Too many of the people reading this blog will have experienced the familiar trajectory of a development project: prove the need, find the funding, define your outputs, deliver against your targets and either find more funding to carry on, or regretfully exit.
There is a fundamental mismatch between what I take to be the objective of development projects (sustainable, transformational change at scale) and a funding environment and model of project design based on a time bound, linear, output driven delivery model. So what lessons are there from elsewhere to help us move beyond this hamster wheel?
Bill Clinton observed that “there is no shortage of good ideas …the real problem is how to scale them”. There also far more people in the world interested in improving the lives of their communities than there are budding social entrepreneurs. Social franchising – taking a successful idea working in one place, distilling its essence and helping someone else in another place to create their own version of it – is one way of trying to break this cycle.
So how could the growth model used by McDonalds, the Body Shop, Subway, my daughter’s drama school Stagecoach and thousands more businesses be applied to social projects, and how can we identify where it is an appropriate model of achieving change at scale?
Well the good news is that lots of people are already doing it. From The TrussellTrust’s Food Bank network, which has grown exponentially to now support over 128,000 people in 200 locations across the UK who need emergency food support, to the remarkable success story of Childline India’s emergency number for street children, which is now operational in 210 across India cities through a network of 415 partner organisations, projects are proving that the principles of franchising can work in the social sphere. And it’s not just a story about building more small projects. With the strength of a national network of projects comes the potential to gather data to influence policy and build a profile for the issues that you care about, holding out the potential for even greater change.
This model has much in common with the approaches of some projects of which Oxfam is justifiably proud. Programmes such as Oxfam America’s Savings for Change and the We Can campaign to end domestic violence show the scale at which positive social change can be built through taking an idea, developing it to be scalable and then enabling others to replicate its approach, with impacts that could never have been achieved through one organization working alone.
The words used to describe this approach differ – is it movement building, community empowerment or Social Franchising? What Social Franchising adds to this rich arena is a framework that can help people understand how to design projects to maximize their chances of “going viral” and being adopted and adapted by multiple partners, and tools to think through how to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks of letting others run with your project.
So is this just repackaging our existing work or adding something new? I think the latter, but Social Franchising poses some real challenges to the development sector. The first is that this model works best when the project is straightforward and can be codified: you need to be able to write a “how to” guide that doesn’t depend on the reader having a degree in development studies and the ability to decipher a secret development language. This makes it a profoundly democratic and empowering model of change. It also challenges us to design projects for simplicity and scalability from the outset, using principles such as frugal project design rather than the sectoral norm of trying to solve everything simultaneously.
It also challenges a few holy cows: a “project in a box” approach feels like the polar opposite to bottom-up community development and can provoke an allergic reaction. But when tools are used to codify and standardize the appropriate parts of a project (there aren’t that many community activists I’ve met who get their kicks from designing evidence gathering systems) then it frees up time for building the relationships and networks that really enable change within a particular context.
The next fear is how locked down the box feels – how can a standardized, prescribed model change and evolve? Here is a true strength of the franchising approach. By creating a network of multiple, linked franchisees working in the same area, learning can be shared, and the model finessed and improved. That food bank network I mentioned earlier is now on version 17 of its operating model.
Precisely what goes “in the box” (or less visually appealing, but more accurate in the operating model) is up for grabs in any project situation. Careful thought and testing is therefore needed at the design phase, or when packaging up a project for franchising. What is key to this project that makes it deliver? What can we standardize to achieve economies of effort? What element of control or standardization is going to enable us to learn common lessons and lobby together, and protect the brand or reputation of the original project? And then critically, it’s back to people – have we attracted people to work with us who can take this approach and make it fly in their own specific context, with their own partners, using their own skills?
The ambition of the development sector is huge, and its mission is critical. Attracting the skills, knowledge, passions and resources of as many people as possible to delivering positive change, and building the networks to enable them to learn from each other has the potential to enable good ideas to be spread, and greater change to be achieved.
For those of you out there who fancy franchising, and making your next million while you are at it, there are oodles of places to go to buy your business in a box. For those for whom the motivation is social progress rather than business success, the same networks don’t really exist yet, although we’re busy trying to build them. For now the International Centre for Social Franchising and NESTA are great sources of guidance and inspiration, including a handy checklist of questions you’ll need to answer to work out whether your project is ready to replicate. How about considering social franchising as your next exit plan?