Social franchising and the LEYF Experience

April 26th 2011

For those wonderfully supportive people who follow this blog, you may have noticed a gap in production; this is because I have been staying in the Shropshire Hills for a week.  It’s a place where I have no phone or internet network and, like many young people, I have a real sense of disconnect as I come to terms with being unable to commune with anyone except my husband and the Shropshire Hills.

The challenge of any blogger is choosing what to blog about; there is just so much irritating rubbish and nonsense that it’s hard to know what to opt for. And those who know me well will soon enough attest as to how I can rant about almost anything – lousy childcare, poor use of tax payers’ money, overblown tributes to poor services, Children’s Centres with nothing except some anecdotal stories as evidence, litter and the sense that no one cares if we ruin our own environment, apprentices and the failure to give them an education of real value, organisations that think they can be a social enterprise just by saying they offer a social value… But enough already, before this list itself turns into a rant!

The trouble with being away with only your thoughts and a mountain of books to read is that you have time to think – and in my case the woes of the world soon begin to weave a misty dissatisfaction into the crevices of my mind.  However, on a more positive note, as I am so often starved of quality thinking time in my daily job as Chief Exec of LEYF, being able to wallow in ideas and thinking like this is a great opportunity.

So, with all this glorious time on my hands, what are the questions I ponder most?  First of all, it’s if we at LEYF can really build a better future for London’s children: to what extent and how exactly does what we do everyday in our soon-to-be 22 community, workplace and Children’s Centre nurseries truly make a difference?  Can we then bottle this into a social franchise model that will genuinely work for others, offering a real alternative that is not just the ‘next big thing’ for social enterprise to do – and can we avoid the cynicism that followed the previous trend that saw so many organisations convert to CICs as a good way to brand as a social enterprise, a pattern now being pursued by some public sector organisations?

Having spent over a year examining social franchising as a means of growing our organization – with the simple aim of giving as many children as possible the ‘LEYF experience’ – we realised that replication through franchising is a very challenging and demanding strategy for growth. This is confirmed in the books about commercial franchises, such as McDonalds and Starbucks (two quite different approaches, each equally successful); such is the varied nature of my reading list!

However, LEYF has never been an organisation to let a bit of doom and gloom stand in the way  of progress, let alone social good; and personally I have always been a glass half full girl, taking an optimistic and positive attitude to most things.

So, rather than give up at the first or second hurdle, we started to look into new ways of understanding the full range of options in front of us.  Surprisingly, a bank then came to the rescue, in the form of six staff from RBS who are now helping us draft a robust business plan.  This has also strengthened our relationship with the bank; a position which may prove beneficial later on as we unpack the much-loved government ideas of payments by results, along with social impact bonds. At the same time, our relationship with our prime supporter, Middlesex University, remains strong and interest from policy makers heartening.

As we start to now roll out the franchise plan itself, we remain pragmatic (this has not become one of my rants quite yet); there is history in the sector which suggests franchising has a habit of collapse, whilst sustainability and quality issues naturally abound.  As with all new ideas (or new configurations on existing ideas), there are resistors, antagonists and a level of contention and competition; and where would we be without the harbingers of doom?

In fact, aside from confronting all the gloomy predictions, ensuring we cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ will be the only way forward if we are to have a strictly controlled franchise, both in line with our own industry legislation and covering every possible issue surrounding intellectual property.  On an even more practical level, and so perhaps most critically, we have to make sure the manual is absolutely perfect and the fee correct: we have noticed many failed franchises never set a correct fee and so have quickly become a drain rather than an asset.

So, we are interested in your thoughts about social franchising as a means of social replication.  Is it of interest to you?  Does it hit your rant list?  Would you do it?  Would you recommend it?  Would you want to be a LEYF franchisee? Would you come to a franchise tea party – does it have a Mad Hatter appeal?

As always, I love to hear your thoughts… so feel free to rant, blog, comment or simply share.