Learning from Lale: An Interview with Ralf Schroeder
One thing we’ve learned from our journey with Prosper is the amazing variety of creative and practical responses to Europe’s refugee and humanitarian crisis. Great minds think alike, as the saying goes, and that’s certainly the case with the Lale.
Based in Munich, Lale were one of the first coordinated responses we came across when John first set Prosper up in the autumn of 2015, and it’s fair to say that we were suitably awed and inspired by the model they’d established.
While many tech initiatives have launched and floundered within a few months, Lale continues to gain momentum and grow.
Earlier this year we took time to speak to co-founder Ralf Schroeder, to pick his brains on exactly how Lale took shape and share with us some of the key lessons he and his colleagues have learned along the way.
As our team at Prosper is developing a model to be financially self-sufficient, we are particularly interested in Lale's business strategy.
Prosper: Ralf, thanks for making time for us. Firstly, please tell us a little about yourself and your background. How did you find yourself getting involved with coordinating refugee aid?
Ralf: My background is in enterprise software. For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been working with big corporates on mission critical solutions. I took a sabbatical in 2014 because I wanted to contribute to the refugee community.
I started by helping refugees in my local community in the village of Kirchheim, near Munich. it just seemed like a good thing to spend my time on. I joined our local helper circle and took on a few tasks and quickly saw that it wasn’t so easy to coordinate the many different people who were keen to offer some kind of help.
The difficulty of organising things effectively, of matching people to suitable tasks with the time they could afford, really frustrated me.
We had situations where someone would take the afternoon off work to help, but found themselves unable to help, perhaps because someone else was already taking care of the task they had in mind.
So this set me to think about planning a system that answered simple questions, like: What do we need to get done? Who can do it and when?
Previously this was largely done by word of mouth, but I realised that it was far more sustainable to build a tool that lets you manage tasks efficiently and work directly with people.
My solution was to build Lale, the ultimate tool which helpers can use themselves to allocate and manage the many tasks which arise from the needs of refugees arriving in different communities across Europe.
Prosper: We understand there’s a lovely story behind the name Lale, can you tell us about that?
Ralf: That’s right yes. When we received the first wave of refugees in our village, around 75 people, we took over the gym hall of our elementary school to accommodate them. We helped get them settled and we got to know various families. One of these had a 5-month-old daughter called Lale, which means ‘tulip’ in Farsi.
She and her parents had spent the past four months on the road, and as soon as Lale was born they had no choice but to seek refuge and make this huge journey.
This really brought home to me the reality that if we don’t do this right, this family and thousands like them have no shot at life.
Of course the symbolism of the spring-like name and its hopeful connotations really resonated too, so when I was setting up Lale in September last year, the name seemed to suggest itself.
Prosper Let’s talk about Lale the organisation then. Which specific problems does it tackle and how?
Ralf Lale tackles the organisational problems facing volunteer helpers in local communities.
In Germany the distribution of refugees is determined by population density and income levels for the regions. This means that refugees are split up into smaller groups and distributed in different villages. It is a distributed problem which needs to be met with citizen effort. With a few hundred people being allocated to each village it’s a major citizen effort, so it’s all hands on deck.
Any community needs to be able to manage its list of active members and volunteers and because they’re volunteers they need very clear communication.
You need to be able to identify things like ‘who are the core volunteers, the people who can help at least a month or more?’ and perhaps there are a further 140 people in the shadows, who will contribute every now and then, these tend to be harder to find and reach.
This means that you need a system which focusses its communication around certain key tasks, otherwise even a date change over a simple thing like taking someone to a doctor can easily cause an avalanche of emails!
Using something like Lale, everyone can see at a glance the current status of any given task so we don’t duplicate efforts and waste any volunteer’s time.
Instead of getting a random box full of old stuff, we get things we actually need, like shoes in the correct sizes for instance.
Appropriate resources can be dispatched from point to point, connecting names with needs in a precise way.
On the Lale platform, each task has its own comment thread and we’re working on integrating personal messaging too.
In my village, we have six different working groups inside our helper circle serving around 150 refugees. On average, we’ve worked out that each person being helped needs around 10 specific tasks a year, that’s 1,500 tasks annually being despatched to 150 or more volunteers. How else are you going to tackle that without an organised central system?
Prosper: What do you hope the longer term effects of platforms like Lale will be?
Ralf: In the longer term, we plan to replicate this system across Germany and implement some best practice guidelines, which organisers in other countries can hopefully learn from too.
We know that Munich County plans to roll out such a system in a organised way and we hope to drive more cross-circle collaboration and share what’s worked.
It’s one thing to build this platform and put it out there, but with further collaboration, well, that’s where it really takes on a greater order of magnitude.
In terms of the refugees themselves, as Europeans, we all need to find an appropriate response until these people are able to safely return to their homes. If we can, we need to help them get back on their feet.
As a society, the consequences of not acting could be very dramatic I think. From a purely pragmatic perspective, if we don’t help we could pay a price, as these people could be preyed on by radical factions.
But ultimately we want to do what’s right, in line with our values as Europeans, we share a common set of values. After all, it’s not asking for much to not let people drown on our shores.
Prosper: Absolutely. You must have learnt a lot from your work on Lale. What have been the main takeaways for you?
Ralf: As you probably know yourselves, working with volunteers (both technical people and non) in a fast-moving, reliable start up environment presents certain challenges.
It’s really hard to build reliable, professional software using only volunteers. It’s quite a romantic notion to think you can tackle it this way. Hackathons don’t tend to produce anything very sustainable.
You need a few ‘silverback gorillas’ backed by lots of volunteers. You need a professional approach and that means working within the economic system. It’s like a chemistry lab experiment, you need the right conditions to make something happen. You have to consider all the elements – social, financial, legal – all of which need to be finely tuned around the economy.
For a true social entrepreneurship half of the conditions aren’t in place. It can be hard to navigate.
But building a professional start-up with 'kickass software' is a longer term goal and measuring its long term social value is not easy.
The solution we’ve hit on is for a hybrid organisation – a limited liability corporation set up like a commercial software platform. This way Lale can charge a subscription fee and we match commercial sponsors with volunteer group as part of a socio-sponsoring approach.
The plan is for each village to get to the point where it can attract a big enough local sponsor. The revenue this raises is used to operate a commercial entity robustly. A registered association is then formed with all profits funnelled into a charitable association, which are then donated to various refugee aid charities.
Prosper: Where are you at with things so far and what’s your focus right now?
Ralf: We’ve spent 9 months building something that works. We’re now exiting our pilot phase, where we had 5 user groups as pilot users giving feedback for three or four months.
We have now moved things onto a full version 2.0. We’ll need people who can tell their story, then we can start scaling up. Looking further into the future, we’ll need to secure a public partner.
We want to be sustainable and avoid being another organisation in lists of ‘the top 100 projects.’ Our motto might be ‘a little less conversation, a little more action.’
Whether this is a marketable market remains to be seen. Whether we can attract sponsors will be the real test.
One key lesson has been the importance of having the right partner. I’ve been fortunate in finding someone who can mastermind the legal, financial and organisational framework, leaving me free to focus on the software and the people who use it.
Getting a trusted co-founder at the same level as you is fundamental.
Prosper: What do you see the future role of technology being in the refugee aid environment?
Ralf: The fact that there’s been an immensely positive response to the crisis from the tech community was no surprise. That’s just how we’re wired, we want to solve problems, we come from an open source philosophy and we’re culturally diverse.
The abundance of software skills is the great equaliser, we’re like a UN of software engineering I suppose.
The key question though is how can we best contribute? We need to move beyond ideas and into workable solutions, consolidated in a reliable fashion.
In general, I think we should be asking not what can we do or offer, but what do refugees actually need, both now and what are their likely needs going to be in, say, another three years?
We’ve seen so many IT ideas arise already, more than we can possibly develop seriously. These ideas need to be meaningful, to have a legacy and a wider impact - and they need to be planned to be integrated with what’s already out there.
You can learn more about Lale’s projects and progress on their website