Mindfulness for NGOs

Changing the world starts from within

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Learning to listen

Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

Once upon a time I was an aid worker, full of good intentions, and ‘fooled’ by good intentions. My Palestinian friends and colleagues have taught me that people need freedom, not aid. We need justice and education to flourish, not yet another NGO coming to ‘empower communities’, and ‘make a difference’.

More often than not we are the ones in need, so we help others in order to help ourselves find meaning. Nothing bad about it, except the denial that often comes with it.

In this inspiring and refreshing TED talk, Ernesto Sirolli suggests that the first step is to listen to the people we’re trying to help, and tap into their own entrepreneurial spirit.

Bringing a mindful approach to aid work means acknowledging the fact that the age of charity may be over. It means realising that we need to bring awareness to our own blind spots, and our own needs before rushing in with ‘help’. Because changing the world starts from within, it doesn’t start with a logframe.

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Compassion is not enough, we need wisdom

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” ~ Dalai Lama

Last week I shared an article on the importance of action beyond compassion. Its content prompted me to pause and write some of my own reflections around compassion and our psychological drives to ‘do good’. I agree that compassion is not enough, and  that we must act, but…

Well-meaning people full of compassion are not immune from doing harm. Being motivated by good intentions can be a double-edged sword, we think anything goes because we want to help. Not so, and the resentment aimed at many foreigners in countries populated by armies of relief organisations, is a symptom of the neurotic and patronising compassion that too often flavours our desire to help.

In activism, in aid, in humanitarian projects, in religious missions – and Palestine, where I’m currently based, has its big share of all the above – good people want to make a difference. We leave home, join NGOs, volunteer here and there, march at demonstrations, show solidarity. Nevertheless, more and more ‘white toyota and white aid’* are (unsurprisingly) perceived as a problem, and tolerated with contempt by our hosts. Why?

mindfulness for ngos

Action is not enough

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must have wisdom.” ~ Dalai Lama

Unaware of our actions, and the impact they have on the people we want to assist, we are bound to pamper our huge egos, rather than contribute in any meaningful way to the cause we have chosen. So, yes we do need action, but to quote the Dalai Lama again, we also need wisdom.

I need the wisdom to listen to myself and others, the wisdom to look after and within myself before wanting to help others, the wisdom to know what’s in it for me when I want to do good, the wisdom (and the competencies) to know how to help, the wisdom and the courage to acknowledge power imbalances, the wisdom to stop using the patronising language of aid, the wisdom not to burnout for a cause, the wisdom to assess when it’s time to pack up and go home, and the wisdom to know when it’s wise to stay and ‘fight on’.

Action-based organisations and ‘do-gooders’ hardly devote any time to self-reflection, with disastrous results which lead to cynicism and disillusionment in both ‘the helper’ and ‘the helped’.

Wisdom or Common Sense, Compassion or Empathy

Wisdom may sound like a grandiose word, but what it often boils down to is good old common sense, we all know the proverb ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, right? Wisdom, or common sense is the ‘openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective’ (Khandro Rinpoche).

Compassion can be a misleading term, often confused with ‘pity’. Empathy works better for me. Wisdom can help us assess when we are moved by ‘neurotic empathy’, and when instead our actions are motivated by ‘healthy empathy’. And yes, it’s not always so clear-cut.

‘Neurotic empathy’ only fulfills my needs to be good, while ‘healthy empathy’ considers the impact of my actions on others. Healthy empathy, is wise compassion, it meets my altruistic needs, as well as well as helping the cause of the people I am assisting.

When we want to act intelligently for a cause, heart and mind are both needed. To borrow Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: ‘It’s easier to be an enthusiast than to reason’. Alas, we know this to be very true.

The compassion to act in the best way, comes from self-knowledge, competencies and wisdom, not from good intentions:

‘The transformation of the world must begin within ourselves. Compassion and wisdom need to function together, combined with skillfulness, tolerance and patience. If we give ourselves the time and space to really observe our own thoughts and actions, good can come about. The human heart is basically very good, very generous, and very compassionate. But it may not always work together with wisdom. The result is that we have many people ready to go out and change the world for the better, but who still view philosophy, religion, and politics according to what they like, according to what they want’  (Khandro Rinpoche).

Compassion alone can be short-sighted. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says ‘in order to do no harm, we have to be mindful. Without awareness, we are going to do harm right and left, because we will not be able to see what effect we are having on others’.

Meaning well is really not enough. Not any more.


**For those unfamiliar with Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s amazing work, check out Good intentions are not enough. Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote is borrowed from her wise and compassionate website.


*Hugo Slim, White Toyota, White Aid, Alertnet (currently unavailable online)

Khandro Rinpoche, Compassion and Wisdom, Shambhala Sun.

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Psychologically Equipped? – White Paper Series #3

White Paper Series by Alessandra Pigni www.mindfunessforngos.org


An Overview of The Concepts of Mindfulness and How They May Apply to Aid Work 

Mindfulness-based interventions require us to take active responsibility for our own health:  No training will help, if we don’t help ourselves.

In chapter 3 of the White Paper Series on the psychological preparation of humanitarian professionals and volunteers, I specifically look at of the main approaches that I use in my work when training and supporting frontline staff: Mindfulness-based Interventions.

Mindfulness meditation has been my lifeline in the field. I found this approach particularly valuable while working in Nablus, Palestine on a mission with MSF. If you have missed chapter 1 of the White Paper Series, it will give you an insight into how I got from being an aid worker myself, to training aid workers back home and in the field.

In this chapter I shall explore:

  • What is mindfulness
  • The science behind its effectiveness
  • How it can be an important and cost-effective support in staff-care
  • What a mindfulness-based workshop for psychological preparation, stress, burnout, or trauma would entail and how it can be tailored to each NGOs’ needs.

 “Mindfulness is a Way – an inner discipline for learning to meet and enter with awareness the challenges inherent in taking care of ourselves and serving others”.

―  Saki Santorelli, Heal Thyself

Mindfulness is a mind-body approach that helps people to relate differently to experiences, it is defined as “the psychological quality of bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”. Mindfulness-based training highlights the importance of self-awareness, providing tools of self-knowledge, self-care and resilience building.

This therapeutic approach has its roots in a millenary Eastern insight meditation tradition. As a psychological programme it originated at The University of Massachusetts’ Medical School in 1979 with Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn who established the Stress Reduction Clinic and developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program. Mindfulness interventions have since gained wide reputation in health settings and in organizations, thanks to the amount of scientific evidence that supports their effectiveness. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the research carried out in centres of excellence such as Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, King’s College, London, and many other universities around the world, have been crucial in making mindfulness a widespread stress reduction tool.

Continue to read more about mindfulness-based training, and discover why an aid worker in Palestine said: “I found helpful that there was not a one-size fit all approach or that things had to be done in a certain way. I liked how things, conversations, learning developed very organically”.

To download chapter 3 please click below 

Psychologically Equipped – White Paper Series #3 How Mindfulness Training Can Help NGOs’ Staff and Volunteers

Chapter 1 on the background of the White Paper Series and the bibliography can be downloaded here
Chapter 2 on the psychological issues facing humanitarian professionals can be downloaded here

If you would like to receive the next chapters directly in your inbox, please follow my blog or sign-up to receive freshly pressed notifications (no spam!). Thank you!


Original mindfulness illustration by Mug Studio for Mindfulness for NGOs


About this white paper series:

This series by Alessandra Pigni is based on a 2011 Humanitarian Professionals’ LinkedIn group discussion. Over a six month period, more than 80 comments, stories, and reflections coming from humanitarian personnel were offered in response to the question: “Humanitarian aid workers are often psychologically unprepared for field missions. Any views on this from field and headquarters staff?” The resulting papers offer an account and analysis of the numerous contributions, highlighting the concepts and cost-effective practices of mindfulness-based training that can offer support to aid workers to reduce stress and prevent burnout.

Mindfulness for NGOs (http://mindfulnessforngos.org/) works in partnership with The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (Oxford University) and was founded by Alessandra Pigni. The aim of the project is to bring Mindfulness-Based Burnout Prevention training, and psychological care to humanitarian professionals and volunteers back home and in the field promoting personal awareness, resilience and well-being. Alessandra is currently implementing Mindfulness for NGOs in Israel/Palestine.


If you would like to take part in the online discussion and submit your contribution for the upcoming chapters of this White Paper Series please join the Frontline Prevention Group, the Humanitarian Professionals Group, and Devex on LinkedIn or emailinfo@mindfulnessforngos.org. Contributions used in the White Paper Series will be published anonymously to respect confidentiality.

Next in the white paper series:

No. 4 The Recruitment and Hiring Processes of Aid Workers: Views from Field Professionals. 


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