Community Franchising - combining localism with quality

Patrick Shine

In a recent blog, Chris Mould noted one of the most powerful features of community franchising is its capacity to grow quickly when there is grass roots demand for the model. As an example, he highlighted how foodbanks have been adopted quickly by a wide range of church groups in response to increasing awareness of deep poverty.

Here I want to consider the value of the franchising model in a different context – where changes to government policy stimulate widespread interest in doing something that hitherto has not been possible for local or small community organisations, and hence where extra support is needed. 

One of the big ideas of Big Society was the notion of communities owning and running services traditionally provided by local authorities or other parts of the state. This included youth services, maintenance of public spaces and of course the archetypal library. However the initiative quickly became bogged down as the debate shifted to spending cuts, and was hampered by the limited capacity of councils who themselves were experiencing major demands on, or cuts in, their capacity. Moreover, the councils appeared to hold all the cards in any negotiations – for example they often wouldn’t disclose commercially sensitive performance information, severely limiting the ability of a community group to carry out proper due diligence.

Although it is early days, new legislation appears to be creating a more level playing field. Specifically, by giving communities certain rights (to challenge, to provide, to own), the power is no longer held completely by the statutory sector. It seems possible, therefore, that many more community groups may come forwards, especially if there is a way of overcoming the financial barriers through the development and expansion of the social investment market as Big Society Capital comes on-stream.

Despite this excitement, a serious barrier to effective engagement remains: the questions of skills and capacity of the community groups to take on a new activity. Although some smaller projects may well fall within the existing competencies of the individuals within a community, in many cases they will not; and it is entirely feasible than communities all over the country will be struggling to find answers to the same questions.                                                                            

Though this can be addressed by the establishment of information networks – for example the New Schools Network, linked to the free schools policy – community franchising goes much further. It offers local people a proven delivery model, clear instructions on how to get started, and in some cases a national brand. This not only de-risks the venture for the local community group, it also de-risks the proposition for the council, and any financial stakeholders.  We are reminded of the evidence from commercial franchising – over 5 years, 90% of start-ups supported by a franchise system succeed; in the same timeframe, approximately 70% of independent start-ups fail.

This analysis throws up three important questions:

  • Which community activities or businesses are most suitable for a community franchise model?

  • Where will we find the community leaders that will take on the franchises? Will it be in existing voluntary sector structures such as Women’s Institute, or will it be new entrants?

  • What will be the response to councils generally to the new powers given to communities?

Creating the right national frameworks for localism to flourish is one of the challenges of 2012, and community franchising has a significant part to play.

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