Fabienne Colling is the founder of Touchpoints, an NGO helping refugees in Luxembourg to pave their way to employment. I met her during the course on social innovation and sustainability at the University of Luxembourg. She is a very bright, impressively skilled and annoyingly well-organised person. I asked for a bit of her time to understand better what drives a person like her to set up such an extremely difficult business.
Hi Fabienne, how are you doing? Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about social innovation, especially during this unusual period.
Your organisation, Touchpoints, helps those who come to Luxembourg as refugees to learn how to set up their own business. You guide them through administrative work, train them and finally put them in contact with a potential employer. How is Touchpoints doing during this specific pandemic period? And how do you keep going?
As you said, our job is to support refugees who wish to set up their own business in Luxembourg, so to guide them through the administrative process, but also to inform them about the risks. During the programme, many participants realise that entrepreneurship isn’t the way to go for them and they focus again on finding a job. In any case, our objective is to reactivate people, to make them feel more confident again, as we reach out to people who are very far outside of the system. Our services are free of charge to refugees, so it means that somebody else must pay for them. We are partially funded by EU funds, public institutions, but most importantly private donors.
The problem with public funds is that they only allow us to serve people who meet certain requirements. But we are still trying to help as many people as possible, even if they do not check all the boxes. So, our business model works in a way that the hours we are paid for also include time that we can spend helping those who would not qualify.
It is just like in a business – we only get paid when we perform. And right now, during COVID-19, we cannot perform. First, because the priorities for participants have changed. Creating a business is not necessarily the first thing on their mind. But also, because people have limited access to digital tools and most of our training needs physical presence for interaction. This puts us in a delicate situation, as we are supposed to deliver a certain volume of activities by the end of the year, and we are not sure if we can do that. However, I have been an entrepreneur before, so it is not a state that I do not know. For ten years now, I have been used to the fact that I might not be paid next month. Or, that this half of the year might be good, and the other half not. It is not something that continuously stays with me in my mind. I am more focused on figuring out solutions, to make sure that at the end of the year, everyone gets paid. That is the situation right now.
Does it mean that now, in these unusual circumstances, you have to find new ways to deliver? Or, are you instead trying to survive this difficult period and waiting until life goes back to what it was before?
A bit of both. If you look at how businesses are reacting to the situation, you see two ways: those who are just waiting, sitting it out, and those who are trying to transform their enterprises. We have to do a bit of both, because I think the approach to entrepreneurship is going to change after the COVID-19 pandemic. Entrepreneurs have started to realise that on top of all the risks that they had to face before, now there is this epidemic risk. What you see is that entrepreneurs are forced to close, but there is no compensation. In other words – you shut the doors, whatever happens, and the risk is entirely on you. Yes, you can have a little help here and there, but the risk is entirely on the company, on you. So, I think this is something that could discourage people in the future from becoming entrepreneurs. We do expect a change in demand, which means we have to think about how to develop our services, here at Touchpoints. Our main goal is not just entrepreneurship, it’s to help people find employment, be it salaried or self-employed. And many more people will be without a job after the crisis, so we must figure out how we can support these people that cannot or do not want to become entrepreneurs. Right now, we are in the process of developing new ideas, new projects, because it will be different afterwards.
So, do you think the crisis is a blessing or a curse for an enterprise? For your company it seems that it is opening another door, am I right?
Yes, and we were already planning to open this opportunity in 2021, but now we will have to do it earlier. As for COVID, I’m not sure I’d call it a blessing, because we had already put a lot of effort into preparing the future of our programmes and now, all that work has been for nothing, almost, because everything has to be reset and start again. But it is also part of the life of an entrepreneur. So, it is not something that makes me sad, it is more like: ok, now we have to innovate again. At the same time, I can imagine that for people working in a non-profit organisation, without having this entrepreneurship background, it can be an incredibly stressful time, because things are not certain anymore. What they had planned for is not going to happen. So, is it a curse or a blessing? It depends on the person, it depends on the project, it depends on the company. Some businesses are discovering new ways of working and it may be positive, but many are struggling to survive and do not know how to change their business models. Is it supporting social innovation? I do not know, because we are in survival mode and it does not look like sensitivity for social innovation is a priority.
Is performing in social innovation more important than in the other parts of the market? Do you think that social entrepreneurs need to be more open to the risks than traditional entrepreneurs are?
I think it is common for any type of entrepreneurship, with or without the social impact. In the end, you have to design a project that can survive. The particularity about Luxembourg is that you have different types of social enterprises. You have those that are taking risks as opposed to those that are fully funded by state support, whatever they deliver, and to me, this is not really entrepreneurship.
What is your definition of a social enterprise, how would you describe it in words?
In my opinion, to be called an entrepreneur, you must work with some kind of business model; someone gets the service, and someone pays for it, in whatever way. It does not have to be the same person. For me, this is the essence of an entrepreneurial model. If you do not deliver, you do not get paid. You can add a social impact layer, by caring about who your employees are, who you are serving, how you are serving, the problem you are solving etc. It does not really matter what type of company structure you have. A capital company can have a huge social impact while a non-profit could show little interest in such aspects. What matters is the impact and motivation behind your business.
Let’s talk about it. Do you recall your strongest motivation behind the decision to set up your first business? Is it still your driving force? How did you later develop an interest in helping refugees?
I was never sure why I wanted certain things in my life, I just knew I wanted them to happen (laughing)! When I worked at the bank back in 2007, I just knew that I wanted to start my own business, but I cannot entirely explain why.
Fabienne, this is one of my most important questions, I need your answer (laughing)!
At some point during my first entrepreneurial experience, I found myself with a successful marketing agency and four employees, but still feeling I was moving in the same spot, and I didn’t see the point towards which I was heading. Did I just want to make money for the next 20 years by helping companies make more money? Or did I want some actual purpose? Several things happened that made me realise that I wanted the situation to change. I sold my shares in the agency, which was extremely hard, because I had good relationships with my employees and associate, and I was basically telling them that I didn’t want to be there with them anymore. Then I stumbled right into the refugee crisis, which is how Touchpoints and Sleeves up started. However, I always treated the organisation like a business – it had to make sense, be viable, and structured. We need to perform. I never imagined that it could work otherwise, but in Luxembourg, it does. The most rewarding aspect of our project is that we are directly creating jobs. My most intense motivation has always been to create jobs. When I set up my first business, after one year, I hired my first employee, and at that time, I did not even have the money to pay that person. But I wanted someone to work with me. And you know what, I am not even a team player! I just love to have people around me that challenge and enrich my work. I believe that a job is so much more than just earning money. It should be something that makes you feel proud and useful; you should have a good time there.
Does it bring satisfaction as well?
There is a thin line between satisfaction that you use to push your self-esteem, and just acknowledging the fact that you are doing something useful. If you draw your satisfaction from the fact that you help someone else, you have to be careful not to feel overly good just because of that. It is a trap. I always work on this with my team, underlining that we are just a tiny piece in the puzzle, and that we are not the reason why refugees are successful in business. We add something to their development process. However, in the end, the success is on them.
I see you as a humble person, and I am not giving you cheap compliments, this is how I see it. How do you reward yourself?
First, of course, I manage to make a living out of a social impact project, at least most of the time. But if I wanted to choose money over purpose, I would have stayed with the bank (laughing). My biggest reward is inspiration. I am inspired by the people I meet and by my team. They bring so much energy to the projects that it always re-energises me.
You have mentioned the team, how did you build the team behind Touchpoints?
I was managing people before and I made many mistakes in the process. I have learned from past experiences and I think I handle it better today. At Touchpoints, I did not want to enter this alone, so I created a profile of someone completely magical – you know, someone who can do everything! I used my networks to find a few candidates, and I chose the person who was asking the most annoying questions, because I sensed he would constructively challenge my way of thinking. I knew I needed somebody who shared my values but came with a different perspective and approach. I got lucky.
So, once you had somebody on your side, you set up a business. Was it difficult here in Luxembourg?
My very first draft was quite different from what you see today. I wanted to set up a company that could hire refugees for one or two years to give them their first relevant experience in the labour market. But then I realised that the corresponding legal framework was tight and complex, because of an abuse of public money in the past. At the same time, I started to understand better the functioning of the social sector. A tiny part of my first draft talked about refugee entrepreneurship and after an overwhelmingly positive exchange with the Chamber of Commerce, I decided to go with it. There was a call for NGO projects working with refugees, so I went with an NGO, as opposed to setting up a social business, which is much more complicated administratively.
Is it the fault of the administration, do they make it unnecessarily complex? Do they learn from their experiences?
It is evolving, I would say. In Luxembourg, the social and solidarity economy is linked to the Ministry of Employment, and not to the Ministry of Economy. This means that the specific structure of the social business is not necessarily well understood in the Ministry of Economy That creates problems in the governance and management of these structures in Luxembourg. It is so much easier to perform social entrepreneurship with a non-profit structure because everybody in Luxembourg understands the model and every public institution has its own way of dealing with it.
Is it a matter of awareness on the administrative side?
The law on NGOs in Luxembourg is old, unprecise and flawed. But many big NGOs have built their structures on it and a radical transition to new models would be technically difficult and financially painful. The process of changing the law is ongoing, but it has been going on for ten years or so already, and it is still not there.
What would your advice be?
In my opinion, I do not necessarily need new types of companies to address the needs of social businesses. To drive social innovation on a larger scale, I think it would be helpful to support traditional corporate structures that wish to reorient their activities towards a more social/environmental impact. With the tools that are already there, we could do more. Making people more aware of the advantages of incorporating more social elements into their businesses.
And in your opinion, what is the reaction of the private markets towards social aspects? Are they tilting towards investing more into businesses with social impact?
If we are talking about impact investing, there is not much to invest in, as most social businesses in Luxembourg take the form of non-profits. We have this new form of the Société d’Impact Sociétal (SIS) that allows you to draw tax benefits if you reinvest the profit into the company’s activities, but that means no dividend or financial return for potential investors. I am afraid we do not have much to offer to impact investors as of today. But more and more traditional corporate structures are adding social impact layers to their business models.
So, what are you planning? Do you have any other socially innovative projects in mind?
Yes, I started one just recently. We are opening a co-working space in the north of Luxembourg, specifically designed for entrepreneurs with social and economic impact. This month, we are starting a round of international workshops to see how to better include refugees in the world of social entrepreneurship. Let’s see what we will learn!
Good luck and thank you very much for your time, Fabienne!
The interview was conducted in May 2020.
Katarzyna Radecka-Moroz, I have worked for the European Union for 16 years, checking whether EU money is spent correctly and wisely. I am particularly interested in developing effective environmental policies and sustainable solutions to the problems we are faced with nowadays. Social innovation is a powerful tool to tackle some of these challenges and this is why I am trying to deepen my understanding of the concept and its different practices.
Would you like to learn more from other inspiring social innovators?
Check out the Social Innovation Academy – the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.
If you are interested in keeping up with the project, you can subscribe to our newsletter, become one of our friends or follow us on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook). We welcome all requests for collaboration here.
The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.