Friday, June 27, 2014

the dirty secret about social franchising...

Most people tend to agree that social enterprise is generally a good thing because of all the positive impacts it can/does create, and that it would be great if that impact could be multiplied. Traditionally, the way social enterprise has done this is through ‘organic growth’ (slowly getting bigger, employing more people, selling more stuff, etc itself). But in more recent years, there’s been a growing interest in the concept of ‘social franchising’ as a way to grow impact more quickly.

It’s worth demystifying ‘social franchising’ at this point: it’s not the same as Costa, Subway, or McDonalds, but rather a more flexible way to replicate a model of social enterprise through either informal licensing agreements about sharing a brand to more formal ownership and shareholding agreements in each other. These guides from Social Enterprise UK (which I contributed to!) are good starting points:
But there’s a problem in the land of social franchising that few people seem willing to acknowledge or talk about: broken models. In the private sector, an enterprise model is replicated only when it’s had a few years of successful (profitable) trading to assure it and others that it’s sound. But in social enterprise land, there’s a push from the powers that be, sector bodies, government ministers, investors, etc to see more happen now... and that can create a problem.

As part of my support to enterprises, I’ve been involved insocial franchising in various ways, including researching several social franchises offers that groups were considering taking on. And you know what? Many didn’t work – looking at their finances, speaking with other groups who’d taken on franchises, etc showed that what was being offered wasn’t a ‘dead duck’ as such, but was being talked up a lot more than it was safe to...

Just as in other parts of the economy, enterprises fail. Market conditions change, people come and go, and legislation and copycats mean we can lose what was once our competitive edge.
It’s only recently that ‘failure’ in social enterprise is starting to be talked about more openly, but so far it’s only in relation to individual, stand-alone ventures. There’s a dirty secret at the heart of social franchising that not all of them actually work as business models, and that’s not something we seem to want to talk about, often to our (and our communities’) cost...

Friday, June 6, 2014

can we really trust people who tell us they do good things?

Having recently published my annual social impact report (still the only freelance consultant on the planet to do so...) I was challenged by none other than Liam Black, one of the godfathers of social enterprise, as to why it wasn't independently audited.
And rather than get upset and start to doubt the veracity of my findings, the robustness of the methodology, (all of which I've always been very open about), it gave me pause to wonder why, after 9 years of my reporting on my social impact that no-one has ever asked me who they've been verified by before.
After a morning of tweeting each other about this, I've come to the following position given that:
1) the vast majority of financial accounts of all types of enterprise (private, social, and charitable) aren't audited, and yet we accept them willingly enough;
2) the tax office and regulatory bodies accept our returns without question or asking for them to have been independently verified and audited;
so why then, should there be a different standard applied to our social impact reports (which are subject to far less regulatory rebuke if we're found to have 'cheated' on them)?
Audits take time and energy that might be better spent elsewhere (if we can even afford them in the first place!); and I've never know any commissioner to ever not accept a social impact report on the basis that they've not been independently audited.
So - should social accounts be audited before we can have any trust in them?
No - because we take far more important and risky things on trust all the time; with regards to social accounts, as long as they're transparent and open, then surely we risk losing our trust in ourselves and erode the value of that same trust that underpins everything we do and achieve if we can't accept them on the basis of our own judgement and common sense?