I write this as Executive Chairman of the Trussell Trust. Last week the charity announced it had doubled the number of Trussell Trust foodbanks in the space of a year. Launching two a week, the Trussell Trust has grown the foodbank network in the UK from 100 to 201 foodbanks in just twelve months. Foodbanks provide emergency food to local people in crisis, and were originally a response to a local resident in Salisbury revealing her plight that she had had to send her three children to bed without being able to provide food for them. In 2011/12, the number of beneficiaries had reached 128,697, more than twice the number of people in crisis helped in the previous year. Growth of this scale is an extraordinary phenomenon that has caught the attention of all major television channels and a wide range of commentators in the printed media from the Sunday People, to the Guardian and the Financial Times. To cap it all Radio One’s Chris Moyles joked about my name with the nation.
At the Shaftesbury Partnership we are deeply engaged with the question of what makes a good venture scale. There’s a lot to learn from the Trussell Trust’s foodbank story. I’ve had the privilege of being part of that story since 2004 and closely involved so I can offer an insider view.
Twelve years ago the foodbank was just an experiment, first run as a test over three months to check the feasibility of an idea. At that stage it was a local community-based project to tackle the problem of people in the area like that first client, who were in crisis and could not put food on the table. Over the next three years, as part of a longer term pilot, the charity repeatedly refined the project’s processes and procedures and evaluated the foodbank project with external help before launching foodbank as a social franchise in 2004. As trustees we had set a target of 50 foodbanks in five years when we launched the social franchise. We made it by September 2009, with a few months to spare.
By April 2011 the foodbank network was able to celebrate its hundredth foodbank and by April 2012 the number of foodbanks the Trussell Trust had launched in the UK reached 201. 101 new foodbank projects in a year is an extraordinary phenomenon.
This growth is founded on the decision made in 2004 to tackle the replication and scaling challenge by modelling very deliberately on commercial franchising practice in every area of the approach except the financials. This was a conscious decision to reject a range of other approaches to replication in the community and voluntary sector that were more established. The charity’s experience has generated substantial evidence that effective business approaches to scaling and replication can transfer well and will serve a social purpose the better for being closely adhered to rather than contextually adapted.
At the Shaftesbury Partnership we highlight central scaling principles as:
- the simplicity and effectiveness of the big idea
- the market structure or context
- and most importantly, the quality of execution
Patrick Shine recently reflected on the experience of scaling in the Challenge Network and the way these principles applied in that context. The foodbank network and the Challenge Network are very different but the principles hold up.
A simple, effective big idea
Local people deposit food in a “bank” where other local people can draw on it when they are in crisis. Frontline care professionals act as the eyes and ears identifying people in crisis and referring them with a voucher to the foodbank. There’s a time-limited supply. The food is nutritionally balanced and varied enough to enable people to feed themselves and their families for at least three days without loss of dignity. Volunteers in the local community are central to each foodbank’s day to day operation. Foodbanks listen to people’s stories and sign post them to other agencies that can help with underlying problems. Everybody who encounters foodbank gets what it is about. It works. Consequently local donors, care professionals and beneficiaries all use it.
The market structure and context
Frontline care professionals are key to connecting people in crisis with the service, so designing a service that meets their requirements has been critical. Scale requires mass public participation so the foodbank uses schools, churches and supermarket collections to engage the public in donating food. These provide platforms that accommodate, indeed welcome, repeated cycles of engagement. Then, finally, the enduring recession and a renewed public interest in the plight of those going through enforced life transitions has helped drive both demand for foodbanks to be launched; and demand at foodbanks once they are up and running.
The Trussell Trust has been fixated about executing well. The foodbank is a community programme that requires its franchisees to demonstrate close adherence to the operating system. There is collective, strong commitment to one way of doing things: the foodbank network examines calls to enrich or extend “the offer” with great care. The starting principle is no diffusion, no frills, no additions. What we ask a community group to do today is no more difficult to deliver than what we asked early on. In fact it’s easier because lessons learnt have been incorporated into the regularly updated operating manual. And excellent execution is as vital for the franchisor, the Trussell Trust. A powerful process for managing initial engagement with the local community group that expresses a wish to establish a foodbank; high quality training and support; genuine, value-adding central services; and supportive but rigorous audit are all essential to success.
Growth at this pace throws up a host of challenges and risks. The Trussell Trust aims to have launched 450 foodbanks by April 2015 so slowing down is not an option. Instead, the team challenge themselves with a question which keeps feet on the ground, invites realism and exposes the importance of sustainability: “what if this is just the beginning?”
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