Suddenly Mainstream: Philanthropy for Refugees in Germany

To date, Munich has been most recognized for soccer, Oktoberfest, its many-sided history, or cars. Since the first weekend of September 2015, though, it has also become known as the gateway to Germany for many refugees. Suddenly, the city was on the cover of the New York Times. Since that weekend, everything seems to be different in Germany: volunteering, politics, media, business, etc. Even philanthropy has changed — but how?

Worldwide more than 50 million people are on the run. The reason for the flows of refugees are mainly wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. In particular, the long-lasting war in Syria is forcing millions of people to leave their homeland. Today, we know that 1.1 million people came to Germany as refugees in 2015. Every one of these women and men has a unique story to tell. This is a game-changer in many ways for philanthropy and the overall third sector in Germany, the 20th most generous country in the world, according to the 2015 World Giving Index from Charities Aid Foundation.

Given the images all over the news and the accompanying figures, it is hardly surprising that many funders in Germany, including those that have not traditionally given in this field, now want to help refugees. The situation has forced foundations to think about collective efforts to help. For example, the Walter Blüchert Stiftung, a private foundation based in Gütersloh, central Germany, has been involved in work with refugees for three years, including initiating the project “Angekommen” (“Arrived”) together with the City of Dortmund and the State of North Rhine-Westphalia to provide support for young refugees. Since last summer, this project has turned into a reference for many foundations on how to support refugees.

The number of individuals giving to aid refugees is also on the rise. The Deutsche Spendenrat, an umbrella organization of charities active in fundraising, estimates that 18.4 million people donated money to various causes in 2015 — one million more than in 2014. The even more amazing change is the number of people that are donating their time to support refugees. We do not know the exact numbers yet, but some estimates are talking about an increase of up to 70% in volunteering in Germany. One powerful story that embodies this momentum comes from a manager of a refugee organization in southern Germany. The manager reported being greeted last September in his office by an American who, after seeing the images of refugees arriving in Munich, pooled donations with a group of friends so one of them could travel to Germany to volunteer, help, and give.

The situation has created a boost in innovative solutions, as well. From all different directions we are seeing new ideas introduced to support refugees. “Über den Tellerrand,” for example, uses the topic of food to bring refugees and local communities together to bridge cultural divides. Many of these innovators are millennials, such as Cornelius Nohl, who founded together with friends Arrival Aid in Munich, an organization that trains volunteers to accompany refugees during their official hearings at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. This millennial influence is also visible in the endless number of new apps and websites that have been introduced that use technology to provide refugees or volunteers with help, such as Go Volunteer and Welcome App Germany. Time will tell how many of these innovations will in the end fit the needs.

Prior to the current crisis, integration of refugees and immigrants was not the number one topic in politics or philanthropy in Germany. Therefore, social investors now have to rediscover the many organizations that have been successful in integrating migrants and refugees for many years and now need support to scale their often evidenced-based work.

The present situation raises many questions for philanthropy in Germany. Why did foundations not invest a lot earlier in the support of refugees not just in Germany, but also in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere? How do funders deal with a sudden “gold rush” atmosphere in parts of the nonprofit sector? How does one guide donors and investors towards evidenced-based efforts that work — and not just toward innovations that are cool, but whose effectiveness may be harder to discern? How do foundations keep a balance between an urgent cause and all the other social challenges that are still there? And how does one negotiate the political tensions created through this societal challenge?

These and many other questions will be part of the analysis of the refugee situation in Germany in the next couple of months and years. Munich 2015 already is seen as a moment that changed German society and its European, international outlook. It remains to be seen whether or not philanthropy and society overall will turn it into an opportunity for something better.

This post is part of an occasional series on the CEP Blog providing international perspectives on philanthropy and foundation effectiveness. Other posts in the series can be found here.

Michael Alberg-Seberich is executive partner at Active Philanthropy, a not-for-profit organization in Berlin that brings together individuals and families from all over Europe who want to use their resources sustainably and strategically to make the world a better place. He also is managing director of Beyond Philanthropy, a social business owned by Active Philanthropy that provides philanthropy advice for families, foundations, and businesses. Isabel Bleienheuft holds an MA in Politics & Society and is currently a research intern at Beyond Philanthropy.  

international philanthropy
Previous Post
When Am I Ready to Fund?
Next Post
Unpacking Foundation Effectiveness: What Does It Take?

Related Blog Posts