Now we have reached over a year of living with COVID-19, it is inspiring to reflect on how much brilliant change we have
seen and have all been a part of. From our work life to how we do our shopping, there has been so much adaptation over the past year.
Maya Robertson, Assistant Manager at Beever and Struthers writes:
In many ways I believe the past year has accelerated us to a life which would have taken years to reach naturally. Our firm and clients hadn’t fully embraced working remotely in March 2020 but as restrictions tightened, we knew we had no choice and now Microsoft Teams calls, and remote working has become second nature.
Quite a stark contract from 1981 where around 31% of British accounting firms had little or no involvement with computers! In this article I will be discussing how change impacts on charities from a fundraising and operational perspective and the impact that COVID-19 has had on the speed of change.
Records of charitable giving are featured in many holy texts and forms of charitable principles and activities can be found throughout ancient and modern history. Modern fundraising was established in the 20th century and has shaped charitable organisations to this day; however, our times are changing, the days of dropping change into a bucket are slipping away with contactless card readers being more suited to our ever-advancing cashless society.
Big Issue North
The Big Issue North was established in 1992 as a response to increasing numbers of homeless people in the UK. It works by offering, homeless, or individuals at risk of homelessness a way to earn an income by buying Big Issue North magazines at a lower price and then selling them on, allowing the individual to keep the profit made.
I recently enjoyed interviewing Bronte Schlitz, Communications Officer at Big Issue North to discuss the changes over time and the impact on their beneficiaries and the great work the charity does.
An important takeaway I took from the discussion was that change is not always for the better, when you have something that is tried and tested, and works for your charity, stay true to your values and stick with it!
Big Issue North was formed nearly 30 years ago, society has changed
significantly since then.
What do you think is the biggest change Big Issue
North have had to make to adapt?
The most significant change for us has been the demographics of our vendors. We conduct regular vendor audits, and the oldest we still have on record is from 1996. That report found that 95% of our vendors were male, 96% were white, and 87% were under 35. When we began, Big Issue North was also sold exclusively by people experiencing homelessness, and 50% had been homeless for at least three years, with 78% becoming homeless before they were 25.
In the intervening years, and particularly over the last decade, however, an increasing number of people have found themselves struggling to make ends meet and face complex barriers to more mainstream forms of employment. We have therefore adapted accordingly – people no longer need to be homeless to sell Big Issue North, and two thirds of our current vendors are not. Our vendors also now come from much more diverse backgrounds – our latest audit in 2019 found that 40% of our vendors are female, just 42% were under 35 (with 20% over 50), and 72% listed their nationality as something other than white British.
As a result, they face very different barriers – where once their key priorities included securing accommodation and recovering from addiction, the biggest barriers today include developing English language skills, securing qualifications and providing for relatives. This means that the support work provided by our frontline staff has changed dramatically.
Big Issue North had to change the way they operate practically overnight
when lockdown restrictions started with the subscription business and
digital editions being part of the way to move forward.
Were there plans of
expanding the subscription service and releasing digital editions already in
the pipeline that had to be fast tracked or were they developed in response to
We already offered three-, six- and twelve-month physical subscription packages, but during lockdown, we launched a weekly direct debit option for the first time. We had also trialed digital editions in the past but ultimately discontinued them. However, we relaunched our Issuu account the first week of lockdown and have offered digital issues and twelve week subscriptions since then.
They’ve been really successful, not only allowing regular supporters to continue to read the magazine and support vendors during lockdown, but also reaching people who perhaps don’t have a local vendor or struggle to buy the magazine ordinarily. For example, because they rarely carry cash. So we hope that these options will enable more people to support our work even post-COVID! We also recently launched a new quarterly subscription magazine, The New Issue, with all proceeds supporting vendors. You can find out more, subscribe or buy individual issues [for delivery] here.
Now restrictions are easing, and vendors are heading back to towns and cities, do you believe being able to see the face of the vendor in person makes an impact on the public’s support? And how important is it for vendors to be able to get back working?
Absolutely – we know from feedback that we receive from customers that the interaction with their local vendor when they buy the magazine is central to their support of our work, and we see this reflected in the significant increase in sales we experience when vendors are at work compared to during lockdowns. In terms of the impact on vendors, this is also hugely important.
Big Issue North vendors are working, not begging, buying magazines from our offices for £1.50 before selling them on for £3 and keeping the profit they make.
Selling the magazine is a legally recognised form of self employment, and for our vendors, many of whom have been through traumatic experiences in the past, from homelessness to domestic abuse to fleeing war, that independence and ability to care for themselves and their loved ones makes an enormous difference to their self-esteem, motivation, and general wellbeing.
On the topic of vendors getting back to work, cashless selling has started to become available for vendors. Were card readers always a plan or is this in response to COVID? What was the original timeline for card readers to be rolled out?
A few of our vendors used card readers prior to the pandemic, and this was something we wanted to develop, but it’s quite an expensive investment. Card readers generally require either a permanent address and photo ID or a smart phone, both of which exclude many of our vendors.
We ultimately chose SumUp, which require an address and ID. This excludes fewer of our vendors and providing photo ID for all vendors without it is much more affordable than providing smart phones, as this would, of course, also involve paying for credit or a contract plan and electricity bills. This worked out at a cost of about £130 per vendor, which prior to the past year would have been a significant risk for us, as the Big Issue North Trust is quite a small charity, totally independent from The Big Issue and The Big Issue Foundation.
In March 2020, however, we launched a hardship fund to support our vendors through the pandemic and received an incredible response [from the public], which allowed us to invest in ID and card readers for many our vendors. We think that this will be a strong investment as our society becomes increasingly cashless, and more and more day to day payments are conducted digitally.
While so much is changing, some things are better staying the same.
Supporting vendors to get back to doing what they love being a great example.
What do you think is a key thing about Big Issue North that has stayed the
same and will continue to?
The most important aspect of what we do is that it provides employment opportunities to marginalised people who are often excluded from more mainstream forms of employment. While being able to sell the magazine (and other products) online, as well as in Sainsbury’s, Co-Op, McColl’s and Booths stores across the north, has been an enormous help to us in getting through the past year. Then, our vendors’ work is at the core of our mission, so we would like to urge everybody reading this to find your local vendor and stop to buy an issue, or even just have a chat, the next time you see them out and about.
We really can’t overstate the difference that it will make!