John Bird

Ashoka Fellow
London, United Kingdom
Fellow Since 2015


This profile was prepared when John Bird was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.
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
The Strategy
The Person

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