Humans Stay Human: Learning about Motivation from Refugee Projects, Online Communities, and Startups


As one of the founders of Wefugees, the largest online refugee community worldwide, I’ve learned a lot about teamwork, about people, and about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I’d like to share a few stories and some of my insights because I believe many of them can be advantageous to traditional companies. But first, I should tell you a little about myself.

I’m a millennial, and one of the main challenges we have in my generation is that we see the bigger picture, or at least we try. We see the world globally, not just our village or our region or our country. And because of this it’s become much more difficult to find our place. It was much easier a hundred years ago, when people lived in villages with just one bakery and only one flower shop. You knew exactly: “One day when I grow up, I’m going to be the baker in this village.” It’s not that easy anymore. So one of the biggest questions our generation is trying to answer is, “Where do we belong? That question raises an important point—not just for individuals, but for companies, too. You need to find a reason why you’re here. You need to find your place.

At university I had to do an internship in order to get practical experience. I looked up some companies where I could learn about entrepreneurship, since that’s what I was studying. I found a startup in Berlin whose website described how they were developing a system to bring people together to solve problems, even though these people wouldn’t know one another and they wouldn’t be paid. I was sitting there thinking, “Wow, you could do some really cool stuff with something like that.” Of course companies could use it to save money in their call centers because then their customers could simply help one another without the need of an operator. But it was meaningful to me because I saw that it could be used for so much more. Which brings me to my second point: it’s important to work on meaningful stuff. That doesn’t mean you have to solve the biggest problems of the world but you need to find meaning in whatever you do, and you need to make it matter.

After my internship, I continued working at the startup, and one day I got a message from T-Systems Multimedia Solutions, a sister company of Deutsche Telekom. A woman was asking me if I wanted to work there, because I’d been working on brand communities at the time and she was looking for someone with that kind of experience. I was flattered. I sat there like, “Oh my God, this big company is asking me? I’m nobody. Wow, that’s crazy.” I definitely wanted to work there because I’d be getting paid for doing something I was good at and that I liked. They’d put value on things I knew. Which leads me to my next point: make people feel valuable. The more you make people feel outstanding, the more outstanding they’re likely to be.

I recently attended a design-thinking workshop where we were challenged to revive the image of ALBA Berlin, a recycling company. They collect our trash and they do really cool stuff with it. Their one big problem is that nobody wants to work for them. Everybody thinks, “ALBA? I don’t want to be a garbageman!” We travelled to universities and asked students what they were looking for in the workplace; what’s important to them; how they planned to find a job; and finally, had they ever heard of a company called ALBA. Some of them said “Yeah, they’re the trash guys.” Others said, “Yes, ALBA Berlin; it’s a basketball team.” Nobody seemed to know that ALBA does truly meaningful work by actually making reusable resources. But once we told people what ALBA actually does, they were like, “I think I’d enjoy working for them—as long as it’s not too stinky.”

That brings me to my next point: give people real-world problems and they’ll want to work on solving them. All it takes is for a company to create an image and a personality for their brand, and then to put it to action in the real world. That’s what we learned at Wefugees: you need to be someone. That was one of the biggest problems for ALBA. Nobody knew them, nobody knew their personality, nobody knew how to connect with them. Whether you’re an individual or a company, you need to create an identity and put it out there.

The sixth point I want to make involves a challenge we faced at Wefugees. We began in 2015, the year Germany took in so many new refugees. I was the COO of a software company in Berlin. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I wanted to help. I managed to get three interns and we talked with refugees and volunteers and people who worked in the camps, and we asked them what they needed most and what were their biggest challenges. We quickly figured out that access to useful information was a huge problem. There were so many people willing to help, but nobody knew where to go, what to do, or what was needed. We realized, “That’s something we can provide. That’s a kind of community based knowledge management that can be done online. Let’s start an app!”

We created a prototype and launched it in January 2016. We thought if we could get 200 or maybe 250 people using it, that would be amazing. Well, we had 20,000 people on the website in the first month, and then it rose to 80,000, and pretty quickly it was up to 300,000 people. It just exploded. It got to the point where we said, “Okay, we have to do this full time. It’s totally worth it because people need it.”

That’s how we started, but we didn’t have a clear vision for the future. We had a prototype and it was working, but we didn’t know where we wanted to go with it. We had a lot of volunteers and a big team, but none of them had any idea what to do next. We had to learn the hard way that we needed to have a clear vision. That’s the best way to make people run in the same direction and really reach your goals. Today, our vision for Wefugees is that everyone has a basic human right to information.

One of the most frequent things we’re asked is, “Can anybody answer a question on Wefugees?” We have volunteers, refugees, and verified experts all available to answer questions. And of course there are also lawyers and social workers and psychologists. But mostly it’s people like you and me. There was one case where someone was asking for ideas to learn German quickly and the answer given was that one of the best ways to learn any language is to watch movies in it with the subtitles running. But someone also shared a German-language film on an illegal streaming service. Some people were downloading it and others were freaking out with comments like, “No, don’t do it. That’s not legal and you can get into real trouble.”

People asked us why we weren’t deleting the link, but we figured the streaming site would have been found anyway, and no one would have told this guy that it’s illegal. So we decided to be open and just trust people to do the right thing. That decision is working very well because in a community like ours, people can teach each other about how to behave and how to deal with one another.

It’s all about letting humans stay human. It doesn’t really matter what the future holds or how much technology will change things, because we will always be people. We will always want to feel valued and to work on issues that matter, things that are real and that allow you to feel that there’s purpose to what you’re doing. We will always want to be part of a family working together to create something valuable. And we will always want to find a place where we belong.

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