Visionary. Self-confident. Utterly committed to their cause. It’s easy to see why social entrepreneurs are beloved by politicians and journalists alike. I’m enthused by them myself. Only last month I was bowled over by Locality, a membership organization of more than 700 community-run social enterprises. Since starting two years ago, it’s become adept at working with its informal network of community activists, and social entrepreneurs to spread ideas and knowledge across its network rapidly.

From snapping up “heart-of-the-community” pubs (Brits prefer to overindulge in groups!) to persuading councils to use recent changes in legislation to take back derelict buildings for community use, Locality is riding the wave of community ownership with aplomb. It creates downloadable guides and tools that local activists can use to kick-start campaigns to bring neglected buildings back into the community. A couple of hours with the team, and a world of possibilities opens up. Its members fund projects through a range of means, including council grants, sales of properties to housing associations, and funds from charitable trusts and foundations. Inevitably, many of its achievements rely on the hard work and goodwill of volunteers.

But, frankly, most people are not like these idealistic, single-minded individuals. I know from my day-to-day work that, if given the choice, most people would prefer to faithfully reproduce a familiar idea with a track record of efficacy. In the commercial sector, this is the McDonald’s model—franchising. In our sector, I call it “social franchising.”

A couple of years ago, I spent time with McDonald’s senior management to see what lessons we could transfer to the social sector (see this paper for the outcome). Since then, I often peer through the window of a McDonald’s to see if I can work out if it’s centrally owned or if it is, in fact, a franchise. Its “special sauce” of getting the format right every time makes it completely impossible to tell. That’s because originality is not part of a McDonald’s franchise—quite the reverse. McDonald’s sells its franchises to individual business people, secure in the knowledge that they will replicate the existing model rather than try and change it to fit their own ideas.

That’s why, for me, McDonald’s offers the perfect analogy to explain the difference between social entrepreneurs and social franchisees. Social entrepreneurs have to come up with the “big idea” that works; social franchisees just have to reproduce it. If we recognized the social change potential of these franchisees-in-waiting, the implications for change would be enormous.

Here’s the spectrum:


On the left lies all the “freedom” to invent, adapt lessons to different contexts, and pool different experiences. This is where social entrepreneurs like members of Locality excel. They create a toolkit, make it available to their members, and let them do the rest. A perfect example of this freedom in action is Locality’s Neighbourhood Plans Roadmap Guide. It offers worksheets and best-practice guidance that community groups can adapt to their own goals. It’s no surprise that there is a large section devoted to the process of deciding to produce a plan—the advance thinking and analysis may be very different for each context.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the McDonald’s model, where those responsible for implementation get much more specific tools, processes, and procedures. Others will have tried and tested these tools in similar circumstances; they are there because they have a proven history of working. Originality is not only unnecessary, but also undesirable. This model is prized because others can duplicate it.

At our nonprofit, International Centre for Social Franchising (ICSF), we help organizations that have a track record in achieving social change replicate their success on a larger scale. Important to this is identifying and unlocking a new class of social implementers. We call this process of upscaling “social franchising” and call the implementers “social franchisees.” Of course, in practice this model isn’t simply a McDonald’s-type “command and control.” Social franchises almost always operate with more freedom, and adaptation to individual geographical, social, and political contexts is inevitable and desirable. Instead of individuals, community-based organizations are often the best social franchisees. And instead of employing for-profit business models, social franchising is often funded by philanthropy or a mix of the two. Interestingly, we are seeing a growing interest in funding this model from larger commercial organizations. Recent partnerships include working with GlaxoSmithKline on healthcare replication in developing countries and research to extend the reach of the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect.

While big, bold social entrepreneurs play a huge role in unlocking social change, there are thousands of potential social franchisees out there who would be willing to do the same if they too had the “special sauce” recipe.