Franchising: not just for coffee chains

I’m often reminded of a cartoon I once saw showing two fundraisers, sitting in a bar, looking depressed. One is bemoaning to the other how unsexy the charity he works for is, while the other looks on unbelievingly.

I run the charity Changing Tunes, and it really is about as unsexy as you can get. We work with prisoners and ex-prisoners; even the ones who have committed the most horrific crimes, using music teaching, rehearsing, recording, performance, improvisation and composition to aid their rehabilitation. This unsexiness makes fundraising interesting, to say the least. So when we decided to expand nationally from our regional base, we took a long hard look at how to do that in a sustainable way.

The development plan for any respectable charity chief executive is to create a national charity. How else will they get their MBE (which of course they only want because it will help with fundraising)? But is creating a national structure really the best method for growth in an environment where funding is going to be insanely tight for the foreseeable future?

When, after 15 years of doing our work at a local level in Bristol, we decided to expand Changing Tunes, we estimated that the cost of a national organisation would actually be 40 per cent – or £850,000 per annum – more expensive than creating six regionally defined satellite charities. So over the last three years we have prepared and launched our first franchise in London and the South East last year, and will launch our second in the West Midlands and North West this summer.

We define a satellite charity as an independent charity, reporting to its own individual trustees, whose area of work is geographically defined and whose activity is based on a contract signed with Changing Tunes. This is where I bring in that dirty word: franchising. Surely this is something those dreadful coffee chains do, not us charities with noble causes? Actually, I love the concept of social franchising because it comfortably holds values that are at the core of so much charitable work:

Local Changing Tunes’ work with prisoners and ex-prisoners is rooted in the local community. Franchises, by their very nature, are local. If the franchise contract is a good one, it will allow the franchisee to develop their work in response to local opportunities and threats, which enables ownership and an entrepreneurial culture.

Small When an organisation grows to over 40 staff, unavoidable cultural change sets in. You cannot avoid it. The six regional franchises we propose have a maximum of 20 staff each. This enables a flatter structure which should be more responsive and efficient.

Sustainable As I’ve already said our work will never be popular, but if you pitch your fundraising message around locality it becomes a more attractive proposition. The regional franchises will also spread the knowledge, and the risk. If one franchise goes under, it’s not the end of the brand, or the expertise. The other franchises simply grow a new organisation.

We’ve been required by our funders – which include the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts to share the learning we gained with the wider voluntary sector. On 18 March at an event in London we will go through what we did – warts and all – and we are also launching a web portal where key documents, such as the contract, start-up and operations manual will be made available for free.

Following this successful franchise roll-out, we now want to inspire other charities and social enterprises, training and enabling them to replicate what we have already proven to work, and giving them the control and ownership to manage and develop their work on a bigger scale in the long-term.

Tim Snowdon is chief executive of Changing Tunes