John Bird

Ashoka Fellow
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United Kingdom
Fellow Since 2015
This description of John Bird's work was prepared when John Bird was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .

Introduction

John Bird founded The Big Issue in 1991, to liberate and de-criminalize homeless people by giving them an opportunity to earn a legitimate income, exit poverty and gain freedom over their life choices. Today, The Big Issue is the world’s most circulated street paper, selling editions in a dozen countries from Zambia to Japan and having inspired over 100 other street papers in over 40 countries. The Big Issue has become one of the most iconic social businesses in the UK, having coined the principle of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ and John an inspiration for homelessness charities around the world, including Mel Young and the Homeless World Cup, leading a revolution of self-help.

The New Idea

Having experienced homelessness himself, John knew that the only way to truly help people in poverty, social exclusion and suffering from addiction was to put them in charge of their own redemption. When Gordon Roddick told John about a street paper project he had seen in New York, which was based on donations, John’s vision was to break the cycle of charity and dependency and to introduce a culture of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. He pioneered a model that gives homeless people an opportunity to earn money, empowering them to exit the vicious cycle of drugs, crime and poverty. Big Issue vendors are working, not begging. Whereas new vendors get a batch of free issues to kick-off, they then have to buy copies of the Big Issue Company for £1.25 and can sell them on the streets for £2.50. To allow vendors to sell a quality product, all editorial content of the Big Issue is written by professional journalists. To serve a broad readership, content is informative, entertaining and diverse. Managing their own sales and finances, homeless people become small-scale enterprises: taking risk, taking pride, and taking responsibility for their own lives. Most importantly, they are free to spend the money they earn on whatever they please. The Big Issue does not impose any guidelines, defining what vendors can and cannot buy with their money. It is their liberty to make such choices, just as much as it is the liberty of anyone else who earns money in an ordinary job.

The Big Issue allows people to free themselves from dependency and to take a first step from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. At the same time, the impact on the individual translates to a broader, societal level: Whereas previously the relationship between a homeless person and a bypasser was condemned to be defined by pity and generosity, the Big Issue liberates this relationship to rise to a level of genuine exchange. Having successfully established his model in our urban lives, John reminds us on a daily basis that it is not enough to feel sorry for the homeless, and not enough to give them money, but that we must offer them a way to help themselves. To date, John has directly supported and liberated thousands of homeless people, changed the perceptions of millions of readers, and pioneered a global revolution of self-help.

The Problem

When John launched the Big Issue in the 1990s, a housing crash and a decline in the labor market had triggered a major homelessness crisis. Studies by the Salvation Army and the London Research Centre in the early 1990s suggested that there were more than 50,000 homeless single people in London alone. The proportion of the population living in relative poverty in the UK (earning less than half of the average income) rose from 6% in 1987 to 18% in 1995. Charities providing assistance started to emerge and the Government began to provide some housing and health services. However, homeless people were merely passive recipients of emergency help and there was no focus on prevention or cure.

Today, public services address specific issues, but often remain too siloed and un-coordinated to address the complex needs of homeless people, leaving many falling through the gaps. Social enterprises often prove effective in filling the gaps, but lack sustainable funding. Preventative approaches to systemic issues such as social exclusion, unemployment and mental health in particular require long-term investment, but most interventions focus on short-term outcomes.

Homelessness remains a universal problem with people facing existential poverty, often catalyzed by substance addiction. Desperation for food, shelter and drugs leaves many individuals with no alternative but to beg or steel, leading to an even more complex cycle of poverty, crime and prosecution – a dilemma that is costly for the state with each person living on the streets costing the UK an estimated £30,000 per year. But the causes and effects of homelessness are not merely economic: People ending up on the streets quickly lose confidence and self-esteem – often the most important ingredient for their return to mainstream society. Begging only re-enforces the decline in confidence, leaving homeless people with no ambition or encouragement to take responsibility for their own lives. Too often, services fail to acknowledge the complexity and psychology behind homelessness, offering short-term support, but re-enforcing cycles of dependency. The state, charities and citizens can easily become part of the problem, leaving homeless people trapped between pity and punishment and with no way to help themselves.

The Strategy

John re-defines the relationship between the rich and the poor, based on the principles of trade and self-reliance. Over the years, John’s strategy in addressing homelessness has evolved continuously and today expands to all forms of support from prevention to emergency and cure. Whereas the Big Issue offers homeless people a way to exit homelessness, John later founded the Big Issue Foundation, which offers vendors help in tackling the causes and effects of their homelessness, such as addiction or unemployment. To address the systemic and societal issues causing homelessness in the first place, John also founded Big Issue Invest together with Nigel Kershaw (Chair of the Big Issue Group), a social investment firm focusing on the prevention of poverty and marginalization, which was one of the pioneering social investment organisations in the UK.

When John started The Big Issue in the UK, his strategy was informed by Streetnews, a paper that was launched in New York, but failed to take off. John quickly understood why the model had failed and radically changed its fundamentals: Streetnews’ editorial content was shocking, drawing a hopeless picture of homeless people and their existence. John knew that in order to create change, the paper didn’t need to raise awareness on what was already visible, but rather appeal to the reader’s intellect and curiosity. Hence, John got professional journalists to write The Big Issue, discussing cultural and political issues as well as current affairs. John also recognized that his model needed to radically break with the premise of traditional charity and pioneered the principle of ‘a hand up not a hand out’: Whereas Streetnews was given to vendors for free, Big Issue vendors need to buy the paper off the organisation, forcing them to manage their finance, take risk and make choices. Furthermore, all Big Issue vendors undergo an induction process and sign up to a code of conduct, agreeing not to beg or be drunk while selling the paper.

Putting homeless people in charge of their own sales, The Big Issue became a micro-example in our urban lives of what ‘trade not aid’ stands for in international development. Vendors can earn a monthly income higher than on minimum wage, allowing them to turn away from alternatives such as crime or prostitution. At the same time, whereas de-criminalization is the objective behind the model, there is no expectation for vendors to necessarily and immediately exit homelessness. According to a study of Big Issue vendors in Scotland, there are three groups of sellers: those who define selling the Big Issue as an achievement in itself; those who define selling the Big Issue as a job that allows them to be their own boss and earn a significant income; and those who see selling the Big Issue as a stepping-stone to employment, further education or training. Whatever path vendors chose, they start to build relationships with customers and re-gain skills and confidence, allowing them to slowly re-integrate into mainstream society.

To date, The Big Issue has sold over 200 million copies and employed over 15,000 homeless people in the UK alone. In 2012 a judge ruled that people selling the Big Issue ought to be classified as self-employed, granting them benefits in housing, health- and childcare, which had previously been out of reach for homeless people. Globally, the Big Issue inspired hundreds of replications. To allow for exponential growth of the idea, John had opened the brand to be used by anyone in the world. When Senior Ashoka Fellow Mel Young came across a Big Issue vendor in London, he decided to bring the idea to Scotland, where he founded the Big Issue in 1993.

The Big Issue Company, which produces the paper, is a self-sustaining business generating income through sales and advertisement. At the same time, it is a non-profit organisation, passing on all profits to its charitable arm, the Big Issue Foundation, which John founded in 1995. The foundation builds the second strand of John’s strategy and provides a safety net around its vendors, providing support on issues that led to their housing insecurity, or that have arisen as a result. With the main ambition to fill the gaps of existing services, the foundation offers some direct support, but mainly functions as an agent connecting those in need with the relevant resources. It operates on an open door policy, helps vendors to figure out their own paths towards a better future and then connects them with local services. Vendors can seek help on issues such as housing, rehabilitation, finance or unemployment. They are offered support with challenges such as opening bank accounts, accessing health services, finding accommodation, reconnecting with families, or setting up an enterprise: small but important steps to help homeless people reclaim their citizenship. Consistently building on the principle of the self-reliance, vendors are asked to contribute 20% towards the cost of a service that they choose. In 2014 the average cost of a positive outcome for a Big Issues vendor, such as business and finance training, application for a passport or bank account, medical advice or support to end rough sleeping, was £150. In 2014 alone, the BI Foundation services team worked with over 2200 vendors, achieving over 27,000 service contacts and more than 5800 positive outcomes. The foundation does not impose its services on anyone, but remains a reliable point of contact for any vendor wanting to take a next step.

The third strand of John’s work lies in prevention. In 2001, John founded Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of the Big Issue, which exclusively invests in social ventures focusing on systemic problems such as social exclusion, mental illness and unemployment. John’s ambition, in a time when social finance was not popular yet, was to bring the mainstream into social investment; to encourage more issuance of social bonds by charities, local authorities and corporates; and to help finance effective social enterprises focusing on prevention. To date, BI Invest has invested over £29m in 330 organisations that directly benefitted 1.8m people. It also ran several funds including the London Housing Fund in partnership with the Mayor of London to renovate empty property, turn them into affordable homes whilst creating work opportunities for homeless and long-term unemployment people; the Social Enterprise Investment Fund; and the Threadneedle UK Social Bond Fund, the first fund that offers ordinary people an opportunity to invest for both social and financial return.

John’s overarching strategy to use business for social good influenced the perception of a generation. Ultimately, his ambition is to make our society more just. John strongly believes in the power of education in bringing about social change and passionately believes in the power of empathy. Today, John is still full of new ideas and already working on his next venture - a website which he describes as a social Amazon. Another idea based on the principle of trade, not aid.

The Person

John was born as the third child to a poor Irish family living in one of London’s most deprived areas. John first lived on the streets at the age of five, with his parents being regularly evicted for failing to pay their rent. Age seven, he was sent to a children’s home. His teenage years were characterized by theft, petty crimes and detention. After wrecking a car at 100mph age 15, John found himself in a solitary prison cell. Upon his release he entered a never ending cycle of homelessness and imprisonment. Living on the streets, John experienced abuse, stigmatization, and the loss of self-esteem. He got tangled up in lies and crimes to cover the costs of his drug and alcohol addiction. Back in prison, he spent his time learning how to read and write and developed a passion for poetry. When John met the future co-founder of the Body Shop, Gordon Roddick, in a pub a few years later, it was the passion for poetry that they shared.

John and Gordon didn’t meet again for 20 years. During that time, Gordon and his wife founded the Body Shop and made a fortune. In the meantime, John went to Paris and got involved in the 1968 revolutionary Trotskyist movement. After an initial passionate believe in socialism, John soon realized that Marxism was not achieving concrete change, but putting off change to an envisioned post-revolution moment in the future. John left the socialist movement and trained as a printer. Quickly, John got very good in his craft and ran a successful business. In the late 80s, he got in touch with Gordon and pitched to produce all of Body Shop’s printed material. Gordon did not give him the job, but they had found each other as friends again and spent countless hours in pubs debating social issues. It was Gordon who in 1990 went to New York and saw a homeless man selling papers on the street. On his return, he shared his experience with John and encouraged him to start a street paper in the UK. John, knowing about homelessness as well as writing and printing, knew his calling. He identified the strengths and weaknesses behind the idea and developed a new model. A year later, he edited and launched the first edition of The Big Issue.

Today, John looks back on a lifelong series of social innovation. He is one of the most celebrated social entrepreneurs in the UK, while dividing opinion on social issues as much as opinions on himself. Always provocative and controversial, John doesn’t stop asking fundamental questions about poverty, inequality and the economic paradigm of our time. In 1995, he was awarded Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to homeless people and in 2006 he received the Beacon Fellowship Prize for his originality in raising awareness of homelessness and his support of homeless communities worldwide. Most recently, John has been made a Baron, and being appointed as a cross bencher in The House of Lords and took his seat as Lord Bird on Dec 7th 2015.