well-being an important consideration for social sector organisations?

Everyone in the development space is working towards the well-being of their communities — whether we work on issues of environment, gender, disability, education, etc. If our structures and frameworks don’t help us experience well-being, how will the work carry forward to our communities?

To conclude, I wanted to express my immense gratitude for Rohit’s vulnerability and openness to make his and Apnishala’s journey visible and for offering his input in our circle with social changemakers and feedback on this post. I hope this post has helped you visualise what a well-being-centred culture can look like.

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The first article in the series captures my observations on the well-being of social sector professionals in India.

To see how you can take this back to your organisation, read Rohit’s article in India Development Review on “Supporting Well-being in Resource-Scarce Environments”



Kapil Dawda

Weaving Communities and Learning Experiences for Wellbeing and Inner Growth of Individuals and Organisations