How Joana Breidenbach cofounded betterplace.org, Germany’s largest donation platform
orn in Hamburg, Joana Breidenbach is a social entrepreneur, author and investor. She holds a PhD in cultural anthropology and while traveling the world in 2006, recognized an opportunity for a more efficient way to make charitable donations. The following year, she cofounded betterplace.org, now Germany’s largest donation platform, which has since expanded to include betterplace lab and betterplace academy.
In 2018, she cofounded Das Dach, a creative coworking space dedicated to supporting systemic change, and in 2019 wrote The Future of Work Needs Inner Work, both a book and an online course. Joana is also an investor in multiple social startups.
Joana shares her entrepreneurial journey, the challenges she encountered, as well as the best decisions she made.
Why did you decide to start betterplace.org?
I became interested in this field because of my personal experience and background as an anthropologist. I saw that a lot of the aid we give is ineffective and doesn’t end poverty or social injustice. I went with my kids and family on a trip around the world in 2006 and we were inspired by local NGOs, really grassroots organizations. We thought that if more people knew about these organizations, if we could use the power of the internet to connect these people and initiatives individually with other people who wanted to support them, that would be really cool.
We first thought about creating an eBay for help – an open platform where everyone could post their project and others could pitch in money, volunteer time or expertise. In the end, we focused on money because it’s the easiest transaction.
When we came back from our trip, we created a project team and worked on the platform. We then met another team of people also based in Berlin who had a similar idea. Our initial reaction was to see them as competition. Eventually, we decided to meet them, find out what they were doing and maybe work together. That’s what we ended up doing.
I’m only one of a number of cofounders at betterplace.org. There was a large group of people who put a lot of effort into creating it. Thirteen years later, it’s Germany's largest fundraising platform for social projects, and there are approximately 33,000 NGOs using us for fundraising.
When we started out, digital was very far removed from NGOs – most of them were thinking about having a Facebook page to advertise their services and trying to get more donors. There was a large gap between digital technologies and the social sector. We’re a technology company, but we also have an educational aspect because we’re teaching NGOs that aren’t digitally savvy how to use online services.
How did you initially make money?
We’re a social business, meaning we’ve developed a business model where we fund and refinance our operations, and aren’t dependent on donations. What’s so special about this is, when we founded betterplace.org, there were many internet companies but very few had social impact as their main focus. We knew we needed the platform to be free for donors and NGOs. We recently shifted so NGOs pay 2.5 percent of their transactions and donors are asked at checkout if they want to leave a tip to the platform.
In the beginning it was social investors, a handful of people who decided they wanted to support this idea and were willing to invest in us. We also focused on getting companies to use betterplace.org in order to showcase their CSR activities transparently and make it more participatory. That worked, but it didn’t cover all our costs so we had to pivot a lot. Companies always created a large part of our revenues. Now it’s only one revenue stream among others.
Why did you decide to create betterplace lab?
Early on we realized digitalization wasn’t only changing the way organizations were fundraising, but that digitalization can play a role along the whole social value chain. We felt that the German social sector was slow and resistant towards digital technologies and didn’t have the space to imagine its potential. It was our job to do trend research and showcase what the potential of digital technologies was for social good. For that, we went to do field work in twenty-six countries around the world, where we researched digital social innovations, as we came to call them.
Everyone is talking about the conventional startup ecosystem, but we realized there was another wave coming that isn’t part of that: digital social, which is catering to social inclusion, education, health and social justice. We were interested in showcasing these.
Our work shifted. We started with trend research and now we’re involved in more concrete projects. We have a large project where we amplify grassroots organizations that are working on a constructive internet. We bring them together as a network and support them. In the beginning, we were doing things ourselves, but because we’re comparatively old in the field, we’ve become more of a supporter. We help other organizations use digital technologies better.
It takes a lot of work to explore what’s meaningful to you.
How has your work at betterplace.org and betterplace lab influenced the work you do at Das Dach?
At some point, I realized that we’re looking at a small segment at the lab, only at digital social innovation for nonprofits. I feel that right now we’re in a transition period of our whole economy and social system. There’s an old paradigm that is extractive and only interested in maximum financial profit. It’s doing a lot of collateral damage, which it’s not held accountable for, in terms of what it does to the environment and increasing the social gap between rich and poor.
So I became interested in what innovations we need on a larger scale to be inclusive, meaningful, ecologically sound and ready for the next wave. Creating an economy that’s more sustainable, resilient, reparable, self-organized, flexible and human-centric, where we define success not only as the financial bottom line of a company and money for a few shareholders but by what’s good for people, planet and profit.
At Das Dach, on the one hand I think we’re like a think tank. We think about what’s needed for such an economy and innovation system to flourish. At the same time we’re trying to host companies that are doing exactly this. They’re pretty isolated. We live in a world where most startups are focused on VC funding. I think that this preoccupation with money and profitability that we see, also in the European ecosystem, is alien to us.
We live in a society where money only plays one part of success, where the standard of living, health and other issues, which in America you need a lot of money to solve, are provided through our governments. What we’re trying to do is contribute to a more European way of thinking when approaching innovation and startups.
What was your best decision?
Recently it was to spend less time working, start meditating more, exploring inner work and looking into human dynamics. I shifted from a focus on achievement, in my own definition of what achievement was, to a more holistic view of what a meaningful life is.
One decision I made was joining a meditation group that’s been going on for nine years. I've found an ecosystem of like-minded people who are interested in outer transformation and are using inner transformation to achieve it. Whether we create a new paradigm isn’t a technology question, but a question of what we value in life. How much of the world can we see, include and empathize with? This inner dimension of innovation has become interesting.
What professional advice would you give?
Be careful who you get your money from. That drives so much of what you’ll have to deliver. If you have funders who only look at profitability and not whether you have a healthy team, whether you provide something useful to society, if you’re a sensitive human being, you’re bound to suffer deeply.
Find funders who are aligned with your values and spend time understanding those values. I could only have pointed to stereotypical values that no one would have disagreed with previously. It takes a lot of work to explore what’s meaningful to you.
How do you manage your team? Are there any principles you follow?
At betterplace lab, we’re radically self-organized. For me, it’s been a liberating and exciting journey. We haven’t abolished hierarchies, but we’ve established something called competency-based hierarchies. They’re formed temporarily, dissolve when a project is done and reform again as needed.
I’m really interested in how we can build teams and an organizational culture that’s suitable for this decentralized, fluid, complex, digital, global age. That’s an important challenge because our way of working was created in the industrial era to serve different purposes from the world we live in now. How we can update that, for me, is a central question.
Be careful who you get your money from. That drives so much of what you’ll have to deliver.
Why did you choose to live in Berlin?
I lived in Berkeley and San Francisco in the late eighties. After returning to Germany, I thought the only city I could live in would be Berlin. I lived in Munich before and felt more self-conscious about how I dressed on the subway than in Berlin. I really love the freedom of Berlin. The rough, raw, direct style of living.
What’s your biggest challenge ahead?
Finding people who support me in the way I want to live and how I want to create businesses. I feel lonely on this path. Holding the tension between what I believe to be right, what I want to see in the world and where the world is right now is also a challenge.
A version of this article is included in Startup Guide Germany, alongside more founder stories and expert insights. Order your copy now!
Main photo by ©Nils Hasenau
Written by Katherine Williams.
Repackaged by Anastasia Ilcov.