Cartography: Germany II

Cartography[n.]: Mapping, review

If you have read Field Study: Germany, you know that I did some research on social entrepreneurship in Germany before diving in. One of the studies emphasized that strong welfare organizations make it difficult for German social entrepreneurs to establish and position themselves. Talking to Tom Leppert at Heldenrat, I had the chance to discuss this point: “We have a huge social sector that fits the category of social enterprise, we just don’t call it that. Our social economy has always been strong.”, said Tom.


View of Hamburg’s Hafencity after a day at the DO School

Let’s take a moment to clarify what we mean by Social Economy: it basically describes the part of our economy that caters to our social needs as human beings. In other words, the Social Economy delivers products and services to address social issues. Tom: “Just look at Social Economy institutions like hospitals and health care, ambulatory care, labor market programs or youth services. They all run as social enterprises, only we call them welfare institutions. The underlying concept is the same. It’s an industry with an annual turnover of more than 165 billion Euros employing some 4.4 million Germans1) It’s pretty big and yet still, we call for the promotion of social entrepreneurship as if it’s the Next Big Thing. Ashoka, for example, has understood that and is getting welfare organizations like Malteser (click here for Malteser International) on board through cooperations. And for good reason. Welfare organizations may come across as from another time, but they have a lot of experience in setting up sustainable business models and acquiring funding.”

Caritas, e.g., runs U25: one of the best peer-based suicide prevention programs for youth Click To Tweet

… that  I have ever seen.”

To tell you the truth, apart from volunteering with the Salvation Army in Paris, I have had very little contact points with welfare organizations, certainly not in Germany (part of my East-German heritage?). Once I started browsing their websites, I was pretty astonished to see how much work they do, for how many vulnerable communities in Germany. As I dove in, I discovered that Tom was right, many of these welfare organizations are in fact registered as limited liability companies with tax-exempt status (gGmbH).

Where does this leave us?

To me, Germany’s reputation as a welfare state has won new meaning. I used to think this was due to generous government funding of welfare – and there’s truth to that. But I have also come to understand that our Social Economy is driven by savvy social entrepreneurs in large established welfare organizations. And suddenly, Germany seems to have a wealth in experience and know-how in social entrepreneurship. How can we utilize this and integrate traditional welfare organizations and the newer German social enterprise movement led by many support organizations that I have met? Can this be one approach to filling gaps in the support pipeline and growing an ecosystem that offers capacity building not only to early-stage social startups, but more advanced entrepreneurs, too? I am pleased to see that large players such as Ashoka take it upon themselves to explore this avenue. They certainly have the reputation and legitimacy to play a lead role in this experiment. At the same time, I encourage smaller support organizations to think in the same direction and see what can be learned from local welfare organizations.

Do we need a #SocEnt label and how do we incorporate all relevant actors and stakeholders? Click To Tweet

I recently spoke to two Social Venturers in Germany via skype after returning to the US. They are concerned with the low visibility of the social enterprise sector in Germany and are looking for ways to increase public awareness and participation which raises another question: How do you represent a sector part of which has been around for so long under a different label (“Welfare organizations”)? Do we need this new label and how do we incorporate all relevant actors and stakeholders?

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