26.04.2018 Responsible Business Week: Meet Beth Thomas, Regional Manager, The Big Issue Cymru

Next up in our Responsible Business Week series is Beth Thomas, the Regional Manager for Wales and the South West at The Big Issue. Beth is responsible for forging partnerships with businesses, which helps The Big Issue make its important work giving vendors a “hand up not a hand out” possible.

So if anybody knows about responsible business, it’s Beth.

Pictured above with rock legend Bryan Adams (we didn’t ask if she rolled out her best Mel C karaoke impression for the occasion), Beth explains how a serendipitous path led her to a role she loves and is passionate about:

“After handing my notice in at a retail job I hated, I bought a copy of The Big Issue – and inside there was an advert for a job at The Big Issue. I was so excited, and even though I missed the deadline for applications, I wouldn’t take no for an answer. And eight years later, here I am!

“I love my job. Not many people can say that! I never dread coming to work or get the Sunday evening blues.

“At The Big Issue, I work with a fantastic (and slightly eccentric) group of people who are driven by the purpose and the mission of the organisation.

“I am responsible for a team which manages the distribution of the magazine and supports our vendors across Wales and the South West.

“Every day is different; one day I can be giving evidence at the Welsh Assembly and the next playing football with the vendors!

“Equality of opportunity is what drives me, and I believe in a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, prosper and succeed in whatever it is that they want to achieve.

“We’ve been lucky to have the support of some fantastic businesses, and I believe that if more companies realised the value of giving back, the world would be a better place.”

We’ve worked with Beth for a few years, and we think she’s a real force of nature. Passionate about poverty and injustice, she combines her ability to communicate with vendors, Government ministers and businesses with an astonishing ability to make things happen. 

Here, she shares her insight into her work with businesses across Wales and the South West.

Tell us about how you work with businesses at Big Issue Cymru?

We work with a number of businesses in many ways – through the official corporate partnership packages we offer and also in more informal ways where great ideas spring up! Some of our official partnerships have included magazine subscriptions, sponsored magazine content and custom publishing, invitations to vendors to sell at events, event sponsorship, and sheltered pitches.

Some of the more creative and ad-hoc ways we have worked with businesses include businesses sponsoring the football kit of our vendor football team, training vendors in barista skills, and vendor work experience days.

There are also ways we work with businesses via our investment arm, Big Issue Invest, such as corporate social venturing.

We’re always looking for new ways to get businesses involved in what we do, and we love coming up with creative new partnership ideas.

Why does having the support of businesses matter?

Working with businesses generates so many opportunities for us and our vendors that would not be easy (or even possible in some cases) working alone. For example, last week we held a fantastic event in partnership with the Bevan Foundation. The conference was called ‘Prevention and Inclusion: Lessons for Tackling Poverty’ and our founder Lord Bird was keynote speaker along with Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe.

The event was an impassioned and inspiring conversation, and it was brilliant to see people almost jumping out of their seats in agreement. It got delegates talking to each other about how they could collaborate to help tackle and prevent poverty, and already so many people have been in touch with us about working together in the future.

This could mean changing the lives of so many vendors and those in poverty. None of this could have been possible without the sponsorship of Capital Law and the Pobl Group.

This was the first time we had arranged an event of this scale in Wales, and based on the success of yesterday and the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated, I am really keen to be able to organise more events like this. This is just one example of why having the support of businesses matters so much to us at The Big Issue.

In which other ways can businesses support your work besides purely financial support?

There are lots of ways! The two most important and meaningful for me are sheltered pitches and training opportunities/internships.

Sheltered pitches are pitches that a vendor can sell on for an agreed period of time, which might be a morning, half a day, a whole day, or a whole week, within the grounds or building of a business.

For example, in Simmons & Simmons in London, a vendor sells in the foyer area for one morning a week. All of the staff in the building receive an email to say he is there and are encouraged to pick up their weekly copy.  This gives the vendor the opportunity to work in a warm, dry and safe environment and feel like they are part of a workforce and have a supportive community around them.

We are particularly keen to build this further with women who have had to flee domestic violence, those with disabilities, or young homeless people – basically, the most vulnerable people for whom the streets may not be an appropriate place to sell. If we can find ‘adopted homes’ for them, they don’t have to miss out on the opportunity to earn a legitimate income selling the magazine.

The second way, through training opportunities and internships, is something I am really excited about! We are looking for businesses of all kinds to open their doors and train vendors in the skills they want to learn.

This might be barista skills which we have recently been lucky enough to do with Little Man Coffee in Cardiff, or construction skills. It could even be basic computer skills, or flower arranging.

We are working with our vendors to establish what skills they may have learned in the past (and still have now but don’t get to put into practice), and what skills they want to learn and what their dreams and aspirations are both career-wise and personally.

I’m aiming to build a directory of engaged businesses who want to offer meaningful opportunities to our vendors and who have the compassion and patience to know that this might not always be plain sailing! So if any businesses can help with this, we’d love them to get in touch.

There are many other ways you can help, such as volunteering your time, hosting a vendor to sell at an event, or offering or use your skills, such as legal skills, English teaching or yoga classes. Basically, if you’re keen to help us we can definitely find a way!

Do you think there’s a growing awareness of the importance of being responsible in business?

Yes, I do, but it’s slow. There are still a lot of token gestures out there. I have been at events where people rave about social issues and then walk straight past a vendor without even acknowledging their existence.

The big thing for me, is forming long-term and meaningful relationships with businesses. I also think businesses need to consider how they can be responsible in every way possible.

For example, procurement is an area where it’s possible to make a real difference, and this blog by Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe is a great read on that topic.

Often, there may be a social enterprise out there providing the service you need, such as EPS, which provides confidential document storage, removal and destruction. Thinking about recycling office waste, or about the emissions are of the vans you use, can help you make more responsible procurement decisions.

Organisations like Chwarae Teg or Cynnal Cymru offer awards and kite marks to businesses which can help to focus the mind on sustainability. And it makes good business sense to be able to demonstrate this through accreditations.

I also think it’s important for businesses to work with lots of charities and social enterprises and not just swear one sole allegiance, such as having a charity of the year. Yes, you may have a cancer charity as your charity of the year, which is a fantastic cause, but you will still need your paper waste to be recycled, so why not use a social enterprise to do this?

The third sector is a competitive world, charities are having funding cut left right and centre, and many social enterprises are struggling. By encouraging collaboration and working with lots of charities and social businesses, you take away the need to compete and help create a more holistic, cohesive and collaborative environment.

Why do you personally think responsible business is important?

Because it could help us achieve a better future for everybody, and genuine equality of opportunity.

Because charities, social businesses and enterprises provide vitally important services that one day we all may need to rely upon. With so much third sector funding being cut, without support, both financially and in other ways, many organisations may struggle to survive.

It is also vitally important, in my opinion, for society to demonstrate not only kindness and compassion for those in society who really don’t experience it very often, but also to use our resources, skills and connections intelligently and in a genuine meaningful way.

There’s a lot of easy-to-achieve CSR ‘box-ticking’ that takes place because people have to demonstrate certain activities to win a tender or for staff satisfaction surveys, but meaningful support from businesses can change lives – and not just for the people receiving the support. Quite often those in the businesses offering the support also find these experiences life-changing.

What do you think businesses get out of working closely with the Big Issue?

I hope they get a lot, and we know from talking to the companies we work with that it’s good for staff motivation and retention, resilience, personal and professional development, empowerment, business and brand profile and reach. There are so many upsides – I could really go on!

More specifically, it’s a different gain depending on the way in which the business works with us. For example, those who have taken part in a vendor selling experience – where they sell the magazine with a vendor for a day – tend to get an appreciation of how hard it is to sell the magazine, develop a real empathy towards the vendor and their life experiences, and often they will build a relationship with a vendor who they may continue to support.

Then there are the vast commercial benefits a business receives when partnering with us, such as the sponsored content match day programme magazine we produced for Southampton FC, that was a huge success in many ways.  

We’ve been really pleased to have Brighter work with us and I know from our conversations how much you’ve gotten out of it. From subscribing, sponsoring the vendor team football kit, walking up Pen Y Fan and fundraising for the team, selling the magazine, sponsoring awards, and acting as an informal mentor to our team, you’ve been pretty amazing. You’re a great advert for what a business gets back from working with us!

What have you done in partnership with businesses that you are most proud of?

 A lot of the work we have done with Brighter Comms in Wales makes me really proud! As a partner, you have got stuck in at every opportunity, whether that is offering financial support or helping me write a speech. It’s a meaningful partnership where I feel I consider you to be a friend rather than just a ‘corporate sponsor’ (aww shucks – we’re blushing! – Ed). 

I’m also really proud of the larger partnerships we have forged with organisations like Change Please, (barista skills for vendors), Southampton FC, and more locally with Little Man Coffee, Waterloo Tea, Capital Law and the Pobl Group.

I’m really excited to see how we can build on these further to develop longstanding meaningful relationships.

What businesses do you think are doing great work when it comes to giving back?

 The businesses I’ve mentioned above are definitely doing great work!

Also Pentan Architects do so much for the community, and have done so much with us including magazine subscription, support with our office relocation and fit out, attending our events, and co-sponsoring the football kit and walking up Pen Y Fan to raise money for the team. Grant Thornton is also a highly valued partner.

What I love about these organisations is how they are doing so much amazing stuff and it’s part of the way they work – it’s not to raise their profile or tick a box.