Cartography: Germany I

Cartography [n.]: Mapping, review

My trip through Germany in April 2015 gave me the unique opportunity to speak to eight support organizations in all four corners of the country: North, South, East and West. Six of them focus their activities on Germany and selected cities within (Social Impact Labs, Heldenrat, Impact Hub Berlin), two work with social entrepreneurs internationally (Yunus Social Business, The DO School), and Social Entrepreneurship Akadamie in Munich caters to both national and international social startups offering different programs.

Local & national programs

Social Impact Labs are very similar in the services and benefits they provide as part of their support program Social Impact Start. Locally, though, each Lab has strong local partners and runs pretty self-sufficiently. I wonder if any plans are in place to make use of their Lab-network across Germany (not to mention their program-partnerships with Impact Hub Zurich and Vienna!). The Impact Hub network sets a great example for sharing knowledge and experiences among their Hub facilitators and members (though I still don’t exactly know what that looks like behind their closed doors. Did my Honorary Membership invite get lost in the mail?).

Though still young, Impact Hub Berlin is gaining a lot of traction and seems to have found their niche in the German capital. Their new space is great, no question. Let’s see what kind of programs Leon ad his team manage to line up in the months to come and I shall check back in to see how things are going.

Impact Hub Berlin 2

Impact Hub Berlin

When I first started my research into the field of social venture support organizations, I insisted on the category of pro-bono consultants solely because I had heard of Heldenrat. Strictly speaking I am looking at structured support programs for social entrepreneurs and one could argue that they only partly meet this definition. At the same time, they have a process in place of helping out struggling social entrepreneurs and charities. They are able to fill gaps in the support landscape and connect startups in need with relevant support organizations. I have tremendous respect for the team of volunteers around Tom and Birgit for devoting their free time to being volunteer advisers for startups and nonprofits in need.

International Programs

As far as internationally-oriented programs go I spoke to Yunus Social Business, the DO School and Social Entrepreneurship Akademie. Yunus Social Business is headquartered in Frankfurt and manages their core operations from there. There was little opportunity for insights into their programs at work which take place in seven countries around the world. However, their attempt of using their participants’ feedback to inform their program is remarkable even without my field visit. This seems like an easy and obvious mechanism for many of us who I’m sure have at least heard of the Lean Startup Approach, yet Yunus Social Business was the first social venture support organization who was able to make concrete statements about the effectiveness and relevance of their training schedule and services by gathering feedback from their participants.


DO School Fellows of the Green Store Challenge

While working at the DO School over the period of 18 months I was lucky to work closely with several cohorts of social entrepreneurs. Their one-year program goes beyond supporting them in developing a plan for a social venture (during their ten weeks in Hamburg) and implementing it (ten months after) in their home communities. A lot of work within the program is dedicated to ideation, facilitation and developing participants’ personalities. After all, for the ten weeks in Hamburg, they live and work together 24/7. It’s fair to say that the dedication of Romy and her team make the difference in this program.

How many #SocEntSupport programs assess their relevance and effect through participant feedback? Click To Tweet

Social Entrepreneurship Akademie at the opposite (South) end of the country sets a good example of building up strong partnerships to secure the financial sustainability. Speaking to Kristina I realized what energy (and philanthropic capital) mutually-beneficial partnerships can bring to the table. With their active engagement with the European Venture Philanthropy Forum and the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network I think of Social Entrepreneurship Akademie as one of the agenda-setters in the field in Germany, and Europe.


Spotlight: Dannie Quilitzsch

Dannie long

What drives you?

Bringing people closer to sustainability without them having to change dramatically. I know that trying to get people to act in a more sustainable way is very difficult and I have found event to be an effective tool. That’s why I founded my first company Good Events.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

The Sharing Economy.

Currently reading

The Desire Map, by Danielle LaPorte


“I have always been a helper. I wanted to study psychology but it was going to be too long. I spent 5 years in advertising, but really prefered working with the pro-bono consultants. At 25 I went back to university to study psychology and start my therapeutic training with the aim of working with children and parents. In the early 2000’s, I founded Utopia, a platform to promote sustainability. It features easy ways for consumers to act more sustainably. After a while, I went back into coaching. I set up Feels Like Home ( a singer songwriter series with a social cause), Streetfood Thursday, Hallo Frau Nachbar (a Hamburg-based neighborhood market to promote community and local, sustainable consumption) and came on-board as master coach at Social Impact Lab Hamburg.”

The most inspiring experience in her career so far? “I once produced an advertising film with a big star and I realized just how much money went into it – while all of my small nonprofit clients didn’t have the tiniest fraction of that budget. This triggered me to change: I want to empower people to make the same money with doing good like being a social entrepreneur.”


Social Impact Lab Hamburg

Tucked away near Hamburg’s famous St Michael’s church you will find Social Impact Lab Hamburg. As the second ever established Social Impact Lab in Germany, it opened its doors in 2013 to support social entrepreneurs located in Northern Germany. I was around in the early days and this felt a bit like coming home. It is one of the smallest co-working spaces I have been to and fits about six startup teams as well as co-workers from Ashoka and lab host Dannie. As the initiator of Hallo Frau Nachbar – a local community market in Hamburg’s neighbourhood Schanze – Dannie was on the phone when I came in, vigorously arguing with some bureaucrat. Let’s just say I was glad not to be on the other side. (And I’m wagging my finger at municipalities that make it hard on neighborhood initiatives to run events that strengthen urban communities. Shame on you!).

Social Impact Lab Hamburg

Pitch time at Social Impact Lab Hamburg

Dannie and I go back a few years; we were both part of a group of young women working in the social enterprise space in Hamburg. During my time there, we used to meet for dinners every eight weeks or so with six to ten women, cook together, talk about life, career choices, and working for a better world. A great circle of women! (Note to self: Find other changemakers and re-enact this tradition!)

Thanks to their corporate partnership, each team at the Social Impact Lab is mentored by SAP staff. Click To Tweet

As you may have read in the field visit to Social Impact Lab Berlin, the Social Impact Start program consists of personal coaching, consulting on business-specific topics, a Lab desk, peer support and access to potential investors. Thanks to the partnership with SAP, each team in Hamburg is also mentored by SAP employee(s) to further develop their concepts. As a very early-stage incubator, the aim of Social Impact Start is to prepare their participants to the point of their legal incorporation within the eight months of the program. Alumni remain part of the network and attend events.

I ask Dannie what she thinks makes an impactful support program. “Meet entrepreneurs at the point they are at when they join the incubator, rather than forcing them into a standardized program. Help them start their business, offer consulting and coaching along the way, but see yourself in an accompanying, guiding role.” Very much in line with what I learned at Heldenrat and the other Social Impact Labs.

Social Impact Lab Hamburg 2

One of the startup teams refining their business model

To me, Hamburg has always felt a bit of an outpost for the impact community in Germany. On the one hand, you have five or so support organizations with a focus on impact startups, and a strong history of entrepreneurship in general. Yet, attempts of founding an Impact Hub Hamburg have been unsuccessful and the few networking events that take place end up drawing in the same crowds, it just doesn’t FEEL very dynamic.

Does the strong presence of foundations disincentivize social entrepreneurship in Hamburg? Click To Tweet

I know that there is a great variety of social initiatives, especially in the creative and charity sector, but the pendulum doesn’t seem to swing too far in the direction of social entrepreneurship. In that sense, I believe that it is harder – compared to Berlin – to generate traction and build an ecosystem for social entrepreneurs in the Hanseatic region. Could it be that its impact community is just not very interested in entrepreneurship as a tool, but prefers charity? Does the strong presence of foundations (1,300 registered foundations in a city of 1.6 million!) disincentivize social entrepreneurship? According to Dannie, support organizations have started collaborating. A little bit. “There is a lot of room for improvement!”


Spotlight: Maria Gross

Maria long

What drives you?

To show that we can do business better and differently without causing damage.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

Social entrepreneurship in Germany has exploded: Suddenly, the public sector and corporates have realized that it exists, as you can see in social impact’s work with SAP and Deutsche Bank. And we are not just talking financial support; we get their teams on board to help startups out with their expertise and through mentoring. With these sectors opening up, we had so many more connections – a great basis for good partnerships.

Currently reading

Self-esteem (“Selbstachtung”) by Poletti and Dobbs. I see many people burn out over their social start-ups and trying to make a living. It’s not sustainable, we need to learn to look after ourselves, so this is a good read.


Maria started out with an apprenticeship as an industrial clerk in automobile industry and stayed on in HR in total for six years. She did a part-time bachelor in management but didn’t see herself in the for-profit industry. She tried out development aid in her role as program assistant at the Goethe Institute in Togo and realized it wasn’t for her. “… at least not the way international development works at the moment. I raised questions of sustainability and impact of the work we were doing. To me, it lacked of enablement and created dependencies.” She went on to get her masters in non-profit management in Berlin but found that she was missing the practical experiences and relationships to the world of practitioners. “Around that time, I met Stefan, Elizabeth and Christina who had founded ROCK YOUR LIFE!. As one of the first franchises, we launched ROCK YOUR LIFE! in Berlin. And that was my introduction to social entrepreneurship. I had found a way of doing good through an economic lense, and got a chance to combine my passion and skills.”

As a social entrepreneur in Berlin, she soon learned about Ashoka and the work Norbert Kunz was doing at the Social Impact Lab. “I applied ‘Young Leaders for Sustainability‘ at the Collective Leadership Institute and their program enabled me to train in leadership while also working at Social Impact (iq consult back then). I transitioned to project assistant and took over the lab management in 2013. This is where I met my current business partner Jan who was a Social Impact Start participant at the time. I had worked so much with startups, I loved the energy and wanted to get involved. I had the chance to join Vehement in September 2013 as CEO and have worked two jobs since then.”

Being CEO of a social venture herself and having worked in the support industry for several years, Maria has a great sense for the realities of running a social enterprise. I ask her about whether she ever considered quitting the impact space and she responds: “Yes. It is little money for all the days and nights you work. I have been living on a shoestring budget ever since I left my corporate job. When I see how the careers of my peers have developed, I know I could make more money and that is tempting. At the same time, deep down, I know I wouldn’t want to do it, it wouldn’t make me happy. And then, something great happens and I am reminded of why I do this.”


Spotlight: Mareike Mueller

Mareike long

What drives you?

Find good solution for existing problems, being a supporter.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

At the beginning it was a niche topic and no-one knew whether it was a hype or more. But now public administrations, large charities and companies are starting to understand that there is such a thing as ‘social entrepreneurship’. Our increasing numbers of applicants tell me that civil society is increasingly interested in the topic.

I spent some time in Spain and I have come to believe that for young Germans starting your own business is not really that popular; we don’t like taking risks. You have to be absolutely convinced of your idea to make the conscious decision to give up your job and start your business. In Spain, on the other side, youth unemployment is very high so starting a business is a great opportunity. With much less to give up, they develop start-up models out of necessity.

Currently reading

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon and the current issue of brand eins


After graduating from high school, Mareike spent eight months in Bolivia working for an NGO providing vocational training to single mothers and disabled people. During her undergraduate degree in European Studies, she worked in an educational project in South Africa. Her studies were followed by a stint at the German Technical Cooperation in Eschborn, Germany. “I thought I wanted to go into development but I found it too bureaucratic and far from creating any sustainable impact. I don’t agree with the top-down approach of telling developing countries how to do things – run their businesses, build their infrastructure, etc.”

As an alternative to international development, Mareike became interested in social entrepreneurship. She took a masters in development economy and specialized in social change and innovation. After graduation, she went to Berlin and joined betterplace lab in digital solutions to social issues. She conducted research in Colombia and Bolivia to interview stakeholders in the ecosystem of social innovation (see the results of her research here) and published results in the Trendreport and Zeit Online.

In terms of partnerships and collaboration among support organizations for social entrepreneurs, Mareike says: ”We collaborate with other actors to run programs such as Think Big Pro together with Telefonica Foundation, and we work closely with other support organizations such as the Impact Hubs in Munich, Vienna or Zurich. Competitive behavior in our sector is misplaced, but we have to take out time to look around and see what happens in other places in order to build partnerships, cooperate and create a large ecosystem for doing good.”



Social Impact Lab Berlin

Berlin was the first city to have a Social Impact Lab and is at home in Kreuzberg – a popular and affordable alternative neighborhood in Berlin. That’s where I meet Maria Gross, core member of the Social Impact Lab team for three years. After we are caught up on the last year. I ask her about financial sustainability of the support industry for social entrepreneurs.

We need to invest more in building long-term partnerships, especially with the corporate sector. Click To Tweet

… We all need to deliver good products to our customers and I think we can support each other in achieving this goal. It is crucial for us support organizations to learn to speak the corporate language. Right now, private and social sector are worlds apart. I believe that by understanding corporate needs we can build a bridge and in return bring our world closer to them.” Maria continues to be affiliated with Social Impact but is taking some time off to run Vehement – a social venture selling vegan fight sport equipment.

From Markthalle Neun – an indoor food market in Kreuzberg – we walk over the Social Impact Lab Berlin where I sit down with Mareike Mueller, Lab manager. The organization behind all the Social Impact Labs is called Social Impact. As it started in Berlin, I feel like I owe you some history and background: Social Impact – back then called iq consult – was founded by Ashoka Fellow Norbert Kunz in 1994. Social Impact aims at developing and executing programs that support entrepreneurs with a social mission.

Since 2011, Social Impact focuses on building an infrastructure for social innovation. Click To Tweet

 At the center of this undertaking is the establishment of Social Impact Labs around Germany. Don’t get confused now. Social Impact – the organization – is the mother-ship of Social Impact Labs (five in Germany). It runs startup programs for social and inclusive entrepreneurs, and offers startup consulting. The first program is called Social Impact Start enabled by SAP and government-funded by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ). Are you with me? Through all these various startup programs, Social Impact has worked with 260+ teams and helped found over 140 social businesses. Around 10% of startups did not make it, the remaining 90% combined received more than 100 national and international awards for their business concepts and awards.

Social Impact Lab 1

Let’s see what Social Impact Lab in Berlin has to offer:

Social Impact in Berlin runs several programs for aspiring social entrepreneurs including Social Impact Start and Social Impact Finance. Social Impact Finance consists of two main elements:

A crowdfunding arm: In collaboration with Deutsche Bank Foundation and Startnext, Social Impact Finance has set up a crowdfunding platform for social entrepreneurs only, and throws in  training and support to guide startups through the crowdfunding process.

A good #SocEntSupport program is able to react to the needs of each #SocEnt. Click To Tweet

The second program under Social Impact Finance matches employees of Deutsche Bank with startups that are affiliated with Social Impact Lab. “In this program, it is important that employees find a match – a startup and entrepreneur that they are interested in and can work with productively. We as the facilitators make sure that participating startups clearly define their need and we check in with them regularly. The tandem lasts for more or less four months though we’d rather let the tandem decide the duration on a needs’ base.” Mareike explains. I ask her what makes an effective support program in her opinion: “A good program is able to react to the needs of each social entrepreneur individually. Social entrepreneurs here at the Social Impact Lab have very different backgrounds and pre-existing knowledge. We try look very closely at what they really need.”

Social Impact Lab Berlin 2

As in the other Social Impact Labs I had the chance to visit, I feel their golden rule revolves around delivering support programs that establish a baseline of startup expertise for every cohort, but leave enough room for individual support tailored to the needs of each entrepreneur/entrepreneurial team. And it seems to work if only 10% of startups quit or fail!

Secondly, what I really like about their business model is their efforts in setting up and maintaining strong partnerships with the private sector. In tune with what Maria said, companies can learn a lot from support organizations and their startups, for example through corporate volunteering. Both sides win. Getting partners like SAP and Deutsche Bank (private sector) or JP Morgan Chase Foundation and Telefonica Foundation (third sector) on board, is not nothing! It seems that Social Impact has learned, or is in the process of, speaking the corporate language and is pioneering a partnership model that – I hope – many other support organizations are inspired by and can learn from!


Spotlight: Carolin Eissler

Caro Eissler profile

What drives you?

Every day, I am surrounded by people who burn for something and are passionate about their work. I love being a supporter for them, connecting different people and issues. I’m not an entrepreneur myself.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

At the Social Impact Lab Frankfurt we recently had a lot of inquiries from universities and high schools who are interested in the field of social startups and social innovation from an academic view. It is good to see, that social innovation is an interesting field of study for higher education.

In Germany, social entrepreneurship is a rather current movement in civil society, so theses little trends are symptoms for the recognition of social entrepreneurship as a concept to overcome challenges and as a way of life. But what is still missing is putting (social) entrepreneurship in the curricula for schools so that kids are empowered from the beginning to create change.

Currently reading

The Internet of Things, by Jeremy Riffkin


Caro has a degree in European Studies and International Cultural and Business Studies. After an internship at Ashoka she joined the Social Impact Lab Frankfurt. “When I worked at AEGEE I did my own projects and could try out a lot of things that focused on intercultural exchange. That was pretty empowering.”

In May 2915, Caro was featured on The Changer, see her interview here (google translate will help the non-German speakers).




Social Impact Lab Frankfurt

After a week back in Germany, I stopped in Frankfurt to visit the local Social Impact Lab. Social Impact itself is a social enterprise founded by Ashoka Fellow Norbert Kunz. Their first Social Impact Lab was opened in Berlin in 2012, followed by Hamburg in 2013, Frankfurt and Leipzig.

As the third of its kind in Germany, Social Impact Lab Frankfurt opened in January 2014. My morning consisted of an early train and the – once again – futile attempt of finding free wifi. Arriving at the Lab I walked past German and English speaking co-workers, and gratefully dove into this familiar space of do-gooders and changemakers.

At @SocialImpactLab, #SocEnt have a work space, receive training and mentoring for 8 months. Click To Tweet

Caro Eissler – host at the Lab – showed me around and gave me an insight into the different support mechanisms at play. They offer co-working and two programs for aspiring social entrepreneurs: “AndersGruender” and “ChancenNutzer”.

Social Impact Lab FFM

All Social Impact Labs hold a pitch event every three months in their locations across Germany to select the four to six most promising social business concepts. Successful candidates move into an eight-months incubation program that comes with a desk in one of the Labs, group sessions on various business skills run by start-up coaches, and individual mentoring by experts. Unlike Berlin and Hamburg, Frankfurt is not necessarily known for its start-up vibe, I was curious how things were going. “We were some of the first ones in this region to provide this kind of support to aspiring social entrepreneurs. Naturally, there was a lot of interest from potential participants right from the start. We are beginning to look into more strategic approaches to advertising our programs to find candidates that meet our criteria.” says Caro. What criteria you ask? Social Impact Labs generally look for social start-ups that

  • Address a societal issue,
  • Show potential for social innovation, and
  • Have a viable business model.

Relatively new in the sector, Caro hadn’t been sure she was an interesting interview partner, but when I asked her what she thinks makes a good support program, I knew she was. “An effective support program needs integrity and lead by example. How can you enable social innovation and sustainability if you are not living it? We work on eye-level with all founders and strive for a balance between structural input and freedom to let things happen, spur innovation. Further, I think granting aspiring social entrepreneurs access to networks is key to a good support program. It allows them to gain new perspectives, meet potential customers, mentors, collaborators, business partners.”

An effective #SocEnt support program needs integrity and lead by example. Click To Tweet

After a little tour around their humongous space, we get a chance to talk about challenges that a support organization in frankfurt faces. Caro: “Three things I am currently working on are

  1. Identifying follow-up funding opportunities for our start-ups,
  2. Finding a good balance between renting the lab for external events, organizing own networking events and keeping a good co-working atmosphere.
  3. Planning workshops that meet the needs and expectations of our entrepreneurs. People seem to think that workshops are the solution to everything while I am convinced that it’s all about assessing participants’ needs, and finding the right expert.”

In terms of programs, the Social Impact Lab in Frankfurt is not much different from the ones I would meet in Hamburg and Berlin in the weeks to come. I can’t help but wonder how such a structure can be used to exchange Lab-related learnings and experiences. Could they build up a knowledge base similar to that of the Hub network, become a micro-network within Germany’s larger support sector? I would address these topics during my field visits at the Lab Berlin a few weeks later.