This year we have been working with the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung in Brandenburg to recruit German and German-speaking men to work with refugee men in Brandenburg in our buddy project. The idea of the project is familiar enough: local people pair up with newcomers for a tandem partnership that helps the newcomer adjust to life in a new place and gives the local an idea about the realities of coming to a country as a refugee. The difference between our project and the other  good projects that also exist in the field (here we should point to our pals at Start With A Friend who are doing excellent work across Germany) and ours, is that we have been working only with men and that our projects are coupled with a series of deliberative workshops which refugee men are able to discuss core social issues like democracy, freedom and identity – and take these topics into their tandem partnerships. In reading this blog, one should consider that Germany has accepted more than a million people fleeing from their home countries and has in large part relied on civil society to fill in the gaps left by government.

In our initial conversations with the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung it became clear that civil society in general, and for the groups working around refugees and integration in particular, that women outnumber men, once the disproportionate number of men volunteers in sports activities, a men-dominated area, are considered. In our project we sought to address this imbalance and so set out to recruit 30 German (or German-speaking) men for our buddy project. In doing so we have uncovered many issues facing civil society as a whole – with society’s atrophying ability to engage in social and political conversations and mutual fears between Germans and newcomers, and particularly for actors working with refugees in Germany, and a gap in men’s participation in this sector.  As such, this blog is intended to offer some insights from our experience recruiting men to our buddy project and offer some ideas about what has proved effective and what to avoid for future projects in the same vein. This blog reflects on some of the most difficult challenges facing civil society as it attempts to support newcomers to German society, in regards to the gap in men’s participation.

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A workshop with volunteers working with refugees – another 80% woman event!

What is a Buddy Programme?

Buddy programs come in many shapes and sizes. Some readers might be familiar with buddy programs offered by universities to international students that aim to help newcomers settle in. Likewise, many bigger companies in the private sector are starting to see the wisdom of offering a buddy programme for new recruits. Buddy programmes involve pairing a participant with a more experienced or established person to help them to integrate into a new situation. Buddy programmes have been used to help integration in situations as diverse as universities, bereaved or orphaned children, former prisoners as well as immigrants and refugees. What these programs have in common is that in each instance a mentor is paired with a mentee and the mentor becomes a point of contact for their buddy – a reliable person able to help support their mentee with their transition into the new situation, whatever that situation is.

Following the news that Germany has decided to expand their integration programmes for the 500,000 or so asylum seekers that have arrived in Germany since 2015[1]; the primary aim of the legislation is to help asylum seekers learn German and from that, help them to find jobs and establish themselves in their new homes. Nestled among the wrangling and political posturing that has defined much of the negotiation around this deal, was the news that the German government intends to include a ‘values’ element in their new integration courses to establish the ideas that underpin German society. Missing, at this stage, is a detailed description of how these programmes should look and how to ensure that these programmes are effective.

In the case of migration, buddy programmes have clear advantages over standalone integration courses, for particular at-risk demographics. In part because buddy programs are better placed to offer a genuine cultural exchange than workshops or classes can, and in part because buddy programmes avoid the top-down didactic nature than can plague traditional integration courses means that buddy programs can be beneficial. Our project in this area at Social Science Works is: Understanding Europe: Strengthening Young Refugee Men’s Integration in Germany offers this ‘values’ element and is coupled with a buddy project that pairs workshop participants with a German or German-speaking man. The buddies divide into two groups, the first ‘peer buddies’ are German and German-speaking men that are roughly 5-10 years older than the participants and ‘father figures’, that is men roughly between the ages of 45-65. We discovered that recruiting men produced severe difficulties.

Recruitment Techniques

This section outlines the techniques used in recruiting buddies and the relative effectiveness of the approach. It should be noted here that once personal contact with a potential buddy was established, the next step in each case was to propose an in-person meet up to shore-up the individual’s support and participation. The techniques outlined here represent the approaches taken in attempts to establish personal contact with a potential buddy[2]. Before beginning this project, I had asked via social media and similar channels for potential participants and enjoyed a good response, but found when it came to signing them up to the project in real life, they were often less forthcoming. As such, the in-person meetings were absolutely essential.

Social Media

Social Media: Standard Posts

We have used social media at several points in our buddy recruitment. In the initial phase of the project, we used social media to get an idea of potential interest in the project and got a good response. As such, we used our Social Science Works’ Facebook page to advertise the project. In addition, the team shared the advert on their own pages and encouraged the team of associates – group of social scientists connected with Social Science Works – to do the same. We also advertised using Social Science Works’ Twitter account and the posts were shared in the same way.  In both instances the posts were shared in both English and German in an attempt to maximise reach[3].

The response to these kinds of adverts was good, but  limited to personal contacts or friends-of-friends. Because of the demographic that dominates social media, this technique was only useful in connecting with potential ‘peer buddies’. A potential way to improve the use of this technique is to contact other, large social accounts to share the posts on their pages. We attempted this, but struggled to find appropriate pages with a larger reach than Social Science Works with an appropriate audience, but there is potential here for Germany-wide projects with the same aims to use this method to better effect. The biggest surprise for us was that despite these posts requesting support and interest from men, each post would generate between two and five responses from women offering to become a buddy for future projects[4].

Social Media: Targeted Posting & Groups

In addition to posting to our own network, we targeted specific groups that included potential buddies and engaged with members there. For this project we contacted refugee support groups in Berlin and Potsdam as well as student groups and civil society groups in both cities. The original intention was to post in specific group in cities across Brandenburg, but often it was the case that such groups were small and of limited help. In addition, it was important that we recruited buddies in areas near to, or well connected with, the areas the workshop participants live in so we recruited buddies in only these locations.

This technique produced mixed results. On the one hand, it has been helpful in connecting us with people that have valuable ideas and insights for improving our project, including people with buddy project experience and good connections with refugee camps and homes in Potsdam. On the other hand, this technique was not effective for reaching buddies and no buddies we found using this technique.

Email Outreach

Cold Email Outreach

This was one of the initial steps in the buddy recruitment phase. We researched a list of pre-existing civil society projects in Potsdam and contacted the projects. In total, around 40 projects in Potsdam and Berlin, including civil society groups, student groups, sport groups and art projects were contacted. In most cases, we received no reply, but there were a handful of useful contacts made in this way. All recipients received a short outline of the project and a copy of the FAQs for the project. In short, this was not a good strategy for recruitment.

Mailing List Outreach

After finding that cold contact was not a useful tool, we changed our approach for email outreach. Instead of cold contacts we concentrated on using existing contacts to amplify our outreach. This was achieved via mailing lists. We found five contacts who were willing to share our project with their mailing list[5]. The types of mailing list were varied: a university mailing list, a co-working space mailing list, an art project mailing list, a cultural magazine mailing list and the mailing list of a private company.

This has been the second most effective tool we have found so far. This is unsurprising given that is combines the most effective tool (personal networks) with the reach of digital media. Via this method we recruited eight buddies. The most effective mailing list was a university mailing list, but we have also had success with the co-working mailing list too. The latter was more surprising but can in part but attributed to the collaborative mentality in co-working spaces that means that working on several projects at once is not usual, unlike in more traditional work environments and hence the ‘too busy’ excuse that many participants gave as their reason for not participating was less relevant.

Pitching

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Several of the cold and pre-existing email contacts agreed to allow a member of the Social Science Works team visit and present the idea to a group of interested people. In total the idea was presented in a pitch-style meeting or more informal informational session eight times. Again, the groups varied and included: sport teams, entrepreneurs, scholarship groups, political parties and civil society organizations.

The most successful sessions were the entrepreneurial groups, and a startup Stammtisch meeting. Additionally, we visited two Rotary Club-like foundations where a member of the team held brief one-on-one meetings with the members. Members took flyers with the intent of spreading information via community centres like doctor’s offices and alike, although this has proved ineffective. Those that were already involved in civil society often felt over-burdened and unable to commit to the project; likewise, the potential ‘father figure’ buddies often felt themselves to be ‘too busy’ for a project like this, an idea this blog will take up in the next section. This method helped to secure two buddies.

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Personal Networks

Far and away the most effective tool for recruitment has been personal networks. More than half of our buddies have been recruited by a member of the Social Science Works team (including the associates) or via a person connected to them. This recruitment has taken two forms. The first, informal recruitment has been a word-of-mouth needs no detail here. The second approach, targeted communication, warrants more detail, however.

Targeted personal network recruitment involved approaching potential buddies (in this case a combined network of around 200 potential buddies) and writing personally to them with three specific points as well as engaging with the person. The first point was to make clear what the project is and how the potential buddy could be involved, the second point was to make clear that the best thing a person could do to help their contact realise the project is to become a buddy. The final point was to make clear if they cannot become a buddy the next most helpful thing they could do is to share the project among their contacts. This approach was extremely successful. In addition to recruiting 11 buddies, the project was shared in a network of around 10,000 people. This approach is easily replicable and would be extremely effective if used by an even bigger team with a broader geographical scope.

The Man Problem

Although we were warned before the start of this project that there is a general problem recruiting men to civil society projects like this, we were surprised by just how difficult it was in reality. To put this problem into context, the development volunteer service weltwärts in 2013 in Germany reports that 70% of their volunteers are women; in addition our experience in Brandenburg and Germany as a whole suggests that in the field of integration and is even more skewed: here 80% of volunteers are women. This problem is exacerbated when one considers that only around 30% of the refugees arriving in Germany between 2013 and 2016 were women. Hence our collective failure to engage men in civil society projects outside of sport represents a real risk to the third sector’s effectiveness, and so our work recruiting buddies offers so useful strategies for civil society in general[6].

In terms of recruitment, the single most useful tool is personal connections. This is true in all walks of life and not only for civil society engagement. However, because this has been our most useful recruitment tool, we have been able to get more in-depth responses about barriers preventing men from participating in programmes like this than we would have otherwise expected. One of the common responses to our request for participants is that men were ‘too busy’. Often, potential participants were indeed busy, but their equally busy woman-counterpart would be more than twice as likely to participate in a similar project. Of course there are some differences in the time available to participate in projects like this, specifically for older men who are more likely to be employed than a woman counterpart. However, the problem persisted in the younger category too where the full time employment rate of men and women is roughly equal, and once one factors in that women were more likely to be full time students than men, younger women have statistically less time available for civil projects but were more engaged. As such, their responses seem to mask a deeper truth.

I had several conversations with potential buddies who said that they were ‘too busy’ to participate, and found that for many, it wasn’t simply the case that they didn’t have time for a project like this, but that they had reservations about taking on a role that they perceived as a ‘care’ role. In addition, several potential buddies mentioned that biweekly meetings at museums and concerts was too akin to dating and made them feel uncomfortable. It was only by emphasising that buddies in this instance were not in any way a replacement for care workers or social workers that these men could be convinced to participate. It can be argued that social expectations of men as a breadwinner, more prevalent for older men, but to some degree pervasive for younger men too, means that refusing on the grounds of being ‘too busy’ is akin to a status signalling. Here is another potential opportunity for the social sector given that those most likely to engage in volunteer activity are those in employment – even more likely than students, as such finding means to reframe volunteering as a part of working life (something that seems part of the mind-set we encountered at the co-working spaces for example) to combat the ‘busy’ claim seems vital[7].

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Further, to better understand the mind-set of already engaged men, I have spoken to several people who are either engaged in other projects in a similar role or who are community organisers for projects working with German and refugee men. One of the uniting themes from these conversations was the need to take the pressure off both sides to start a relationship in the first instance. An excellent example of this is the process used by Start With A Friend (SWAF). For their tandem partners, SWAF use a simple questionnaire to get a feel for both parties and pair them up themselves. This process is particularly effective insofar as it prevents and potential embarrassment and any mismatches can request a swap. In our experience, most participants were unwilling to ask another to become ‘buddies’. This is despite the fact that several refugee participants had suggested that they wanted to make this decision themselves. Hence, pairing participants oneself is an excellent process and one we have adopted into our project.

In conversation with a community organiser whose football event with German and refugee men attracted more than 50 participants on a rainy Sunday morning in December, he emphasised that sport works for the same reason: there is no pressure to talk too much. As he put it, ‘Once there’s a ball, everyone knows what to do!’, a claim backed up by the fact that sport is the most popular volunteer activity in Germany. Likewise, conversations with a community centre leader and the key social workers at a refugee home for young men in Brandenburg suggests that informal meetings without structure are ill-suited to young men. Both suggested that young men respond better to organised activities with a defined goal. There is a lesson here for all civil society groups looking to attract hard to reach demographics (and especially men): work first in low-pressure situations and build things up from common interests to minimise the potential pressure men perceive in their role.

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Conclusion

There is still much to be done to improve men’s participation in civil society particularly for refugee integration in Germany. That said, our work over the last four months has pointed to some effective strategies for improving participation rates. For those working on the recruitment of potential participants, it is important to be able to utilise personal networks. However, advertising via email mailing lists of existing contacts is also a good strategy. Likewise, it is important to ensure that the expectations and limits of the projects are articulated to potential participants – especially for projects that have a kind of one-on-one or pseudo-care role as part of the offer. For those designing project processes, taking the pressure out of potentially awkward situations by organising group meetings (like sports) is a good solution to men’s often reticent attitudes and for tandems.

It is easy to think about this a merely a problem with recruiting men to be tandem partners and dismiss it a minor problem. However, what I have found while trying to recruit men for our project this year is that this thinking masks wider problems in civil society participation. Civil society is something that has become more important in Germany after the arrival of so many refugees in recent years. Germany has relied on the civil society to help to integrate newcomers. It is clear from our projects that the enthusiasm of many volunteers is diminishing. As such, in-depth research on these people and their motivations is important to find out how to help volunteers. As one study found Germany is not a traditional volunteering society like the UK or the Netherlands. Thus, much of the civil society infrastructure that has sprung up in the last decade needs further support in order for it to flourish. Given the stresses placed on the sector recently, this work is more important than ever.  Hence, it is vital to consider this engagement problem in its full context. There is a need to establish best practices in this field because society is more dependent on civil society to fulfill functions once performed by the state. This is a time when there are more people than in recent memory in need of engaged locals of all genders to help smooth the integration process in a sector that is often overwhelmed.

[1] The total number of refugees in Germany is actually more than double that, but this figure reflects the number that have transitioned into asylum seekers, a different bureaucratic state than ‘refugee’

[2] In addition to the techniques outlined here, we developed several pages of website content to support the recruitment process. These include: multilingual FAQs for the buddy project, a multilingual flyer outlining the workshops themselves, and overview of the project in English and German. All potential participants have been directed to this part of our website; the aim of this is to answer any common questions and also to build a sense of community and common purpose.

[3] The accounts had a total of approximately 2,000 social fans during this period.

[4] In addition, we received more than a couple of indignant responses demanding to know why women were excluded!

[5] Estimated recipient total is approximately 3,500 people

[6] It should be noted here that there is a well-established tendency for household income to correlate with increased levels of volunteering, but only among women. This is most easily explained by the fact that women are more often employed part time and hence have more time for participation. The points being explored here focus mostly on men and women in a roughly equal social positions: childless adults in their 20s and 30s.

[7] The writer tends to reject arguments of biological essentialism, but the psychologists Van Vugt and Iredale found that men were more likely to commit their time to volunteering activities outside of sport where they were offered the opportunity to perform their volunteering for a woman’s attention. Make of that what you will.