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John Bird

by Amy Duff

As The Big Issue turns 20, founder John Bird says his work has only just begun. Here he talks about the business of fighting poverty, helping the homeless into jobs, and why he's backing David Cameron's mission

He swears like a sailor, is not afraid to say what he thinks and wanders off in mid-conversation to converse with strangers. Would you choose this man to act as a champion for a mission that your reputation hangs on? Well, David Cameron has. In John Bird, co-founder of The Big Issue, the prime minister has an intermediary who will cut through the rhetoric to explain to the masses why the Big Society might work. And while Conservative Party press officers might tremble in their boots at the thought of having such a maverick as their mouthpiece, Cameron was wise to approach Bird on this.

The Big Issue is a household name that celebrates its 20th birthday this year. Its central philosophy has always been to give a hand-up rather than a handout by offering homeless and vulnerably housed people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income. As Allison Ogden-Newton, chief executive of Social Enterprise London, points out The Big Issue is established in most people's minds as the definitive model for social enterprise, both here and overseas. "If you want to explain to people what social enterprise is, your shortlist always includes The Big Issue," she says.

Bird is as passionate about the idea of shifting power away from
central government as Cameron is. "I'm behind the Big Society because I invented it," he explains. "I've been saying for years, 'let's have a bigger society and a smaller government'. The Big Issue was a business response to a social crisis. You can't leave it to the local authorities—they're appalling."

He's not doing this because he's a Tory. "I'm not going to change my line just because he's taken the Big Society label. I've got to work with any government whatever colour they are because it's my job to make politicians work better on poverty. When Tony Blair called me forth to join his social exclusion unit, I went willingly."

Like the concept or not, Bird feels Cameron should at least be given time and space to explain why he's taking leadership on it. To this end he's asked the prime minister to be the Big Issue magazine's guest editor. If he takes Bird up on the offer he will join the ranks of high-profile cover stars including actors Michael Sheen and Angelina Jolie as well as Prince William and guest editor Martha Lane Fox. "All I want is them to respect the concept and explain to us how it works and why it's not a cover for cuts," he says.

Bird would much rather take the proactive approach. He can't stand gripers and snipers, not least because they impede progress. "What we're trying to do in The Big Issue is offer leadership. But it's difficult to offer leadership when you've got to make your way through a protester or a protester-in-waiting. There are lots of people making a lot of noise and slagging everybody off."

I wonder what kind of leader Bird is? He's observed in the past that bad leaders can ruin organisations while great leaders inspire those around them to feel and do better. But it's easy to imagine him bamboozling employees into doing what he wants, perhaps reluctant to relinquish control, making last-minute decisions on a whim. He admits to loving his own ideas more than other people's. He doesn't always want to listen to others and holds no sway with consensual leadership, which in his view is just "bullshit" by another name. "Consensual leadership is only consensual if everybody takes the lead. But what normally happens is that you get the Mussolini effect—the guy with the loudest mouth leads."

But Bird is no dictator. Just because he doesn't support a flat structure doesn't mean he isn't open to empowering others. In fact, he says the best things he's done have resulted in empowering himself and others to do better. At every level of an organisation, somebody should be taking leadership, he says. "I want you to represent yourself. You all need to be as bright, decisive and well-informed as each other." As for directors, they should be prepared to inspire their people from the front. Without a good captain to steer the ship you're... well, you can guess the expletive.

Nigel Kershaw, chair of The Big Issue Group and chief executive of Big Issue Invest, says Bird's bald approach has only been positive for the business. They've worked together since 1995 when Big Issue Invest was established to scale-up more social enterprises in the UK. "I've thoroughly enjoyed all the energy. And what's been incredible is that we've driven a business through mission. What the creation of The Big Issue has done is demonstrate that a socially driven business can be a good business," says Kershaw.

Up to October 2010, Big Issue Invest had put nearly £7m into 27
social enterprises and Kershaw is now working on what he calls a social merchant bank—"by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs". Bird says he'd like Invest to be 10 times the size it is now and is hopeful that some of the Big Society Bank money will come their way. As for the parent company, Bird says The Big Issue is a £35m business "of which the homeless get around £30m. So we're fulfilling our objective, which was to give a legitimate income to the homeless."

But there's a conundrum. Increasingly, the public chooses to give a Big Issue vendor money without taking the magazine-Bird reckons one out of six pay for it. So sales for the business are down, while the amount of money that's going directly into the vendor's pocket "is probably bigger than ever". Bird describes it as a perversion, because "the public are turning them back into beggars". Not that he's casting blame. As the magazine's founder, he has licence to admit that if it doesn't work for people anymore, it's possibly because the business has spent too much time looking at the bigger picture—homelessness—and not enough on what the "the lifeblood of the magazine" wants. "We're trying to make it so damn popular that you'd be dumb not to take it," he says.

As the business marks its 20th year, change is occupying Bird's mind. He recognises that it's not enough to rely on the public's love and generosity and says he's introducing changes to the core business. This includes an app for the Big Issue, which Bird says 50 to 100 homeless people will be trained to produce this summer. He likes the fact that he's using education to give homeless people a nine-to-five job and is taken with the idea of turning street sellers into "good, middle-class reporters". But while entrepreneurialism and innovation are central to The Big Issue philosophy, he says they're not so good for the homeless. "If you're not stable then it's quite difficult to have an unstable job. I don't know anybody else who can take as much uncertainty as me but you can't go hoping that everybody else can do that. I don't want everybody to be like me."

One of the great things about The Big Issue has always been its
innovative approach towards fighting poverty, says Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School. At a time when she feels the government is stripping innovation right out of social enterprises, because it sees them as "basically little better than sub-contractors to deliver services", supporting social entrepreneurs who challenge the system is as important as ever. "The Big Issue turned the model on its head," she says.

"Instead of soup kitchens and shelter for the homeless it said, 'we're going to have them take a bit of responsibility'. Instead of a charity model, it was a self-help model."

The beautiful thing about The Big Issue is the simplicity of its concept, agrees Mel Young, who set up The Big Issue Scotland and now runs the Homeless World Cup. People like the idea of letting individuals determine their lives through a simple mechanism—buying a magazine and selling it. "It's like a wholesaler/retailer operation in a business sense and people get that. Within that you're able to provide all sorts of different support," he says.

Having run The Big Issue Scotland so successfully—he says it
influenced Scottish government legislation on homelessness—Young has adopted Bird's idea of running a business for "huge social outcome" with the Homeless World Cup. "I'm in favour of the central philosophy around The Big Issue that John had. Within that you can be creative, inventive, and you're not bound by government contracts, which can be inhibiting in our [social enterprise] sector."

He has great respect for Bird: "I think maybe calling him a social entrepreneur in some ways does him a disservice because he has the DNA of a natural entrepreneur. He's inventive, innovative, always has ideas and applies them. At the same time he's thinking all the time about the social return."

It's important that you can use a business model to deliver significant social change, echoes Ogden-Newton, who feels that the Big Society has created a market opportunity, even though the government has minimised the immediate means. "If you've got the bloody-minded, ornery nature that John's got and you're looking to change society today, there is tremendous opportunity."

But Bird says nothing of any note will be achieved unless there's commercial gain to be made somewhere. Whatever you do, he says, do not rely on the "well-intended" or the "moralising middle-classes" to fix poverty and homelessness. "Moralising is one way that you stop people acting," he says. He didn't start The Big Issue for "jack shit", but because he wanted the money to pay his wife's mortgage, quips Bird. He set it up as a commercial enterprise and not a charity because "you have a more sustainable business if you don't have to go begging for money every year. You're trying to convince the homeless to work—why would you then run an organisation that begs?"

It's much better to appeal to the profit motive, he adds, and he has no qualms about an organisation making money out of social crisis if it helps to solve the problem. "A lot of businesses like Serco and A4e want to make money out of poverty. But if they can get rid of poverty, I don't give a toss. The reason I have a comfortable job and a comfortable life is because I made a go of it. If I can do it, then they [the homeless] should do it, or be given the chance." His story certainly inspires. The "London-Irish slum geezer" who slept rough and served time made something of his life. But while there remains an "us and them" divide, Bird won't rest. He says his work's only just begun: "I only know now what I need to do next."

Over the next six months Bird says we can expect to see "lots of changes" at The Big Issue, both within the magazine and in how the organisation relates to the public. It's about time it took the lead, says Bird. "The Big Issue is a wonderful invention but I've done every conceivable wrong to it. I've kicked it all over the place; led it up the garden path; wasted money... But that's why it's stronger than ever. We've created this quite dynamic business that will take homeless people to the highest level."

The government might not have appointed him to drive social change, but he's going to give it his best shot anyway.