Thought Leadership

Big Issue!

By Colin Walls

I read a lot and I have posted before about my enthusiasm for e-books and Kindle. I read various kinds of books: fiction, biographies and other non-fiction. Whatever I am reading, I hope that I will learn something. That might expand my knowledge of the world in many ways. I could be history, geography, science or just about other people’s way of life.

The book, that I am reading at the moment, is the autobiography of a guy who is a recovering drug addict trying to get his life back on track. He was in rehab and trying to make some money by busking on the streets of London. Then he found an alternative way to make a living …

Anyone who has spent time in the towns and cities of the UK will have encountered people on the roadside calling out “Big Issue!” and trying to sell passers-by a copy of a magazine. I had a vague idea what it was about. “Big Issue” is a weekly magazine, which is sold exclusively by homeless people and gives them a better option than begging. But now I know there is a bit more to it.

The Big Issue Foundation was set up to help people who have hit rock-bottom. People for whom employment is not a possibility and social services or begging seem like the only options. Their philosophy is grounded in the idea “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for life.” Their strap line is “A hand up, not a hand out”, which I think are fine words.

Each person who wants to sell the Big Issue is vetted to ensure that they meet the necessary criteria – primarily their housing status is checked. After some training in how to operate and in the strict standards of the Foundation, they are given 10 magazines and allocated a “pitch” – a regular location from where they can sell. Big Issue sellers are only allowed to sell from their allocated pitch.

Although, every seller is given 10 magazines to start them off, thereafter they have to buy them. The cover price is currently £2.50 [about $3.75] and that is the price that sellers must ask. They purchase them with a 50% discount. They can buy as many or as few as they like. If they get too few, they miss the opportunity to sell more. If they buy too many, they can find themselves with redundant stock when the next issue comes out. The idea is that sellers do not simply make money from selling magazines, they also learn something about how to run a business.

This is a rather simplified view of what the Big Issue Foundation is all about. But I was interested to learn about the way they operate and I am likely to take a much more sympathetic attitude to sellers that I encounter in the future, who occupy a world quite different from my own [and most readers of this blog, I would guess].

My daughter told me a curious story. In the city where she lives, there is a Big Issue seller, who has an odd accent or speech impediment. When she calls out, it sounds like “Big Tissue”. A guy, who seems to live on the street nearby and spends most of his time drunk or stoned, thought this was amusing. He took to sitting on the curb with a large box of Kleenex, chanting “Big Tissue”. The odd person even took one and put a coin in his hat.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at