Markus Sauerhammer

Markus Sauerhammer was a farmer, entrepreneur and start-up consultant. He studied agricultural marketing and management and completed an Executive MBA in business creation and innovation. He was responsible for cooperations at Startnext, the largest crowdfunding platform in Germany. As chairman of the Social Entrepreneurship Network Germany (SEND) he work on a better framework for shaping a grandchild suitable future.

Markus Sauerhammer is the Chairman of the Social Entrepreneurship Network Germany (you have already met Laura Haverkamp and Michael Wunsch, and their predecessors Naomi Ryland & Leon Reiner!). Markus was deeply involved in organizing the #WirVsVirus-Hackathon in response to COVID-19 and we finally had a chance to catch up and talk about all things policy in June 2020.

The reason I wanted to hear more about Markus and the network is that in over 50 conversations with ecosystem builders for social change, I have never come across an organization that specifically focuses on shaping and informing policy for social entrepreneurs on a national level. I was dying to learn how Markus and his team went about this work and what other countries and ecosystem builders might learn from their efforts.

And who knows, with any luck I have talked him into creating a guidebook for organizations in other countries to start lobbying their government!

How did the Social Entrepreneurship Network Germany come about?

“In the beginning, in December 2016, I got together with a few social entrepreneurs under the umbrella of the German Startup Association to discuss the definition of social entrepreneurship. Back then, you could ask 10 people what social entrepreneurship was and you would receive 10 different definitions. These conversations can feel never-ending so instead of trying to agree on a solid definition, we started focusing on the challenges these social entrepreneurs had in common and the potential solutions they were able to offer German society. That’s how we wrote our first position paper that we presented at a Parliamentary Evening (a closed event organized by different associations to present their ideas and requests to government representatives). The problem, we realized, was that most government representatives had no idea what “social entrepreneurship” or “social innovation” was, or how it mattered to their work in government. But once we started the conversation, they became intrigued and asked for more stories and examples of social entrepreneurs in Germany. Once we experienced that rising interest, we knew that we couldn’t cater to the needs of policy makers through volunteer work alone and decided that we needed to set up an association to represent the needs and potential of social entrepreneurs in Germany vis-a-vis the government. 

I help politicians bring out the right seeds for harvesting in the future. A future that is suitable for our grandchildren.

We started with a crowdfunding campaign in 2017 to raise enough capital to pay our first employee, Kathrin Elsman. Since then, we have grown to over 450 members – organizations and individuals – and we are seeing a lot of activity in Germany’s individual states to provide better support and more programming geared toward social entrepreneurs.” 

Chairman, oh Chairman

So in your role as chairman, what do you do?

“My job is to talk to politicians. If I believe in something, I can become a real Nervsack, someone who will continue to pester you until you start listening. The problem for politicians is that they have limited capacity for each of their stakeholder groups. Most of them are in this job because they truly want to create systemic change. What works against them are election cycles that are relatively short, four to five years. So they’re constantly trying to strike a balance between pursuing a long-term strategic agenda while showing results to their constituents in the meantime to ensure they get re-elected to continue to move their strategic agenda forward. I see it as my job to remind politicians:

‘You are responsible for creating a future that is suitable for our grandchildren, and there are social entrepreneurs who are willing to help.’ 

It is MY job to help bring these parties together and let politicians know what social entrepreneurs need from them in order to work toward this vision of a future for our grandchildren.”

You reap what you sow

“I started out as a farmer in the village I grew up in. 200 people live there. Instead of going off to university, I opted for a Musterausbildung – a modular training program that goes beyond learning how to farm land. It includes additional education in areas of agricultural economics. Once I did the math, I realized that as a farmer, you mostly work to pay back bank loans and decided this wasn’t the path for me. I went back to high school before getting my MBA and realized that I wanted more from this field of entrepreneurship. 

I realized that if you only use the tools of entrepreneurship to create shareholder value and not value for society, we will end up in a dystopia that is very very boring. 

And that’s where my values as a farmer kicked in again. I realized that if we wanted a real future in which entrepreneurs benefit society we have to plant those seeds early. That’s what policy – and systemic change – are all about: 

We reap in the future what we sow today. 

So in a sense, I’m still a farmer. But I have changed fields. I have a field for the future and I help politicians bring out the right seeds for harvesting in the future. A future that is suitable for our grandchildren.

During my MBA, I worked for the Chamber of Commerce and learned how lobbying works. I quickly realized that with social entrepreneurship, we have much better things to offer politicians to hitch their waggons to. I realized that the greatest barrier to creating more impact were Systemfehler – errors in the system – and I understood that politicians play a powerful role in eradicating such errors.” 

… in election cycles

With election cycles being relatively short, systemic solutions obviously take longer to take root and evolve. What makes you confident that social entrepreneurship and social innovation will remain on the federal political agenda?

“We don’t work like a traditional lobby organization. We always ensure politicians are part of the solution of a work in progress. For developing new financing instruments, for example, we hosted stakeholder workshops to bring together social entrepreneurs, impact investors, crowdfunding platforms, foundations, and all the relevant representatives from different ministries and governmental banks. At these roundtables, they discussed with social entrepreneurs what the best solution looks like. If you are part of the process of developing these agendas and instruments, then you are also more likely to take responsibility for their success. And that is what we see in different parts of the ministries.

If you are part of the process of developing these agendas and instruments, then you are also more likely to take responsibility for their success.

The next German election is in 2021 and I feel we have built strong connections with many of the ministries to position social entrepreneurship and social innovation to lay the foundation for real systemic change. We may not have a big team, financial backing or lobbying power like the automotive industry or some of the traditional welfare organizations, but between having proven the impact of social entrepreneurship on the ground and having internal changemakers within some of the ministries, I feel like we are well positioned to continue to work with the government through the next elections.”

Start and serve

Without any experience, building relationships with government representatives can be pretty daunting. Can you tell us more about the tactics through which you built out your network?

“My first contact was Peter Altmaier, the then head of the federal chancellery. I knew he was going to be at an event so I showed up there with my proposal in hand hoping to get a chance to talk to him. I was very far in the back and mid-way through the evening, I realized that he was getting ready to leave. So I jumped up from my seat and sprinted towards him. His security detail came toward me to stop me and I shouted ‘Mr Altmaier, I need to talk to you for one minute! Please. Give me one minute for my pitch!’ Then I handed him the proposal and told him what he could change. Nothing happened afterwards. He said ‘Yeah, we’ll get back to you. Bye, bye!’ But that was my first step. And then I realized, okay, maybe that is not the best strategy.

I started attending other events focused on impact topics and once they started their Q&A round, I was always the first one to raise my hand. They may not have answers, but at least they’ve heard your name and seen your face. Afterwards you come into personal conversation, you hand over your card, and then you start making appointments to bring forward your ideas and arguments. And when you do good work and help them get some visibility, you have the foundation for a good working relationship. 

Nothing is better for a politician than to show that they’re supporting solutions. 

Don’t underestimate the visibility aspect. Parliamentarians need to get visibility to position themselves and win over internal change agents in their own parties. By providing them with solid data and a proven track record of the effectiveness of social entrepreneurs and innovators, it’s much easier for them to move these topics  forward into their own parties. Remember that it’s not only about what you want from them, but what can you deliver to make their lives and work easier. For them, social entrepreneurs are great examples of constituents who create solutions for the future. Nothing is better for a politician than to show that they’re supporting solutions. In a way, we deliver examples but they have to deliver a better framework for these entrepreneurs to thrive. And that is a good deal for both sides.”

Systemic change takes time, you better bring patience

Systemic change takes a lot of time. In working with politicians, how do you know that you are moving the needle? What do you tell yourself when you feel like nothing is happening?

“When I look back on any given Friday, I consider which pieces of the puzzle I put in place this week that will allow me to do better next week. Even if they don’t lead to progress right away, I know that they will add to the bigger picture in the future. 

Take Original Unverpackt as an example. Milena started in 2015 with a crowdfunding campaign. She was very successful. She was only the second supermarket in Germany without packaging. And today, five years later, we count more than 200 supermarkets without packaging! In the beginning, everyone was kind of belittling her idea, most of the big chains thought that it was idealistic, but not realistic. And now these same established supermarkets start to sell products without packaging and the laws concerning packaging are shifting. Talk about systems change. Original Unverpackt is a perfect example.”

Making space

You mentioned that you feel like it;s time for a social entrepreneur to step into your role as chairman and managing director of SEND. How will you deploy your skills and expertise for social good going forward?

“Until my mid-twenties, my goal was to become the best farmer in Bavaria. Then, my goal was to become the next best unicorn startup founder. And now I’m in the field of systems change and while I don’t know how I got here, I know that we always continue to grow and develop. Something new is always on the horizon. And one you step into this field of systems change and social entrepreneurship, you’ll never forget what is possible and how you could shape this new framework and how you could create systems change.”

How can we support you in your mission?

In my opinion, the greatest potential lies in a better connection of meta-organisations working on a systemic change for the creation of a future worth living. We need more bridges between the established actors and innovative newbee-organizations – nationally and internationally! I am always grateful to connect with anyone in that space! I am also very interested in an exchange with other lobbying organisations for systemic change and what their government do for improving the framework conditions for changemakers. 

And those who would like to support at short notice are welcome to get involved in the work of SEND – financially or with time resources! 😉 

Markus Sauerhammer

Berlin, Germany

Systemic farmer. Chairman & “Tellerrandspringer”. Policy advocate for social entrepreneurship in Germany.