One hundred million. That's the number of young people across the Middle East and North Africa who will need employment opportunities in the coming decades. When my organization, Education For Employment, began operations in 2006 as a demand-driven answer to Arab youth unemployment, I felt that creating a social franchise model was the best way to meaningfully address an issue of this scale. So I created a network that allows affiliates to access the perspective, credibility, and resources necessary to provide world-class training for youth, place graduates in jobs, and provide on-going professional and volunteer opportunities for alumni.
At the time it was an unorthodox method and I faced strong pushback from potential donors and partners in the US and around the world. They were concerned about relinquishing control to affiliates and what that would do to both quality and efficacy.
Experience has proved that the model works. And in some cases, the turmoil surrounding the Arab Spring has shown that a social franchise is the only effective model in times of great uncertainty.
Running a franchise — social or not — is complex, but there is much to gain for those that surmount the challenges:
- Social franchises craft local solutions to global problems. Although unemployment is a global challenge, there is no one-size-fits all solution. What works in Morocco could fall flat in Yemen. The franchise model empowers local board and staff members to take appropriate action. With deep roots and broad networks in their communities, these leaders mobilize diverse resources and optimize EFE's operations in specific labor, economic, political, and social contexts. The local expertise of EFE affiliates also helps us take advantage of less apparent opportunities and sidestep potential disasters.
- Local legitimacy leads to resiliency. In regions in turmoil, this can be the difference between expanding operations and closing shop. With ethical, networked leaders involved, a franchise model is the best way to keep an organization running in an unstable area where uncertainty or lack of trust can make it challenging for foreign organizations to operate and deploy funds. In Yemen, EFE's local board and staff give the organization credibility, and when the U.S. government withdrew funding from all American NGO's, Yemen-EFE was granted an exemption because it is an entirely local entity.
- Organizations are able to setup and scale rapidly. At EFE, support hubs in the U.S. and Europe provide the local affiliates with access to cutting-edge financial and evaluation systems, links to high-level corporate partners and media outlets, credibility in appealing to major international employers and donors, and expertise in areas such as budgeting and marketing. Sharing curriculum, knowledge and partners among affiliates further speeds setup and scaling. EFE-Egypt, an early affiliate, took almost four years to become operational. EFE-Tunisia, the newest in our network, was up and running with board, staff, funding, and curriculum in under a year.
- Uniform quality and a familiar brand attract valuable partners. We partner with those who see the EFE Network as an effective HR solution. For example, Palestinian-owned Consolidated Contractors Corporation, the largest construction company in the Middle East, employed EFE graduates first in Palestine, and is now sourcing employees from EFE-Tunisia. We also benefit from the support of corporations who see the EFE Network as a regional platform to expand their CSR involvement and increase their return on investment. Intel, for instance, partners with us to deliver entrepreneurship curriculum and start-up support to youth in Palestine, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.
Establishing EFE as a franchise has been an interesting journey, and one that has given me valuable insights into developing a successful social franchise. To those doing the same I would offer the following advice:
- Get local "skin in the game." Local funding helps to defray startup and operating costs, cements commitment to the mission, and gives local supporters a meaningful stake in its success.
- Find ethical, networked leaders at the local level. Guidance and input from trusted local contacts can provide crucial information on the reputation of potential board and staff members, who will build the reputation of the organization.
- Choose a viable context. Identify a country of operation that is stable enough for a sustained intervention and whose government does not view your work as threatening. EFE chose countries where, despite the turmoil or challenges, there were sufficient government and social structures to enable us to operate.
- Build a strong, local board. The first step to setting up is always to identify 6-12 powerful, dedicated and insightful women and men who are prepared to build the organization from the ground up. These individuals are crucial to securing local financial support, building credibility, and greasing the wheels in negotiations with businesses and bureaucracies.
Over the years, EFE has used these guiding principles to make many critical decisions on where to expand — and where not to. Despite the complexities these principles sometimes present, our experience is that when they are in place, the social franchise model can be a powerful way to make progress in times of instability.
Insights from HBR and the Bridgespan Group