Reassessing the social innovation potential of associations

13.02.2013 Blog

When comparing the structural configuration of Social Economies across Europe, it becomes evident that associations are a significant share of the population. However, people tend to associate associational activities to well known and more ordinary fields like sports, youth clubs, recreational activities or interest/service driven organisations like automotive associations. But it is worth the effort to take a closer look at the diversity of activities, services and concepts that are offered by associations as one may find highly innovative and surprising approaches and ideas.

Take for example “Quartiermeister”, a young German start-up. “Quartiermeister” sells beer - using the slogan “Bier für den Kiez” which means “Beer for the Hood”. Basically, the organisation’s mission is to operate local and to help local.
Operate local: “Quartiermeister” doesn’t brew the beer itself. Instead, it cooperates with small local, owner-managed breweries to keep the transportation route as short as possible and to secure jobs in the region.

Help local: One of the organisations ambitions is to cut the costs what eventually should maximize the profit. This might sound like a definition of an ordinary for-profit organisation but what makes “Quartiermeister” special, is that 100% of the profit is dedicated to regional social projects.
Nevertheless, although the two principles of operating and helping local can be understood as idealistic goals, German law prohibits incorporated associations to sell goods on the market. This forced the organisation to develop hybrid structures. There is an organisational part that is selling the beer and therefore is acting under the law of a private partnership (“Quartiermeister GbR”). All the profit that is obtained by this division is donated to the according association (“Quartiermeister e.V.”). This branch in turn has the mission to distribute the money to regional social projects.

While “Quartiermeister” offers the possibility to combine the feeling of doing good and the consumption of goods, the association “Ethno Medizinisches Zentrum e.V.” aims to increase the well-being of migrants by facilitating the access to medical services to this population group.
It’s not just the complexity of the German medical system that can hinder immigrants from the access to certain services – especially when having to struggle with language barriers. Culture-specific definitions of health and diseases can lead to a mismatch between services offered and services requested. Furthermore taboos and cultural specifics connected with feelings of shame play a significant role in not using the medical services offered in Germany.

To improve this situation, the target group of the “Ethno Medizinisches Zentrum e.V.” is twofold. On the one hand side, there is a focus on the service side: Special training for professionals in medical services and organisations from the medical sector is offered. On the other hand side, the immigrants are addressed: Projects are established that seek to strengthen the idea of prevention across immigrants, focused on health and drug prevention. The latter approach is generally inspired by a self-help idea. Well integrated migrants are trained to do the actual awareness training which in turn increases the mutual understanding and trust.

These two examples should point in the direction, that associations can offer a broad variety of services; services that are connected to the idea of social entrepreneurship. Although a high level of pretensions can be located in the field of associations, not much is known about them on a statistical level. We are convinced, that debates concerning social entrepreneurship, social innovation and social economy can benefit from an intensified understanding of what associations are and what they do. In Germany for example it seems worth to have a closer look at the diversity of associations as this is by far the largest population of the social economy by legal form. This is at least one point why we argue that it seems worth implementing more refined measurement methods of the social economy in terms of detection of social innovations. This might help find interesting solutions to social problems and foster the diffusion of ideas.