| Willy Brandt School of Public Policy

From NGO to Social Business - the Case of Kiron Open Higher Education

Dr. Tobias Ernst took the Social Entrepreneurship students on a journey through the various development phases of Kiron, from an NGO to a self-sustaining social business, and explained why updates to one’s theory of change and regular impact analyses are so important for social entrepreneurs.

The experienced social entrepreneur and managing director of Kiron Open Higher Education gGmbH, Dr. Tobias Ernst, joined Aletta-Haniel-Professor Dr. Heike Grimm’s seminar on Social Entrepreneurship on May 31, 2023, to share his and his organization’s experience with the students.

He outlined how Kiron had started as an NGO in 2015, aiming to provide refugees with access to higher education in Germany. Driven by the mission of empowering people and democratizing education, they began to offer free accredited online courses for refugees. The idea was that these forcefully displaced persons could start at one of Kiron’s established partner universities in Germany once all the legal matters of asylum had been settled, but that they could already make use of that processes’ time by taking courses with Kiron that would later on be recognized for actual degree programs. It started out as a great success story and quickly made the brand “Kiron” known. Until today, anyone can sign up for free for much of their content, with some of the courses being restricted to registered refugees.

However, Kiron analyzed demand together with their target group and realized that established universities were opening up for refugees anyways at that time, thereby soaking up some of the demand. Furthermore, even though displaced students were an existing niche, their immediate concern was less their academic careers, but rather finding ways into their host countries’ labor markets. Thus, Kiron adapted its offers to shorter programs that actually prepared participants for this purpose more directly.

Ernst explained that Kiron had initially based their budget on donations and public grants, but soon came to realize that to become more sustainable, stable and scalable, they should also add a business component to their organization. Thus, they developed two branches that still fit their mission but generate revenue.  First, they took the online learning platform that they had developed for Kiron and offered it as software as a service to NGOs and public clients. Second, they teamed up with partners in the Match Talent initiative. This program combines language training with an integration course and a subject specific training, e.g. coding. Both branches offer spillovers besides gains that in turn also benefit their NGO work of free online refugee education.

Dr. Ernst concluded that NGOs should become more entrepreneurial and not shy away from making their own money through business branches.