Social enterprises in Germany and the refugee crisis: What role do they take?

By Miriam Wolf and Alexandra Ioan

More than a year ago - in the midst of what is often called the refugee crisis and in the midst of our survey data collection - we realized that organizations in the social sector were rethinking their activities as a reaction to the refugee crisis. We reflected about the role of German social enterprises might take in this situation in a country where the state has a particularly strong and pronounced role in social service provision. 

Meanwhile, looking at the survey results from the SEFORÏS project, German social enterprises emerged as particularly strong collaborators and innovators.  

This motivated us to take a step back and look more closely at what this means in the context of the refugee crisis. We followed up with almost a quarter (24) of the 107 German organizations who participated in our survey and asked them about the role they took in relation to this new challenge. 

While half of these organizations indicated that they had already worked with refugees before the refugee crisis, most of them have intensified or scaled their services as a consequence of the crisis. 9 out of 24 organizations indicated that they added refugees as beneficiaries to their target groups, 6 of them long-term, 3 temporarily. Only two organizations indicated they do not work with refugees and do not plan to do so in the future. 

Adapting established structures to changing needs

We found that 21 out of the 24 social enterprises that responded to our short survey have developed new services (15), processes (8) or products (7) as a response to needs they saw emerging with the refugee crisis. 

So what kind of services, products and processes did they predominantly develop? We find two principal types of social enterprises in this case: the ‘capacity builders’ and the ‘access facilitators’.

The ’capacity builders’ channel resources into other organizations or actors working with refugees: they support schools, youth organizations or business organizations in working with refugees. This type of social enterprises engages in adapting existing structures to changing needs – for instance by supporting teachers in dealing with students who do not speak German and have a different cultural background. 

The ’access facilitators’ focuses on the refugees themselves. Here we found predominantly organizations who support refugees to enter the labor market or gain access to education, thus enabling the target group to make use of existing structures and opportunities. 

This suggests that, apart from the organizations that design their own internal programs for refugees, social enterprises also take a mediating role in the refugee crisis: one the one hand they support established structures in adapting to changing needs, while on the other they enable beneficiaries to make use of existing opportunities.

Socia enterprises - refugees

Strength through collaboration and diversity

A year ago we also asked if the refugee crisis might be an opportunity for diverse actors in the German welfare state to move closer together and address challenges collectively. Today we find that on average, the 24 social enterprises we followed-up with reported to collaborate with more than 4 different types of partners in their refugee-related activities. What is striking is the diversity of collaborations:  14 collaborate with welfare organizations, 13 with other social enterprises, 12 with charities and 11 with business organizations. This corroborates our more general SEFORÏS survey findings about the connecting role of social enterprises linking sectors and stakeholders in tackling social challenges.

Although our data on the role of social enterprises in the refugee crisis is not representative of a large population, it does gives some further food for thought of how social enterprises contribute to solving emerging social challenges. Firstly, by mediating between existing structures and changing social needs, they contribute to the adaptation of the social sector to emerging challenges. Secondly, by collaborating with actors from different sectors simultaneously they contribute to pooling capacities and resources to tackle the social challenges we face as a society.