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. 

Facing unexpected challenges – social entrepreneurs and the refugee crisis in Germany

The number of people living as refugees from war or persecution exceeded 50 million in 2013, for the first time since World War II. Currently, Europe is facing a refugee crisis that poses a "dramatic challenge" for dedicated aid organizations, states and civil society as a whole. As António Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency states, the biggest influx of refugees into Europe for decades requires a "massive common effort" and break with the current fragmented approach. "Exceptional circumstances require an exceptional response. Business as usual will not solve the problem".

In the last months, thousands of refugees have crossed the border to Germany. 800.000 refugees are expected to arrive in 2015 and the state is struggling to provide shelter and support. At the same time, the situation has triggered a strong public response, from civil society, faith-based organizations, NGOs and individuals alike.

The current situation in Germany provides grounds for us to observe and reflect on how different types of actors - state actors, welfare organizations, civil society organizations and social enterprises - mobilize and organize to face emergent and unexpected social challenges and provides us with insights into the potential part social enterprises can play in a country where the state has a particularly strong and pronounced role in social service provision.

The reactions that social enterprises generate are diverse: while they are received with excitement by some, others warn not to release the state from its responsibilities and commercialise welfare.

As discussed in earlier research, Germany is not usually named when examining countries offering substantial support to social enterprises. It is rather well-known for the entrenched role and responsibility of the state in providing social welfare. The history of the modern German welfare system began mid-19th century and builds on a strong emphasis of social service provision by the state and by six major social welfare organizations[i]. In this context, private actors involved in social service provision can be viewed with suspicion and therefore, the reactions that social enterprises generate are diverse: while they are received with excitement by some, others warn not to release the state from its responsibilities and commercialise welfare. The supporters see social enterprises as a way to tackle unresolved social problems in innovative ways, to adapt social service provision to the rapid social changes of the last decades, to foster citizen engagement and to make social service provision more efficient. The skeptics emphasize the importance of not just focusing on "sexy" problems and "niche" beneficiaries and not making social welfare a self-fulfilling project for individualists.

Social entrepreneurial initiatives

The refugee situation provides an example of how different types of actors can productively complement and coexist in tackling social challenges: while the state and social welfare organizations tend to deliver services that are aligned with and responsive to national policies (such as legal counselling services or providing emergency accommodation), social entrepreneurial initiatives develop their services based on challenges they see surfacing locally and often act on the spot: they provide opportunities for local cultural exchange and integration, complement organized mass accommodation with private hosting, open opportunities for income generation beyond (or before) the formal labor market, provide easily accessible language courses and psychological support. In Berlin, for instance, Cucula supports refugees to build their own professional future, Multitude provides German lessons, Flüchtlinge Willkommen provides private housing for refugees, Kiron University provides university classes and Sharehaus Refugio provides housing, coaching and support initiatives.

The current developments may be an example of how the German social system may transform into a more flexible, adaptive and responsive one, as different actors with different approaches to solving social problems co-exist and (ideally) complement each other in handling emerging challenges.


Developments and debates are ongoing and intriguing questions are left to be answered: Do challenges such as the refugee crisis provide an opportunity to rethink our ways to cooperate to solve social problems moving beyond the question of WHO should tackle them but rather HOW we can tackle them best as a society? Are German social enterprises a niche solving problems left unresolved by the state or are they triggering changes in the way welfare is being provided? How do social welfare associations and social enterprises learn from each other and complement each other? What kind of middle ground will the optimists and the skeptics reach and what will this mean for welfare in Germany? And last but not least, how will politics be a part of all of this?

We are very curious to receive your views, experiences and maybe even answers to all of these questions.

[i] Jansen, Stephan A./ Heinze, Rolf G./ Beckmann, Markus (Hg.): "Sozialunternehmertum in Deutschland - Analysen, Trends und Handlungsempfehlungen" Wiesbaden 2013 (Springer VS)

Photos courtesy of UNHRC: