It’s one of the best-known names in social enterprise in Britain – but early 2020 has seen The Big Issue face its biggest challenge yet. Pioneers Post follows the team through a tense ten days to find out how it made it through the turbulence, and what the uncertain future holds.
On 20 March 2020, The Big Issue lost 80% of its revenue overnight. The 2,000 vendors selling the magazine disappeared from Britain’s streets. The 70,000 copies normally printed each week did not appear. The social enterprise, a familiar feature of Britain’s streets for almost 30 years – inspiring over 120 similar magazines in 35 countries along the way – was at risk of total collapse within a few days because of Covid-19.
But by the following week, after many frantic phone calls and long days (and nights), it managed to come back from the brink and set out on a new path.
FRIDAY 20 MARCH
“I was on my way back from the vet when I got a call saying that we need to stop the press,” says Paul McNamee, editor of The Big Issue magazine. “I drove into the nearest carpark and I just stopped and thought, ‘Holy shit, what are we going to do now?’”
The fateful phone call came from John Bird, the passionately outspoken founder of The Big Issue and member of the house of Lords. He’d just been phoned himself, by a contact in central government: the UK was going into lockdown the following week, Bird was told, to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. That afternoon, the team sent an unprecedented message to every one of their vendors – many of them homeless and all of them vulnerable – asking them to stop selling the magazine on the street.
In that moment, some kind of switch went on in my brain
“And then in that moment, some kind of switch went on in my brain,” McNamee continues. “We were either going to collapse, or we were going to do something. In that second I just thought, ‘Fuck it, we're going to make this work’.”
SATURDAY 21 MARCH
Over the weekend, Big Issue frontline staff set about compiling lists of all vendors, hitting the phones to speak to as many as possible to reassure them that they would be supported throughout the crisis. Many of these people have underlying health issues, and the team were seriously worried that rough sleepers would be exposed to the potentially fatal virus – it wasn’t until the following week that the government promised to house all rough sleepers in temporary accommodation.
“The most important thing is not the life and death of The Big Issue,” says Bird, who founded the magazine in 1991, and has remained closely involved in its work since then. “The most important thing is to help the vendors and also [protect] the health of the public.”
And for Bird – who grew up among poverty and has previously been a rough sleeper himself – that period of huge uncertainty also brought a glimmer of hope. “This was the first time in recent history where the government took responsibility for people they had ignored for over 50 years. I was exalted, because I have campaigned for over 30 years that nobody should have to suffer the human rights abuse of sleeping rough.”
For the foreseeable future we will have to be a handout. That's a seismic shift
But with vendors soon to be off the street and forbidden from selling the magazine – a similar situation for vendors in almost all of the 35 countries where street papers exist – their enterprising route out of poverty had suddenly vanished. “We’ve always functioned on the ethos of ‘a hand up not a handout’, but for the foreseeable future we will have to be a handout. That's a seismic shift,” says McNamee.
FROM HAND UP TO HAND OUT
In normal times, Big Issue vendors are each allocated an area from which they can sell their magazines. They buy issues for £1.25, and sell them for £3, keeping the difference.
The Big Issue is not only a publication – it also includes the Foundation charity arm, which connects vendors to broader support; Big Issue Invest, which invests in other social enterprises and charities, and the BII Trust, which channels donations from the public, foundations and corporates.
On 4 April The Big Issue Foundation created an appeal fund together with The Times newspaper to quickly raise cash to support vendors. The appeal has raised £400,000 as of mid June.
In the meantime, frontline teams were working tirelessly to help vendors with financial needs – from supermarket vouchers to electricity and gas top-ups – plus things like help to access government support.
SUNDAY 22 MARCH
As for so many businesses and social ventures relying on passing footfall to make a sale, confining people to their homes for an unknown number of weeks presented a huge challenge.
We had to accept the fact that we don't have an income if we don't have a street
“We had to accept the fact that we don't have an income if we don't have a street,” says Bird.
With the livelihoods of vendors as well as the future of the magazine under threat, it became clear that The Big Issue needed a way to keep some money coming in – now and for the foreseeable future. To survive, it needed to find £60,000 within two months. “If we can’t get onto the street to get the magazine out, we need to use the magazine to get income,” says McNamee – income that would support the 2,000 people who depended on The Big Issue for at least part of their livelihoods.
“It was hard. It was very emotional. You want to do everything you can to keep it going, for a whole set of complex reasons.”
McNamee spoke to Chris Falchi-Stead, director of sales and operations, then briefed his publishing team on plans for a subscription drive. The government was warning that lockdown could last up to three months, so they decided to ask readers to buy three-month block subscriptions, at £32.50 (six-month and annual options have since been added).
Signing up subscribers wasn’t new to The Big Issue: pre-Covid, it already had some readers who received the magazine in the post each week. But this was a very small proportion of overall sales. “We had a very small subscriber base, I mean minuscule,” says McNamee. “It was around the 500 mark, predominantly social purpose organisations and corporates.” To hit the £60,000 goal they would need to win over 15,000-20,000 new subscribers. No mean feat.
In under seven weeks, more than 8,000 people took out a Big Issue subscription. “On the first day people got it, they started tweeting the pictures of the front cover. I found that hugely emotional,” says McNamee. “I just broke down and cried when I saw it.”
Pam is nearly 63 and has been on and off the street for more than 20 years. During lockdown, she’s been living with her partner Paul, another Big Issue vendor, in a single basement room in Brighton.
“When it first started, it had such a big impact on us. We just sat there and thought, ‘what are we going to do now?’”
“We have literally been in one room for seven whole weeks. All we've got is a double bed, which we have to sit on, eat on, sleep on.”
After being told that they couldn’t sell the magazine and would be confined to their room, Pam watched as Paul slowly “went totally into himself”.
“I could see him going downhill, his depression, it was so sad. I was trying to keep everything together. And I didn't realise that I was kind of not okay myself.”
It gives you your pride back, and it gives you a purpose
More than 20 years ago, Pam was brutally attacked in York, and found herself back on the same streets after leaving hospital. “It took me a long time to deal with the trauma and help myself become strong again,” she says. She met Paul soon after, and they have stayed side-by-side ever since. “He’s my guardian angel,” she says. They moved to Brighton together, and have been selling The Big Issue for around two years.
“It gives you your pride back, and it gives you a purpose,” she says. “Not only is it the fact that we are doing something to earn a little bit of money, but you’ve got to make sure you have money there to repurchase the magazine to sell. You've got to be strict with yourself.”
Since lockdown began, the pair have been supported by The Big Issue with money for food, a laptop to stave off isolation – and with time. “Some days I’m so fed up and just need someone to talk to,” says Pam. “By the end of the phone call we've been in stitches. It's just totally changed the whole day,” she says.
It’s not so much making the money, it’s the conversation
But what she misses most are her customers. “When you get to know your customers, after a while, they become like friends. You become quite close.” For Pam, the coronavirus won’t have changed this. She’s been involved in discussing the different ways that The Big Issue is hoping to get vendors back to selling safely – and seems hopeful.
“They can still stand and have a conversation with us. That's the most important thing. It’s not so much making the money, it’s the conversation.”
And although developing these personal relationships with customers is integral for Pam, she’s aware of the wider implications of getting back to work.
“The stigma that homeless people have got is quite unreal. Over the period of selling The Big Issue, we’ve opened people’s eyes to what is actually going on. And it's nice. Because now they don’t look down and judge people as much as they used to.”
MONDAY 23 MARCH
At 8pm on Monday 23 March, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced the expected lockdown. For at least three weeks, other than to exercise once a day and for essential shopping, people were to stay at home. All but essential businesses would be required to close their doors.
The Big Issue’s publishing director, Russell Blackman, had already begun conversations with leading supermarkets and retailers, hoping they would start to sell physical copies of the magazine in their stores. The magazine had never been sold in shops before; the social enterprise’s model was based firmly on engaging individual vendors as the sales agents. For now, though, the magazine desperately needed other options.
Sainsbury’s was the first to agree to stock the magazine, trialing it in a few stores from 2 April. This quickly led to a domino effect, as deals with Asda, McColls, The Co-op and other leading retail outlets came in thick and fast.
But getting the magazine into these stores wasn’t enough – people had to pick it up and buy it. And that meant another change for the organisation.
“Covers need to work slightly differently in retail. We had to think about how we adapt our cover and our editorial,” explains McNamee.
What makes a magazine sell? Celebrities. Luckily, The Big Issue’s network is far ranging, and the team began contacting different personalities to help support them. Since lockdown, they’ve had household names on the cover including pioneering documentary-maker David Attenborough and world-famous fitness trainer Joe Wicks. These big names – plus many others – have both helped put magazines into shopping trolleys, while also promoting the cause to their millions of followers.
MONDAY 30 MARCH
But attracting buyers is not just about celebrity covers. A powerful selling point of The Big Issue is the vendors themselves: for customers, being able to see who you are supporting and having a conversation with them has always played a big role in driving sales. Without this, both the format and content of the magazine also had to be rethought.
That initial, brilliant, heartfelt reaction will fade
Print subscriptions were on the rise, but maximising sales meant creating a digital option too.
Working with pro bono support from developer Pugpig, The Big Issue app was launched on 30 March – in just ten days.
“People will buy it to support vendors. But in truth, that initial, brilliant, heartfelt reaction will fade, and so you need make sure that there's enough content that [people] want to keep coming back – you have to make them want to pay for it,” explains McNamee.
New features have been introduced for the app, such as the ‘The Big Community’, which highlights positive, inspiring stories about people and businesses coming together to support homeless people.
The Big Issue is aiming for 7,500-10,000 app users – as of mid-June, it had hit 5,000.
What does the future hold for this almost 30-year-old social enterprise?
“We're thinking about how different the organisation will look, because it certainly won't look the way it did before,” says McNamee.
Vendors want to be in control of their own destiny
For vendors, The Big Issue will continue with handouts, even if it contradicts a decades-old philosophy, for as long as needed, he says. Meanwhile, vendors have been calling every day to find out when they can start selling again. McNamee is unsurprised: “They want to earn their own money, they want to be in control of their own destiny.”
For the past 18 months, The Big Issue has been trialling cashless payments. Given concerns about handling cash as a means of passing on the virus, the aim is to set up as many vendors as possible for cashless transactions when they return.
They’re also figuring out – together with the vendors themselves – how the magazine can be sold without passing it from hand-to-hand. One option is placing the card-reader and magazine at a distance from the person selling it. “We're preparing a guidebook for vendors for when they return. It will include some tips on the best ways to communicate,” says Falchi-Stead.
And the future of the magazine? “This has helped solidify things with a subscription base, so that’s good,” says McNamee. The digital version of the magazine “has huge potential”, he says, “but will take real application to make it work”. In the meantime, they’re clearly under pressure to continue raising cash, having recently launched ‘The Big Issue Seller’ campaign, to encourage people to ask three friends to sign up, creating a network of engaged readers. Falchi-Stead is “heartened” by the number of people who have never subscribed before, but is aware that the wider economic situation has changed: “Obviously people have a lot less money in their pockets. There's certainly a huge degree of economic uncertainty, but we have to do the best we possibly can. That's all we can do.”
The overriding sense from Big Issue leaders is of a certain trust in the organisation. “I’m really confident that we have the intelligence to come out the other end,” says Bird. “Whether we are as big as we were, whether we are in the same form as we were, is secondary.”
I think outside the box. The box isn't working. So I realised that I had to get into the box and make it work
What is primary is the Big Issue’s end goal – to eradicate homelessness and rough sleeping. For Bird, it’s not just about supporting those in need, but about tackling the systemic issues – and that starts with government policy.
“I went into the House of Lords because I wanted to destroy poverty. I think outside the box. The box isn't working. So I realised that I had to get into the box and make it work,” says Bird. He is among the loudest voices in parliament advocating for permanent housing for the homeless post-pandemic.
“You can return to the old days, and let people rot on our streets – but this will be at an enormous cost. If you lift people out [by temporarily housing them], raise their expectations and then dash them, you then create even more damage,” Bird explains. He won’t be going down without a fight. “There’s going to have to be a revolution right at the frontline.”
Read more about The Big Issue here.
This story is part of a new style of multi-media, or ‘immersive’, features we are producing on Pioneers Post.
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