Big Issue

Big Issue
Jim Mullan

Dear Laurence,

I’m writing in response to your intro to last weeks bulletin. 


I’m a bit concerned that much of the coverage that our partnership with The Big Issue has received has focussed upon the potential for increased vending through voluntary and community organisations at the expense of the direct support that will be provided for the existing vendor network and the rationale behind broadening the vendor base.  


In the interests of balance, allow me to clarify the situation.


Our partnership with the Big Issue is based upon KibbleWorks providing opportunities for vendors to access employment experience and training in our "travel to work" area.


It is also about KibbleWorks acting as a broker on behalf of Big Issue vendors and agents with other organisations in the employment training field across Scotland to offer similar opportunities.


The partnership creates additional employment training opportunities for the young people who are placed with us in the distribution process whilst, importantly, providing a social, educational and citizenship development opportunity in their interaction with vendors and agents. 


There have been no redundancies in this process and no one has been made unemployed.


These key activities seem to have been completely overshadowed by the focus upon broadening the availability of the magazine to other worthwhile causes and organisations.


The Big Issue circulation in Scotland is falling and large parts of our country have no coverage at all. These areas would, broadly speaking, include the mainland north of Inverness, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Argyll and Bute and the Borders. 


To encourage the development of opportunities in these areas and to allow the Big Issue to play its part in combating poverty in rural and remote areas, it will be necessary to establish partnerships with like minded organisations and establish markets. 


Making the magazine available as a fund raising tool in these areas will offer an incentive to community and voluntary organisations to become involved, or at least "meet us half-way". 


The distribution of the magazine and the establishment of both new agents and vendors is a highly controlled operation, not that you could have concluded this from much of the speculation that has accompanied this announcement.
The system contains enough detailed geographical information to establish where, when and by whom the magazine should or should not be sold. This will allow the Big Issue to ensure that any new organisations acting as subscribers complement, and do not compete with, current operations. 


I think it is also worth pointing out at this stage that the plans for extending the offering will be undertaken on a subscription basis as opposed to a Charity Shop "retail model" which is an invention of others commenting upon this partnership.  


The inference in some of the media coverage that The Big Issue and/or KibbleWorks would act against the interests of the vendors is preposterous, bordering insulting, and undoubtedly a view expressed by individuals with no experience of dealing with either organisation directly.  


The final point I would make is about The Big Issue as a social business.


There are two key transactions in the Big Issue operating model. 


The most important is one is highlighted in your intro and that is between the vendors and the general public.
The value of this transaction both socially and economically cannot be underestimated.


The second draws less attention but is no less valuable. 


This is the £1.25 purchase of each magazine by the vendor or subscriber from the Big Issue. 
This is the contribution that keeps the whole show on the road, meets all the costs and covers all the overhead.
This is the element that ensures that vendors continue to get "a hand up not a hand out" every week of every year.


In the face of falling sales, keeping the £1.25’s coming in is a huge challenge but one that will be very familiar to those within your readership who have to make their social enterprises pay and who don’t have recourse to government or other centrally funded agencies to "pay the bills". 


In difficult economic times for all businesses and particularly for a print media under assault from the ever increasing technologically driven channels for news, comment and information, the requirement to adapt or face the consequences is inescapable.


Many of the most creative minds in print journalism are turning their attention to this challenge and whilst a plethora of strategies and initiatives have been introduced, circulation figures continue to fall. 


The bottom line is that there is no substitute for sales. 


Under these circumstances finding that part of the solution to this challenge has the ability to serve the core mission of the Big Issue whilst supporting fellow organisations aims or sustainability feels to me like the kind of "virtuous circle" that many of us spend our working lives trying to create. 


I would suggest to both you and your readers that the announcement of this partnership should not be mourned as the end of an era or a departure from mission, but celebrated as an new and exciting opportunity for both vendors and communities.     




Jim Mullan