In a Mozambique schoolroom, adolescent heads cluster in a tight circle. The kids are poring over balance sheets. Every now and again, one of them looks up and asks their teacher to check a sales projection. Tomorrow, they will be elbow-deep in beans, working together to make fried snacks to sell in a local shop. Both activities are part of a shared business venture. They’ll use the profits from this exercise in entrepreneurship to throw an unforgettable end-of-year party. But the full impact of what they are learning will last a lifetime. They’re gaining practical lessons in planning and cooperation, in social rights and responsibilities, and in the principles of managing money.

It’s all part of a program called Aflatoun. Behind the program lies a broad vision: If children are self-confident, socially responsible, and financially competent, they will be in a position both to improve their own lives and to improve the world around them. To unleash that potential, Aflatoun offers an education program that combines social participation and financial planning. Children are able to work in groups and to plan their own activities. They get to handle money and to perform work that benefits their community.

Aflatoun means “a fireball from outer space,” a phrase that not only appeals to the adventurous spirit of children, but also captures the transformative potential of the program. Years ago, children in the program picked that name, taking their inspiration from a character in a Bollywood movie. Over time, the program came to incorporate a series of stories, games, and other instructional materials that feature a cartoon character named Aflatoun—a bright yellow fireball that zooms in from outer space to teach children how to get along and how to get ahead.

The growth pattern of Aflatoun also suggests a fireball that streams across the sky. In 2005, the organization that oversees the Aflatoun program—an entity that goes by the same name—operated in only one country, India. That year, about 162,000 children in fewer than 1,100 schools and informal training centers experienced the Aflatoun program. Today, nine years later, more than 2 million children at more than 21,000 sites in 103 countries are gaining access to Aflatoun’s brand of social and financial education.

Aflatoun’s journey illustrates the power of social franchising. At its simplest, the social franchise model resembles its commercial franchise counterpart: A central organization develops an operating model and then recruits franchisees to adopt that model. The franchisees, because they receive support from the franchisor, are able to set up shop quickly and with reduced risk. In a social franchise, though, the goal is not to create profits for shareholders, but rather to create benefits to society. Like a commercial franchise, a social franchise has the potential to replicate its model efficiently and rapidly. In addition, having a network of semi-independent, highly motivated franchisees can enable robust innovation.

Dan Berelowitz, chief executive of the International Centre for Social Franchising, cites Aflatoun as an example that other organizations might seek to follow. “It’s pretty rare to find an organization that so effectively balances the need to scale up to solve a pressing social problem with the need to have systems and processes in place that ensure quality,” says Berelowitz. “Too often, we see one of two things. Either there is too much central control, which stifles growth and innovation, or the reverse happens: Organizations just give the brand away, and it replicates quickly, but quality takes a serious nosedive.”

In Aflatoun’s case, a growing body of studies seems to affirm that the program continues to deliver on its promise. A 2011 study conducted by researchers from Pennsylvania State University at Berks, for instance, evaluated an implementation of the program at a youth center in Nyeri, Kenya. They asked children a series of questions before and after participation in Aflatoun, and found a notable change both in the children’s financial behavior and in their personal attitudes. Before going through the program, only 6 percent of participants said that they currently had savings; afterward, that number grew to 24 percent. The same study showed increases in how many participating children said they had “many friends” at school and how many said they thought that other people listen to their opinion.

The success of the program has led Aflatoun to launch a plan to reach 10 million children in 120 countries by 2015. And it’s counting on its franchise system to enable that kind of growth. “Right from the start, the franchising model emerged as the best one for Aflatoun,” says Jeroo Billimoria, who founded the organization and who was its executive director until 2012. (She continues to serve as vice chair of the Aflatoun board.) “It would let us create economies of scale without diluting the bottom-up principle of giving our partners freedom, independence, and the ability to adapt the program to their local circumstances.”

“Children Are All Children”

In 1991, Billimoria was an instructor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Some of her students took up internship placements in shelters for street children. When Billimoria visited the shelters, she was struck by the children’s attitude. “These kids were really good at making money,” she recalls. “They were already mini-entrepreneurs, earning cash through rag-picking. But because they didn’t believe they had any kind of a future, they spent their income as soon as they got it. We called it ‘Bindaas bravado.’ ‘Bindaas’ means ‘fearless, reckless’ in Hindi. Despite their earning potential, they were going to end up trapped in poverty, like their parents.”

Children in an Aflatoun program learn to work together through games and activities. (Photo courtesy of Aflatoun) 

Another part of Billimoria’s work, meanwhile, involved a program in social education aimed at children in Mumbai schools. “Those kids responded really well to the social aspects of the teaching, but they had no cash,” she explains. “So even if they wanted to do something as simple as go for a group picnic, they couldn’t. There was nothing sustainable in place for them to husband their money and build savings.”

Billimoria looked for a way to help both groups—and, equally important, a way to bring different groups of kids together. “Children are all children,” she says. “Rich or poor, they all have shared experiences. If they actually get to know each other, they can swap stories, learn from each other, and understand more about the society they all live in.” Under the aegis of the Tata Institute, Billimoria set up Meljol (the word means “coming together” in Hindi), a program that featured the core elements of what’s now called Aflatoun. It used art, play, stories, and games to teach children about saving and spending money, among other topics.

At first, Billimoria and her colleagues focused on encouraging urban schools in Mumbai to adopt the Meljol program, and they met with a fair degree of success. “We were pushing at an open door. They liked the concept and the results,” Billimoria says. Later, she discovered that the need for a program like Meljol was even greater in the Indian countryside. “The rural teachers recognized how useful the combination of financial and social education was. It was something real for the children, something that gave them a sense of their own rights in society,” Billimoria explains. “And it was fun, so classes were better attended. For the first time, children were learning to save in a systematic and organized way. They were also learning to change the legacy of poverty.”

“Go Wide or Go Deep”

In 1999, Meljol severed its formal connection to the Tata Institute and became a registered NGO. Over the next several years, the organization grew steadily within Mumbai and the surrounding region, and its signature offering—an education program that promotes the social rights and financial capabilities of all types of children—solidified into the essential form that it has today.

Signs that the program made a real difference in the lives of children began to emerge during this period. In a retrospective longitudinal study conducted by Meljol, 78 percent of children who had taken part in the program in 2000 reported that they were still in the habit of saving money six years later. The study also indicated that among program participants, the rates of graduation from primary and secondary school were higher than the average graduation rates throughout the same part of India.

Billimoria, in the meantime, had created another organization designed to help children. Founded in 1996 as Childline India, that organization provides a 24-hour emergency telephone service to children in need. As with Meljol, it grew out of Billimoria’s concern for the street children of Mumbai but expanded to serve young people of many different backgrounds. Through her work on Childline India, she met a man from the Netherlands who later became her husband. In 2003, she relocated to Amsterdam, where she focused initially on launching Child Helpline International, a global network of emergency phone services.

Then she turned her attention to the future of Meljol and of the program called Aflatoun. She had formed a secretariat, a small group of colleagues who helped her manage the organization. They now faced a crucial decision: Should the organization go deep, by extending the Aflatoun program further in India, or go wide, by extending the program into other countries? They brought in a management consultancy to help them study that question. “The consultants pointed out—quite reasonably—that according to the laws of market economics, we should expand market share at home,” Billimoria recalls. “We would have a better return on investment in a domestic environment where we had our contacts, an established reputation, and a model of funding.”

Reasonable or not, that strategy for growth failed to win over Billimoria. “I was more interested in what I call ‘social impact economics,’ which they naturally had never heard of—because social impact economics are about a completely different kind of return on investment,” she explains. “‘Go wide or go deep’ seemed like an artificial choice. At Aflatoun, we didn’t see why we couldn’t do both. But although we knew the program worked in India, we had no idea if it would work in other countries. What we needed was a proof of concept.”

In 2005, the secretariat formed a new entity whose stated goal was to “facilitate and accelerate the transmission” of the Aflatoun program from one region of India to the rest of the world. Billimoria and her team called this group Child Savings International; their aim at first was to create a global organization with an identity that was distinguishable from its “fireball”-branded program. In time, though, they recognized that having two names led to confusion. So today the organization is known publicly as Aflatoun. (Meljol still exists and thrives independently in India as an Aflatoun partner.)

As a first step, members of the secretariat conducted market research to see whether demand existed at a global level for a program such as Aflatoun. They looked for other programs that had a similar focus on helping children save money. Ultimately, they found that there were few if any efforts to bring rights-based financial education to children and adolescents. In short, there was a clear product niche to fill. Next, in order to establish what Billimoria called “a proof of concept,” the secretariat launched a pilot initiative to test Aflatoun in as many countries as possible.

Piloting the program meant recruiting a series of partner organizations, and the secretariat was clear about its criteria for partnership. The most important criterion was alignment around common goals: Partners had to share with Aflatoun a commitment to empowering children socially and financially at an early age. Crucially, partners could not expect Aflatoun to provide either funding or the reassurance of top-down control. Not only were the resources of the secretariat extremely limited, but a core element of the emerging Aflatoun ethos was the idea that implementing organizations should take full ownership of the program. Centralized funding and centralized control were both anathema to Billimoria and her team. “Letting go and allowing someone else to sit in the driver’s seat is vital to success,” she says. “What we’re attempting to do is embed a logic of exchange; trust and reciprocity are built into it.”

“Bottom-Up Was the Way to Go”

During 2005 and 2006, Billimoria and her team worked to secure agreements with organizations that would take part in the Aflatoun pilot. The response from potential partners was mixed: Many groups, for instance, had no interest in the program if they wouldn’t get paid to implement it. But eventually 11 partners came on board. Among them were governments as well as NGOs, and they represented a wide range of countries, including Argentina, the Philippines, Serbia, and Zimbabwe. A few large entities, such as PLAN International and the Egyptian government, joined the pilot largely because of their direct knowledge of Billimoria and her work. But most of the partners were smaller and more local in their focus, and it was their appetite for innovation that led them to sign up for the pilot.

Aflatoun received 300,000 euros in grant funding (about $450,000) to operate the pilot. Of that sum, 215,000 euros (about $320,000) went to support partner entities. For the pilot, Aflatoun developed a manual that explained the core principles of the program and provided advice on how to adapt the Aflatoun curriculum to fit local circumstances. That document became the foundation for all of the technical assistance that the Amsterdam-based secretariat would provide to its far-flung partners.

The pilot period lasted for roughly two years. In 2007, Aflatoun began gathering extensive feedback from its partners, and it undertook a broad evaluation of the pilot. That process uncovered a few persistent problems. Some partner organizations found it easy to cherry-pick program content: Too often, they emphasized the social elements of the curriculum—the parts that deal with child rights, personal empowerment, and the like—rather than the financial elements. Teachers varied widely in how well and how eagerly they delivered the program to students. In some countries, such as the Philippines, partners found that they had to pay teachers a premium to offer the program. That, of course, was an unsustainable way to scale up the Aflatoun model.

Yet the results overall were encouraging. Most teachers were enthusiastic about delivering the program, and children enjoyed participating in it. Aside from a few exceptions, partner organizations were able to implement the program at a low per-child cost. And at a proof-of-concept level, significantly, the Aflatoun team had shown that the program was highly adaptable—that it allowed for a high degree of decentralization. “This is about sustainability,” says Billimoria. “Meljol and Aflatoun had shown us that bottom-up was the way to go. With this model, no central voice dominates. Large and small NGOs have the same voice because they’re doing the same thing with the same level of responsibility for achievement. Keep the independence and you keep the spirit.”

“Ethos of Partnership”

By the end of 2007, Aflatoun had begun to shift from a pilot phase to a phase of longer-term strategic planning for global growth. Taking into account the findings of the pilot evaluation, Billimoria and her team looked for an organizational model that would enable them to replicate the Aflatoun program efficiently while also maintaining a consistent level of quality. The franchising model swiftly emerged as the strongest, most feasible option. In 2008, the organization held an International Stakeholder Meeting at which it launched a new strategy based on a social franchise structure.

Adopting that structure made sense in part because Aflatoun had already developed several of its defining features. It had a product or service prototype, in the form of the Aflatoun education program. It had a manual that outlined uniform activities and procedures. And it had a full-fledged brand. There were two important features of the franchise model that Aflatoun either lacked or needed to make more robust: a consistent method for training franchisees, and a system for evaluating program quality.

Aflatoun founder Jeroo Billimoria displays a papier-mâché replica of the Aflatoun character. (Photo courtesy of Aflatoun) 

The social franchise model that Aflatoun adopted differs from commercial franchising in one crucial respect. “Whereas traditional franchises offer people the opportunity to replicate an income-generating business, a local education program represents a cost, with no attendant revenue,” Billimoria explains. In fact, Aflatoun makes it hard for organizations to generate revenue by offering the Aflatoun program. “We discourage charging the children or their families, both because they’re likely to be unwilling to pay and, more important, for rights-based reasons. Aflatoun is providing relevant, quality education, and we believe every child has a right to that,” says Alodia Santos, head of programs. Nor does Aflatoun follow the common NGO implementation approach of paying organizations to deliver a program. Instead, it charges each organization a nominal annual fee of 50 euros (about $75) in exchange for educational materials and technical support.

How, then, does Aflatoun go about building its franchise operation? “We solved this problem by blending the model of franchising with our long-held ethos of partnership,” Billimoria says. That ethos is manifest in the terms that she and her colleagues use. The term “franchisee,” after all, suggests an entity that is subject to a high degree of control by an entity known as a “franchisor.” But according to Billimoria, “a shared belief in the program changed the relationship between Aflatoun and other organizations” by transforming the latter “from ‘franchisees’ into ‘partners.’” She adds, “It wasn’t just Aflatoun that owned the program; it was every single partner.”

Today, Aflatoun has about 150 franchise partners worldwide. Among them are BRAC, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, and the YMCA. These organizations generate funding to deliver the program in various ways. Some draw on internal budget resources; others rely on a mixture of grants and local fundraising efforts. Aflatoun, meanwhile, has an annual budget of 2.35 million euros (about $3.5 million) and garners most of its funding from private foundations.

“A Living Network”

Because so much responsibility has devolved to partners who are also “owners,” the governance arrangements of Aflatoun are necessarily different from those of a top-down organization. In 2008 and 2009, Aflatoun put in place an array of practices that enable partners to help shape the work of the secretariat in Amsterdam and vice versa.

Partners are able to engage in consultations and task forces that help set policy for the franchise system as a whole. Every year, the secretariat initiates a process that allows partners to evaluate the performance of the central organization. In addition, the secretariat promotes knowledge sharing with partners—and among partners—through regional and international meetings, and through other communication tools. “Aflatoun is a living network, designed to ensure that we are a learning organization,” Santos says. “With partners working in so many different countries and contexts, we want them to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. And a big part of the secretariat’s role is to help them do so quickly.”

Even at the level of program content, the structure of Aflatoun is far from rigid. The flexibility of the franchise approach allows partners to adapt the Aflatoun curriculum to suit their situation. The only non-variable rule involves the need to include both financial themes and social themes in lessons and activities. All the same, the Aflatoun brand implies a certain standard of teaching; those who fund or partner with the program must have confidence in its quality.

Until 2009, Aflatoun had no formal approach to training—no means of ensuring the consistency or quality of program delivery at a local level. Previously, the organization operated on a centralized hub-and-spoke model, which allowed the secretariat to make changes to its core program and to implement them quickly throughout its network. But the rapid expansion of the franchise network put increasing pressure on that model. So Aflatoun leaders confronted another important decision: Should they hire more people to staff the centralized training “hub,” or should they tap into their partners’ resources to extend that function on a regional basis? In keeping with Aflatoun’s emerging “ethos of partnership,” they opted for the latter course. “We decided to train our partners’ very best trainers at Aflatoun’s expense. In return, they would train people in other partner organizations in their region,” Billimoria explains. “It was one of the best decisions we ever made. It breathed new life into the program, giving us the ability to rapidly expand Aflatoun’s recruitment of new organizations.”

Developing a cadre of Regional Master Trainers, as Aflatoun calls them, transformed the organization’s training capacity. The secretariat launched the new training system in 2009, and within a year Aflatoun went from relying on seven staff members based in Amsterdam to deploying 120 training experts who operated in every region where Aflatoun had partners. Regional Master Trainers are paid staff members of partner organizations; in exchange for the training that they receive from Aflatoun, they offer their services to the network as a whole for 10 days each year.

So successful was the decision to decentralize training operations that it led Aflatoun to decentralize other functions—quality assurance, for example. It’s a standard organizational practice for each new partner to receive a site visit within a year of launching its program. Before, staff members based with the secretariat in Amsterdam handled such visits in all cases. Today, Regional Master Trainers and other experienced people from partner organizations take responsibility for conducting nearly half of these quality assurance exercises.

Also during this period, Aflatoun developed a series of eight instruction manuals for use by its growing roster of partners. Collectively called the Aflakit, this set of documents covers all aspects of program delivery—from governance and fundraising to training and child participation. The cornerstone of the series is the partnership manual, which provides a six-step guide to starting an Aflatoun program from scratch. These manuals build on the one that Aflatoun created for its pilot, but they also incorporate a wealth of information and advice that partner organizations have gathered from their on-the-ground implementation efforts. The content of the manuals continues to evolve, and it serves as a testament to the organization’s efforts to share ownership of the network with its partners.

Graeme Thompson, a regional program coordinator for Childfund Americas, a group that joined the network soon after the pilot phase, emphasizes Aflatoun’s commitment to partner inclusion and notes the “regular, reliable spaces” for interaction that Aflatoun provides. “There’s a regional network, global meetings, regional meetings,” he says. “Aflatoun is very open to being influenced—to hearing from the field about our implementation experiences and suggestions for improvement.”

“Time Is Usually Against Them”

Building a social franchise brings with it certain persistent challenges. It’s not possible in every case to strike exactly the right balance between partner autonomy and centralized direction. In part, that’s because partners vary widely in how much autonomy they desire and in how much autonomy they can benefit from. Thompson notes, for example, that the comprehensiveness of the Aflakit manuals might lead some partner groups to develop an unrealistic sense of what they can achieve. “The manuals are brilliantly simple,” he says. “But I do wonder if the manual’s ease of use gives some local staff the illusion that they can ‘cure all’ and do absolutely everything that’s in the manual. I think they’re not always clear on how to adapt the program to achieve specific local objectives.”

A girl in a Pakistani school guides her classmates through an Aflatoun lesson plan. (Photo courtesy of Aflatoun) 

A similar issue arose, according to Thompson, when Aflatoun launched its Aflateen program in 2011. That program, as its name implies, aims to help older kids cultivate financial and civic skills, and one of its main features is the use of young people as program facilitators. Although Thompson praises the design of the program overall, he suggests that Aflatoun should do more to provide on-the-ground support. “Local youth will not understand as well as adults some of the issues at stake in some of the activities,” he says. “The weight of responsibility put on their shoulders can be too high.” Here again, the work of drawing a line between delegation and supervision presents an ongoing challenge.

Another challenge faced by Aflatoun concerns the degree to which the secretariat enables—or fails to enable—communication to, from, and among partner organizations. In responses to formal surveys, partners generally agree that Aflatoun respects their voices as part of the organization’s decision-making process. But when partners were asked in a 2012 survey whether their feedback actually influenced secretariat decisions, nearly half of respondents (48 percent) indicated either that they didn’t think so or that they weren’t sure about it. Across the network, moreover, partners have expressed concern that there is too little scope for “sideways,” or peer-to-peer, collaboration. Their participation in the network always tends to be mediated thorough the secretariat.

Partners, as it happens, have not taken the initiative to create such lateral relationships on their own. And, according to Berelowitz, that dynamic is fairly common in rapidly expanding social franchises. “Franchisees genuinely want to help each other, but time is usually against them—so supporting others loses traction against tackling more urgent issues in their own organization,” he explains. “The challenge for social franchises is to formalize different ways to communicate with each other, through formal mentoring programs and by scheduling regular meet-ups.”

To address that issue, the Aflatoun secretariat has moved to sponsor regular face-to-face events where partners from various regions can engage in knowledge sharing. “We realized that we had to look more pluralistically at the types of relationships we have with partners,” says Santos. Challenges of this kind, she notes, add to the complexity of managing a global social franchise: “It may take longer than in a purely top-down organization, but acting collectively is the only way we can keep an alignment between our ethos and that of our partners.”

“The Myth of Command and Control”

In 2012, Billimoria stepped down as executive director of Aflatoun, in part so that she could focus on a new venture: Child and Youth Finance International (CYFI), a global advocacy organization that promotes what it calls “economic citizenship” among children and young people. Again and again, she and her colleagues have encountered institutional barriers in this area. Bank laws and banking practices, for example, often make it difficult for children to set up savings accounts. CYFI aims to overcome those barriers through policy work and by building a movement, and so far, the organization reports, the movement has reached more than 18 million children in 100 countries. Like Aflatoun, CYFI embodies a rights-based model that goes beyond the traditional aid-based model. For both organizations, the goal is to make children active participants in their own lives and in the future of their countries.

The goal of empowering children—socially, financially, and otherwise—lies at the heart of the Aflatoun program. And that ideal of empowerment finds an echo in the way that Aflatoun has structured itself as a global network: Local partners are active agents in the development and implementation of the Aflatoun curriculum. For an organization that aims primarily to reach children in developing countries, that’s an essential principle. “This was not the usual model, in which the North tells the South what to do,” Billimoria says.

Building and maintaining a social franchise is no simple task, Billimoria notes: “The myth of command and control from the center dies hard. Not every potential partner will understand our model. Reinforcing that independence from the center is a constant challenge—something we must do over and over, whenever a new partner comes on board.” Aflatoun and its partners, moreover, struggle at times to achieve an optimal balance between local flexibility and cross-network consistency. “This happens,” Billimoria acknowledges. “But it happens with centrally controlled organizations, too.” All the same, the story of Aflatoun shows the critical role that social franchising can play in scaling up a proven solution to an urgent social problem. “This model gave us a very strong network, aligned in our ethos and led by our partners.”

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