“We're about hand up not a handout”

Beth Thomas, Head of Partnerships & Programmes at The Big Issue on the power of community building and digital inclusion, and why the business places empowerment at the heart of everything it does.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


The strength of a community powered by digital inclusion has been one of the more markedly positive outcomes of the ongoing pandemic. As we have remained physically separated, people have turned to technology, and more specifically to online social platforms to reimagine what connection looks like.

But as we’ve stepped off our streets and into our homes, we’ve left a gaping absence in street vendors’ lives, particularly those whose living comes from selling copies of the Big Issue to the pavement pounders. With the general public now generally found indoors, for the first time in its 30-year history, the Big Issue had to stop selling magazines to its vendors.

This was a serious problem for the company, as Beth Thomas, Head of Partnerships and Programmes at the Big Issue revealed, not only because 80% of its income came from street sales of the magazine but also for the impact this had on the vendors themselves. When the country went into lockdown, vendors lost not only their earnings but also their community.

As Thomas explains, “that meant that not only were we preventing the vendors’ ability to earn through selling the magazine [but] it also meant that those vendors were losing their contact and their connections with their community, which is such an important part of being a Big Issue vendor.”

We're about hand up not a handout. We're about empowerment.

Beth Thomas

Pivot, and pivot fast 

It was a situation which demanded action from the brand and Thomas says she is immensely proud, “of how quickly we were able to move as an organisation to pivot the business so that we could continue to earn an income so that we're here for the vendors now and into the future.”

This pivot began with the launch of the Big Issue app which allowed people to download digital copies of the magazine. They then created a subscription offering while also running a public appeal that both provided support for the vendors and acknowledged just how challenging the situation has been for them. All aspects proved so successful that the business was able to not only financially but also emotionally support its vendors throughout every lockdown.

It has been the business’s digital transformation that Thomas explains has been of vital importance. She points out that it was only a few years ago that they launched an augmented reality version of the magazine that allowed people to generate new content from the magazines via QR codes. This was then built on in ‘Pay It Forward’. Backed by Monzo, the campaign worked to create the world’s first re-sellable magazine and integrate vendors into the financial system. Unique QR codes were created and printed onto the front of each magazine to allow each reader who had the magazine passed to them to scan and pay the original vendor.

Digitally empowering vendors 

Thomas is keen to point out that whilst digital transformation has been important for the business, the team are also focused on the digital transformation of the vendors themselves. As she explains, it’s about “giving our vendors the skills and the confidence” to enter into the digital space.

Going cashless was a big part of this, a project which Thomas explains started out with only a handful of vendors and now includes more than 570 people nationwide. To enable vendors to go cashless however was a lengthy process, Thomas explains, from ensuring they had ID to opening bank accounts and buying smartphones. All these steps have had a positive domino effect and have been instrumental in many vendors completely transforming their lives.

“We’re constantly learning, testing and innovating in terms of digital skills and digital transformation,” she adds. The work the business did around cashless has only allowed them to become more informed around what their vendors need, to draw insights and learnings that have helped to inform a new partnership the business has just launched with LinkedIn.

On whatever project we work with, we want to have [a] meaningful impact.

Beth Thomas

Raising Profiles 

This partnership, curated and created by FCB Inferno, puts the vendors right at its heart, to create economic opportunities for those who need them most whilst empowering vendors to be more digitally savvy. ‘Raising Profiles’ kicks off with a pilot scheme designed to give Big Issue vendors online profiles on LinkedIn.

By doing so, the hope is that the campaign offers vendors new ways to connect and become part of a digital community to stand in for the one they’ve lost on the streets. The campaign’s aim is to reframe the way vendors are seen, instead repositioning them as small business owners in their own right.

As Thomas explains: “they’re like independent newsagents selling one magazine.” She continues: “They are small businesses essentially. They’re their own micro entrepreneurs.” This campaign allowed the business to address its two biggest challenges when it came to supporting its vendors during the pandemic: providing them with an alternate community and enabling them to financially support themselves.

The power of partnerships 

“LinkedIn as a professional networking site is the perfect place for a small micro entrepreneur, Big Issue vendor, to talk to their customers, connect with their customers and sell their products to their customers,” explains Thomas as she highlights why this seemingly unexpected partnership was actually a perfectly logical, and really quite powerful one. “It’s just a perfect fit for us really,” she adds. 

Collaboration has been a buzzword on the lips of businesses since time immemorial but often it simply remains talk rather than action. This campaign, says Thomas was an example of the importance of teamwork, of a partnership that offers support at every turn. She explains that members of the LinkedIn team worked alongside vendors and Big Issue frontline staff to provide any assistance they might need. “There's nothing tokenistic,” Thomas explains, about the work being done. It’s all having an impact.

Always looking vendor-first 

The Big Issue was founded on a desire to dismantle poverty by creating opportunities, a mantra that carries forwards into everything the company does today. The Big Issue is led by its mission, Thomas explains, which means that the team is always examining things from a perspective of “vendor-first.”

“We're about hand up not a handout, we're about empowerment,” says Thomas which is why the LinkedIn partnership felt so important to the company. It was about empowering the vendors to build digital skills, to connect with communities and manage their relationships with those communities.

The Big Issue, says Thomas, is about helping people move forwards which is why, she explains, “we created a theory of change around this campaign”. “That's something that we're very clear with our partners,” she adds, that “on whatever project we work with, we want to have [a] meaningful impact.” And this impact is only greater when like-minded partners come together on a project, to build a strategy that will outlive the launch hype and actually work to support and empower individuals when they need it most.

As Thomas explains, the work that the Big Issue does is about “inspiring people and empowering people to see the art of the possible; that there is opportunity for everybody.” As the Big Issue demonstrates, there is power to be had in positively pioneering, in keeping time with the world as it changes around you and offering a hand up to those who need it most.

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Digital Community Inclusion

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