Empathy Plus Action: Behind the Scenes of the Compassion Project

With polarization on the rise across the country and individuals retreating still further into their own bubbles of like-minded peers, the adage of “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” can seem like a quaint relic of the past. Indeed, the Pew Research Center reports that 77 percent of Americans believe the country is more divided now than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic: a significantly higher rate of polarization than other nations surveyed.

These extraordinary rates of mistrust and insularity may not come as a surprise to anyone plugged into current events, but awareness of the problem is only the beginning. What can be done to break down the barriers separating us from one another? How can we make the social default not only to notice when others are struggling, but also to step in and help?

One organization has a clear answer to these pressing questions. The Compassion Project is an initiative working to build compassion directly into school curriculums across the country—and it’s already having a significant impact on young people’s lives.

Bringing Compassion to Life

The Compassion Project’s founder, Jeff Weiner, developed a deep appreciation for the transformative power of compassion while working as the CEO of LinkedIn. Over time, he became convinced that while teaching compassion in the workforce was a good start, truly seismic change would only come from beginning compassion education as early as possible. With that goal in mind, Weiner partnered with education technology company EVERFI to develop a compassion-focused digital curriculum for students in second through fifth grade.

“Our mission is to ensure that every primary school student in the US understands what compassion is and how to practice it,” says Weiner. “I believe that compassion education is the foundation for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom and in life.”

The project’s curriculum includes 15 short lessons that provide students with a fundamental understanding of concepts including demonstrating empathy, identifying emotions, performing acts of kindness, and practicing mindfulness and growth mindset. The lessons are flexible and self-paced, incorporating elements of facilitated discussion and interactive play to engage students of all ages and learning styles.

A major focus of the curriculum—particularly in the wake of COVID-19—is on supporting the links between compassion and mental health. With rates of depression and anxiety rising to never-before-seen levels among school-age children, the Compassion Project is committed to using compassion to build mindfulness and social-emotional learning, both of which can help students develop emotional resilience and prioritize their own mental health and well-being.

Students aren’t the only ones seeing the benefits of compassion education: teachers delivering the curriculum are equally enthusiastic about its results. Among the nearly 80,000 teachers registered with the Compassion Project, teacher satisfaction is extremely high, and 91 percent of teachers said the course was easy to fit into their standard curriculum.

“Talk about discovering a hidden treasure!” said a teacher from Orlando, Florida. “In focusing on mindfulness and compassion, the Compassion Project is exposing my students to strategies for processing their emotions and understanding how their classmates are feeling.”

Broadening the Conversation

As a fiscally sponsored project at the New Venture Fund, the Compassion Project has been able to access systems efficiencies and technological platforms that allow it to move quickly and tap into the donor community’s real enthusiasm for this work. Within two weeks, NVF helped the Compassion Project build and launch an online platform that allows interested donors to support the program at any level. NVF also provides expert behind-the-scenes services to manage and process these payments.

“Teaching compassion is a cause that many individuals are very passionate about and want to support,” says Jenny Hoffman, Senior Vice President, Marketing at EVERFI. “Having a platform to accept contributions of any size has opened up new avenues for people to support our work, and NVF was able to launch this functionality in a seamless, turnkey way.”

One major victory for the project on the fundraising front came in 2020, when the Alex and Jean Trebek Foundation signed on as partners to bring the Compassion Project into more elementary schools across the US. The announcement, coming just weeks before Trebek’s passing, brought an unprecedented wave of traffic—and support—to the project’s online donation platform.

What’s Next

Since it launched in 2018, the Compassion Project’s initial curriculum has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, it has registered more than 35,000 primary schools, giving it a presence in one of every two school districts in the country, and its compassion curriculum has reached more than 1 million students. Originally focused on early elementary school students, the program now serves students in second through fifth grade, with the goal of rolling out grade-appropriate content for all K-12 students in the coming years.

In addition, the Compassion Project is working hard to make its programming accessible to all students. It recently launched a Spanish-language version of its curriculum, as well as an international curriculum in the United Kingdom.

“Our long-horizon goal is to put compassion education in the hands of every student in the world,” says Weiner. “Hopefully the more folks we have talking about the importance of compassion and contributing to the effort, the more successful we are going to be.”

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