About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Five things we learnt about social franchising

In this month's Field Note, we hear from education charity TLG, who shares the top lessons they learnt when trying to scale their Early Intervention programme using a social franchising model - drawing on things that worked and when they sometimes didn’t.

The origins and success of franchising can be traced back to the middle ages. At that time, it was an accepted practice for local governments to offer important persons, even high church officials, a license granting them the right to maintain civic order and to make special tax assessments. The licensee (or franchisee) would pay the licensor (franchisor) a specific fund from the tax revenues collected or assessments made and in return receive military or other forms of protection.

Additional progress was made during the early 19th century in England when tavern and pub owners, while experiencing financial hardship, turned to brewing companies for financial assistance. The tavern and pub owners in return for financial assistance were required to purchase all of their beer from that specific brewer. In more recent times, franchising has been a proven model for organisations across the world from coffee shops to fast food restaurants that have scaled quickly across the globe with huge success.

Can franchising really work for the social sector?

Despite the concept of franchising being around for centuries and numerous evidence of it being a successful model, it feels a relatively new concept for the social sector! It often leaves lots of people still asking if it can work for social enterprises?

We think it can and we’d like to share our experiences growing our model of early intervention, using volunteer coaches in primary schools to improve behaviour and attainment for children struggling with school.

Social franchising is a business model that addresses two key issues: taking successful projects to scale and avoiding the continual reinvention of the wheel. Time and money are poured into developing new programmes, when so often this work has already been done and could simply be copied or adapted. The most compelling reason to fund for scale is to address the urgent needs of thousands of people, where solutions exist but one organisation alone can’t reach everyone.

That said, it really is worth seeking advice: getting replication wrong can be a time-consuming, costly mistake that could even leave those you aim to help worse off. With this in mind, here are the top 5 things we’ve learnt along the way in replicating what we do at scale:

1) Is there a supply of suitable franchisees?

In the private sector this is pretty obvious as individuals look to make a significant personal financial investment. For us and in the wider the social sector, the franchisee is more likely to be a community group, charity or church, and knowing that there are enough of these that fit the relevant criteria is vital if you are looking to scale.

2) Find the right partners

Build a clear profile of the essential and desirable characteristics of partners before thinking about specific organisations. We have a clear pipeline and set criteria for identifying new types of partner. If partners don’t match up then we know from experience that it won’t work – no matter how tempting it is to let that new partner through just because you like them!

3) Get your processes, systems, training and procedures spot on

If you are vague or ambivalent on your systems and processes for the key elements of your programme, your partners will find a million different ways of doing things, causing you great stress and dramatically increasing the chance of failure. We ensure that every partner has a blueprint of what we do, how we do it, why and when with the necessary reviews in place.

4) Be sustainable

We believe that to see real change then anything we do has to stand the test of time and impact over the long term. Our franchisees are churches who can continually raise the modest grant funding required or charge schools to run and also make a contribution to the centre, each franchisor just needs to raise relatively small amounts of funding.

5) Create an ambitious yet realistic growth plan

You need to define the strategy, develop your business model and build a detailed implementation plan. When you have big vision, being realistic is difficult! It always helps to make sure you scope each project well from the start and have these discussion up front! We have also overcome this issue by building leadership and other critical capabilities that look to improve our monitoring and evaluation processes.

And finally (like any blog), always start and end well! If a partnership starts off badly then the chances of it improving are pretty slim. If it ends badly, there’s little comeback and a lot of potential fallout for the people you’re wanting to impact and risk to future partners.

If you want more...

Thanks for reading! This blog is part of our Field Notes series, highlighting a different social innovator each month with their lessons from the frontline of innovation in citizen participation. To find more innovation Field Notes, click here.


Paul Chenery

A gifted leader in marketing and fundraising, Paul has been part of the TLG team since 2005.