The Big Issue’s John Bird explains why he is an unofficial social worker

The Big Issue founder and editor-in-chief, John Bird, tells Mark Drinkwater that he feels he is an unofficial social worker. So what can the profession learn from his experiences?

NAME: John Bird.
JOB: Editor-in-chief and founder of he Big Issue magazine.
QUALIFICATIONS: None – only life.
LAST JOB: Printer.
FIRST JOB: Office boy.

Helping the homeless to help themselves was John Bird’s mission when he launched The Big Issue magazine 15 years ago.

No stranger to poverty and hardship, the title’s editor-in-chief was brought up in the Notting Hill slums of west London  after the second world war. Homeless at five and in care by seven, he began a cycle of failing in most areas of his life.

Despite his upbringing, he is sympathetic to the plight of social workers: “I’m an unofficial social worker and feel very connected with social work as I witness social exclusion first hand,” he says. “Social workers get a lot of bad press, but they just don’t have the resources. A friend of mine worked as a social worker, and in the mid-1980s her workload suddenly doubled. The system has been in meltdown since; permanently in a state of crisis management. It’s aimed at coping, not at providing a cure.”

By his late twenties, Bird had served several prison sentences. Then he became a printer and ran a successful small business.
The Big Issue was Bird’s response to addressing homelessness in London, and saw him draw on his experience of both business and printing.

Through the magazine, he established a network of entrepreneurial homeless vendors who buy the magazine at a wholesale
rate, sell it to the public and keep the profit for themselves.

In his practical self-help manual, How to Change Your Life in 7 Steps, published earlier this year, he outlines seven strategies he uses to achieve success. Speaking simply and directly to the reader, he draws on examples from everyday life and displays an understanding of how it is to feel overwhelmed by the effort involved before achieving a goal.

His advice is that people should take a series of small steps towards making positive changes in their lives. He says: “My method involves seven principles – including not setting your targets too high. Never aim for 100 per cent – aim for 3 per cent.”

Bird has used this method in times of difficulty: “I’ve been depressed because I screwed up with my previous wife and with my kids. So I set little targets. One day I might say to myself – all I need do today is brush my teeth. Then I might go straight back to bed. A week later I would set slightly harder targets and go to the library to read the newspaper. I would praise myself for these small achievements. It’s what helped me move on from that situation.”

It’s the same approach the magazine takes with their vendors. Bird says: “At first all we insist on is that they turn up. That’s their 3 per cent. The Big Issue gives the other 97 per cent by providing the training and the paper. Then we might start expecting a bit more from our vendors – getting them to smarten their appearance, for example.

The 3 per cent then becomes 6 per cent. Eventually we’re each putting in 50 per cent with them being fully productive members
of society paying bills and taxes.”

It has been 15 years since he started production of the Big Issue with the help of Gordon Roddick and the Body Shop. In that time he has created several regional editions of the magazine in the UK and launched a number of papers overseas. It is this entrepreneurial spirit that ensures The Big Issue creates opportunities for social change in places from Totnes to Tokyo.

Bird explains that fear of change or a fear of failure holds many people back from achieving their goals, and from changing
their lives. “After all,” he says, “a successful entrepreneur is only someone who sometimes gets it right.”

● Take small steps before leaping.
● Take risks but don’t be reckless.
● Stop dreaming. Dreams can make things worse. Deal in reality.

● Stick with people who can’t stand a fool.
● Aim high, and if it doesn’t work, aim higher.
● Always listen to experts.

This article appeared in the magazine on the 26th October, under the headline A bird’s eye view


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