Opinion

Let's say it out loud – Big Issue can offer a brighter future

At this time of crisis Big Issue is here to help in many different ways, says John Bird

Change Please

The success of Change Please is an example of how Big Issue can change lives

Almost 20 years ago I met some Americans who wanted to start a bottled water company where the profits went to water projects in Africa and Asia. The one thing that struck me was that they talked too much. They did not necessarily let the clarity of the idea swim to the surface, drowning it in explanation. In fact, when they were presenting to me outside a cafe in Marylebone, they wanted to give a two-hour presentation. I told them I truly wanted 10 minutes.  

And after 10 minutes they had convinced me. Big Issue Invest got on with putting the money together to launch Belu water, which after an early rocky beginning has now blossomed. And it inspired a whole slew of other water companies, who also put their monies made into water projects so that the poorest did not have to suffer a lack of fresh aqua. 

 I was particularly drawn to water because of my own inability to get my hands on the stuff until I was a
seven-year-old in an orphanage. I loved water but there was none of it fresh in our slums. And people did not drink water, except in Ireland when we went there one summer.   

So the water project flourished, and now you can get Belu water all over the place, in every meeting room in Parliament even. Indian restaurants now sell it, and as an avid consumer of Indian food I am pleased to encounter a little bit of evidence that Big Issue is a true increaser of our general wellbeing.  

Some years ago FCB Inferno, a strangely titled but inspiring communications business, approached Big Issue to help start a coffee cart company. The idea was that baristas would be trained up to help
people who’d had a rough and challenging beginning. We found a roaster from South London and we brokered a kind of trio, with Big Issue providing much of the public awareness.  

Out of this grew what is now called Change Please, a sizeable charity that is growing in importance. Recently the company bought the then-closed AMT Coffee company that has coffee shops in almost every main station. All of this has grown out of the magic that Big Issue grows around it as it makes opportunities for others to intervene in need and poverty.   

Big Issue Invest, as I like to remind people, has invested in and encouraged hundreds of social businesses around the UK. And will be hopefully doing this around the world. All of this grew out of Gordon Roddick discovering a street paper being sold on the streets of Manhattan in New York and getting me to start a London version over 30 years ago. Then spreading the Big Issue concept all over the world (excepting the cold poles).  

But what Big Issue is really crap at is blowing its own trumpet. Which may sound as if that’s very nice and modest of Big Issue. But it’s because the doing of things is hard enough; the telling of your doing gets put on the back burner.  

We are going to have to change all this inept modesty. Because we must explain to the world – at a time when there is so much confusion, pain and worry – that we can do our best and pull through, and even prosper. We must throw the answers that we have found to poverty in the public’s face. To encourage the public to believe that there are answers and that if we corral the answers together, we have a better chance of helping those most affected by the present calamitous rise in inflation. And the new impoverishment of many people who formerly were probably only just about managing.  

The world is full of opinions and arguments and fears, yet we must be “as objective as arseholes”, as my dear father would say. And we, Big Issue, must become a guide to action. A place where we can help people in need to get out of that need or manage as best they can.  

It is alarming how crisis is talked up from every pulpit of public opinion. And it may well be true, but it does you no good to simply concentrate on what’s going wrong. We must look for solutions. We – Big Issue – have to be that guide to action that is so necessary at a time like the present.  

Belu and Change Please are only two of our successes. There will be, and there have been, more. But you need to know what has grown out of a street paper launched 31 years ago by a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were doing. Now we do, let’s get on with telling the world and waving the flag about what we have done and what needs to be done. Thirty-one years and one month ago we opened the door to a future for more and more people. We have helped relaunch the lives of thousands. Now we have to help an even larger base of people who have been shafted by the economy and the politics that have come out of that crisis.  

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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