Originally published December 7, 2016.
Technology has the power to connect people much faster now than ever before. What if someone could create a network for refugees to connect with their new communities? A digitial space where they can ask questions and get answers from fellow community members? With Wefugees, Cornelia Röper has created that medium.
- An online community that is reshaping access to information by connecting refugees, volunteers, and experts.
What was your motivation for founding Wefugees?
When the large influx of refugees started to come to Germany in September of 2015, I immediately felt the need to do something. Unfortunately my position as COO of a tech startup, which I totally loved, prevented me from helping hands on. So I started to join Facebook groups in Berlin that organized helpers. Those groups were chaotic. Everybody posted their questions and ideas about what to do and what was needed. Posts were extremely repetitive. And if you found an interesting post, you could never find it again because the onslaught of new posts and different groups. For me, the idea of a smart question and answer community just seemed so logical and needed. So I started Wefugees.
Wefugees connects refugees, volunteers and experts - how exactly do you do that?
The central hub of Wefugees is our website – wefugees.de – with our highly specialized software for Q&A communities. Both refugees and volunteers can ask questions that get systematically categorized. The community responds to this question and the local know-how can be a great help. These answers are then enriched by our experts. Each expert has his or her own set of topics to answer. Our community managers will notify an expert if a question falls into his or her area of expertise. The quality of the answers is measured in up and down votes and the person that asks the question can mark answers as helpful. With hundreds of members helping each other and dozens of experts pouring their knowledge and experience into the mix, Wefugees consistently produces helpful answers.
What has been your social impact to date?
One of our biggest impacts is efficiency. Every question that we can answer helps the person that asked the question. But it is not only that single person that gets the answer to his/her question, it is the whole community, really. Every time someone else asks the same question, the already answered question will pop up. This minimizes redundancy. Every question we can answer, either through our community or through our backlog, doesn’t need to be asked at personal meetings with an official help organization or an NGO. We give those people more time to actually focus on the really complicated cases and help even better. But we also have an impact on our society. Through Wefugees, people understand the problems and difficulties of one another and get closer together. Who would be better to help refugees than their new neighbors? We are ONE society and on Wefugees, it already works. It doesn’t matter if you ask the question as a refugee or volunteer. We interact as equals on our platform.
Can you tell us how you managed to successfully build your community and reach your users? Can you share some best-practices in terms of community management?
Since Wefugees was inspired by the chaos that were the Facebook groups, we started to ask those members to join. Funny enough, we created a Facebook page to invite people. Facebook is awesome for keeping in touch with people, but it is not made for finding information, asking questions or even discussing something. We started to reach out to refugees at the same time. We visited camps, motivated volunteers to reach out for us, and even organized workshops. We are a multicultural core team with refugees, other newcomers, and residents working on Wefugees, which really helps when addressing different groups of people. One thing I would recommend to everyone is: Get in contact with your target group. Invite them, co-create with them and learn what they really need.
Does working with a digital community pose any specific challenges?
Of course it does. A community is based on its users. And every user is a real person. They just help each other online. So we sometimes see phenomenon that you would also expect in any other group that is that large. We have users that are super engaged and use the platform on a daily basis and we have more casual users, helping whenever they find the time. Sometimes you have one user posting stupid things. But the community is very strong and notifies us rather quickly whenever unpleasant things are happening on our platform. This has only happened a handful of times and our community managers were able to resolve the issues quickly.
How are you funded?
Right now, Wefugees lives from volunteer work. We have an awesome team that build and maintain the community without any pay. Hopefully, this situation will change for some of us, as we are just starting to cooperate with the Chancellor’s Office. My co-founder, Henriette, won the PEP Scholarship and we can’t be happier about this. She is the only one making a small living out of Wefugees. But recent collaborations opened up the opportunity for two more people to get paid. After a year of work without pay, I will finally be able to pay myself just enough to cover for rent and my everyday needs. We hope to convince more companies of our idea and mission in the coming months to be able to pay at least the core-team. We are also starting our first Crowdfunding campaign soon and are now able to receive donations.
What’s next for Wefugees?
We just started to organize bigger offline events to connect the online and offline communities. Wefugees is all about sharing knowledge and connecting people and we really love to see our users meet in the real world. We had more than one hundred people joining us for our first event. The topic was all about work and getting a job. Everything worked out really well and we just had our first event in Munich.
Moreover, we just started our first crowdfunding campaign on betterplace.org. The plan for 2017 is to expand our expert panels and workshops all over Germany. We always transcribe the questions and answers asked in the events and upload them on our platform so that everybody has access to them afterwards. We are constantly looking for companies who are interested in working with us so that we can keep hosting these events all over Germany. To keep yourself up-to-date, you can always follow us on Facebook, Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter.
What makes you a changer?
I am super humbled that you call me that, but it is not really me that is a Changer. Our community changes lives every day. This may happen through finding an apartment for someone in Hamburg, showing someone else how to get a lawyer in Cologne, or simply through finding new friends at one of our events. I just had the idea and started to work on it. Without all the support and my awesome team, none of this would be possible. But, to be honest, it is an immensely satisfying feeling, when you hear that the platform you give to people actually helped them in their lives.