Interview: “Social entrepreneurs are the pioneers of the future”
Fair-trade clothing from Tanzania, job perspectives for people with autism spectrum disorders, microfinancing loans for farmers in developing regions – the list of areas in which so-called social entrepreneurs are active goes on and on. So there was good reason to examine the issue with two experts and new jury members Rainer Höll, a member of the management team of Ashoka Deutschland, and Norber Kunz, Managing Director of Social Impact gGmbH.
Mr. Höll, you are a member of the leadership team of Ashoka Deutschland, the largest and oldest organisation that promotes social entrepreneurs. Laypeople may wonder what exact a social entrepreneur is?
Höll: Social Entrepreneurs are brave, professional innovators who stand up for the community. They establish social organisations, movements, and companies in order to develop and disseminate profound new solutions to social problems. Examples range from Friedrich Raiffeisen and Maria Montessori to the founders of the Red Cross, of multigenerational homes, and of Wikipedia. They try to get at the root of a problem and thus enable people to think in new ways to shape our common future. Social entrepreneurs come from civil society and are driven exclusively by social aims. Sales and earnings are not their goal, but at most practical means to the end of improving society.
What is your assessment of the conditions for social entrepreneurs on the German business market?
Höll: Although social entrepreneurs are often pioneers for the markets of the future, for example when it comes to microfinancing and the sharing economy, the business market is not the most relevant arena. They are interested in quickly disseminating social solutions and not in business success. Unfortunately they are disadvantaged for this very reason. For business entrepreneurs there is financing, funding programmes, support services, and social recognition as innovators and people who pave the way for wealth. This is not yet the case for social entrepreneurs. More progress has been made in other countries
Mr. Kunz, does the German social entrepreneur market differ from that of other countries? Are there peculiarities here in Germany?
Kunz: In the ranking “The best place to be a social entrepreneur ”Germany finished in 12th place. Ahead of us are countries such as South Korea, Malaysia, Chile, Switzerland, and France. The first three places are occupied by the USA, Canada, and the UK. But this shouldn’t discourage us. If we compare the social security systems of these three countries with the German system, Germany’s is far better. Of course, this is also a peculiarity. The pressure to develop new service offerings, particularly in the core area of social security, is much lower than in many countries ranked ahead of us. In addition, we define the term “social entrepreneur” much more narrowly in Germany than in the aforementioned countries. In the UK, waste collection is a social endeavour. In Germany many new social enterprises emerge in areas in which we face new social challenges which cannot be dealt with or not sufficiently by classical charities (refugees, integration, education), or in business areas that so far have been dominated by private enterprise, e.g. the food sector, regional business, energy generation or conservation.
What problems do social entrepreneurs struggle with in particular, in your experience?
Höll: A particular problem is the lack of growth support after the pilot phase. And the interface to the big benefit schemes is also a challenge: health insurance funds, charities, municipalities, state and federal governments. Social entrepreneurs offer tremendous innovation opportunities for these systems, but they are not used systematically. We at Ashoka are working on improving the situation.
And what trends have you observed in Germany’s social entrepreneurship scene?
Höll: Three trends: The subject of refugees and migration has spawned an enormous wave of new citizens’ initiatives. Many of them are still at an early stage, though. Young people want to work as social entrepreneurs when they grow up. And social entrepreneurs are gradually becoming a political force. There are now studies conducted by the Ministry of Economics and parliamentary groups have adopted initial resolutions on social innovation policy. But there is still a long way to go..
Is there an area in which you would like to see more social entrepreneurship?
Kunz: If the emphasis is on more social entrepreneurSHIP, I would like to see private companies assume more social entrepreneurial responsibility. If the emphasis is on MORE social entrepreneurs, I would like all sectors of business, if possible, and all economic activity to be marked by social entrepreneurship.
Where does Germany need more openness vis-à-vis social entrepreneurs?
Kunz: The subjects of social innovation and social entrepreneurship are becoming more and more popular. The executive and legislative branches, business, charities, and civil society are engaging with the topic increasingly. Yet there is still not sufficient government funding or support for social entrepreneurs or for support organisations. Receiving the same support that private organizations can receive would spell progress. Gaining access to financing is a big obstacle for social entrepreneurs. There is a strong need to act here.
What advice would you give future social entrepreneurs?
Kunz: Don’t let people talk you out of your idea who only know standard conventional private commercial methods.