11 min read
Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) and Merry Year Social Company ( MYSC) launched the USD 1 Million Digital Transformation Fund in 2021, with the support of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. The Fund aims to support non-profit organisations in South Korea to support underserved communities, including small and medium business owners and job seekers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, five subgrantees were selected, and AVPN and MYSC are running an impact series to tell the stories of the subgrantees. In this first story, we had a chance to speak with Byung Hun, Hyung Chul, and Hyun Seok from Big Issue to understand how they help restore the lives of homeless groups in South Korea through their innovative interventions. Big Issue is a street newspaper and social enterprise that employs homeless individuals, providing them livelihoods and a pathway for reintegration into mainstream society.
*Interviewees: 3 people from The Big Issue Korea (hereinafter ‘Big Issue’)
- Byung Hun: Director of Big Issue, founding member of the 2010 magazine
- Hyung Chul: Big Issue Coordinator, a recruiter for Big Issue vendors after being a vendor himself for 4 years
- Hyun Seok: Big Issue vendor (in charge of training), has been with Big Issue since 2010.
Tell us about The Big Issue Korea. Please introduce what problem Big Issue is trying to solve and the work that has been done so far.
Byung Hun: Big Issue is a social enterprise and non-profit public benefit corporation that works with the community to create a world where no one needs to be homeless and everyone is guaranteed proper housing rights. The Big Issue is a street magazine that offers homeless people the opportunity to earn an income and help them reintegrate into mainstream society. Most people know us as “the magazine that helps the homeless get back on their feet,” but the service we provide is more complex than that.
For a person who is homeless, it is like the foundation of life has collapsed. We are helping each and every one of them with the process of settling into the community by filling in things they might be lacking through work experience. It can be considered as a “work experience service” that supports people with not only housing issues but also medical care, family relationship problems, psychological problems, and more. This eventually enables them to live independently as a member of society. For the future, Big Issue is looking to play a role in finding a solution to the fundamental problem of housing poverty.
COVID-19, which began in 2019, has changed many aspects of our lives. Have there been any changes in Big Issue Korea due to COVID-19?
Byung Hun: Of course. There was a big blow as street sales are the main source of revenue. Before the pandemic, it was still possible for us to operate, but due to COVID-19 disruptions, we knew we needed to urgently undertake digital transformation. I thought that digital transformation itself should be done in line with the trend of the times. There have already been well-established cases overseas, which became references for us.
Hyung Chul: We usually recruit new street vendors at soup kitchens, but they did not open during COVID-19, so recruitment itself was not possible. We also could not go on the streets and visit welfare facilities to recruit vendors. It became increasingly difficult for us at Big Issue to connect with vendors and that meant readers could not easily purchase the magazine on the street. Vendors gradually withdrew as the number of people on the street decreased and sales dropped.
Hyun Seok: Compared to pre-COVID-19, street sales have decreased to a quarter of what was before. The number of vendors has also gone down from about 70 to now 20 – 30. Thankfully,the atmosphere on the streets is slowly getting better, but it is still not what it used to be.
You are in the process of preparing for a digital transformation with apps and AR services to overcome the difficulties caused by COVID-19. Please tell us a little more about that.
Byung Hun: Ahn We are very grateful that we have been selected as a subgrantee for the AVPN Digital Transformation Fund supported by Google.org. As a result, we are developing an app and AR and expect that this will be a way to overcome the limitations of a business model that has focused solely on print media.
To introduce the primary function of the app first, you can purchase magazines in the form of e-books, and access new magazine issues and important campaigns as soon as you sign up. In addition, this is a blockchain-based app, so we are preparing to provide a wider range of content derived from magazines or Big Issue online, as well as including NFT wallet functions. The creation of the app itself will improve access to the magazines that have been, till now, sold as printed copies and only in Seoul and the metropolitan area.
The app aims to create meaningful promotional goods to replace regular flyers and deliver them to readers through vendors. To the vendors, we plan to provide work experience through promotional activities & selling e-book and pay a portion of the proceeds to them through the app to increase their income. The first promotional item is a ‘paper money box’ with a QR code and Big Bear (Big Issue character). There is an explanation of the app before folding the paper, and it becomes a moneybox in the shape of Big Bear after folding it. With the money collected in the moneybox, we hope to meet vendors as they buy magazines again, and we hope that it can be a topic of conversation between the vendors and readers to allow them to interact more with each other. In the future, we plan to communicate with users and create things for them to enjoy by continually offering various content and goods.
The AR service is currently in the planning stages and will be created after the app is released. The goal is to provide a human experience of the homeless with digital technology, such as reading the handwritten letters of the vendors. We are working hard to get this up and running and hope to introduce this service in phases.
I’m already looking forward to seeing Big Issue Korea complete the project. How do you think your life will change with the Digital Transformation Fund project?
Hyung Chul: As a coordinator, I will actively promote this new business opportunity to the vendors. It is important that I explain all the advantages of this new business model and get them excited to embrace the new initiatives. I am sure the vendors will see the value of increasing the number of readers once people can purchase the magazine through the app.
Hyun Seok: The app and the moneybox would be a great conversation starter when meeting people on the street. I can imagine that people will stop to hear more. For vendors, the support received and conversations with readers are a source of strength. We, Big Issue and myself, want to continue to advance in order to give vendors more opportunities.
What do you ultimately look to achieve from this project?
Byung Hun: As a social enterprise, it is to increase sustainability. As an organisation, I hope to help restore the lives of more homeless individuals and create a world in which everyone can be guaranteed proper housing rights. I want to expand these opportunities by communicating more closely with people through the app service.
As digital transformation is an essential need for Big Issue, a project like this would have been attempted even without the support of the Digital Transformation Fund. However, without the Fund, it would have been difficult to build the momentum, take risks and invest boldly to develop a blockchain-based app, produce goods, and provide work experience models related to the app promotion.
In addition, since Big Issue’s inception, this is the first time we experience having such flexible funding. This fund allowed us to flexibly utilise the budget, which worked positively when we were considering and designing various directions of the project. In the beginning, we used our imagination to plan a digital business that suited our situation, so there were many changes in the process of the actual business progression. There were situations that were difficult to predict, such as the unexpected need to reallocate the budget, but it was convenient because of the high degree of freedom in using the budget. Labour costs are bound to be the most burdensome in any business, but we were able to compensate for that.
Being able to have more of our employees participate in various ways created a good experience for us to strengthen our internal capabilities and team cooperation.
By the way, could you also introduce the movie , which is scheduled to be released around the same time as the app launch?
Byung Hun: (Dream) is a movie about the first time the Korean Big Issue vendors appeared in the 2010 Homeless World Cup. Actors Seo Jun Park and Ji Eun Lee (IU) play the leading roles and are directed by the same director of Byeong Heon Lee. I met director Byeong Heon Lee in 2011 and told him our story. It is a project that took 12 years from preparation to actual production to seeing it in theatres. That is how long we have waited for this movie.
The Homeless World Cup first began in Graz, Austria, under the slogan ‘A Ball can Change the World.’ It is an international soccer tournament where about 500 homeless players from 50 countries participate to represent their country every year. Players can only compete once in their lifetime in 4v4 Street Soccer. The Homeless World Cup helps the homeless to have positive changes through soccer, and its goal is to improve social awareness.
The South Korean team has participated every time since the 2010 Rio de Janeiro tournament in Brazil. The tournament has not been held since 2020 due to the aftermath of COVID-19, but is scheduled to be held this year in Sacramento, USA in July. Big Issue Korea is also preparing to participate again for the first time in 4 years.
Through the movie (Dream) , we hope that the tournament’s purpose will be well communicated and serve as an opportunity to spread awareness of both individual homelessness and the social situation surrounding homelessness. The movie also contains the stories of Hyung Chul and Hyun Seok. I’m itching to say more but I should not let the cat out of the bag. The teamwork between the veteran actors, including Seo Jun Park and Ji Eun Lee, and the unique wit and humour of director Byeon Heon Lee are likely to make a lot of people look forward to it. Please go watch it and spread the word to others.
We worked hard to make sure that the app service is launched around the same time as the release of the movie which should be in March or April 2023. The AR service should be launched sometime this year.
Through this fund, one can envision Big Issue Korea creating more time for in-depth communication with more of the homeless and service users. Then, what was the most memorable thing you heard while running Big Issue?
Byung Hun: Two things immediately come to mind. The first is from a former vendor who has settled in his community, and he said, “please don’t look at people who are in a housing crisis, like me, as objects of charity. Treat us as members of society in a way that allows us to be embraced by the community.” The second is this. One day during the holidays, one of the vendors said, ”when all my relationships were severed and no one took care of me, Big Issue employees and my fellow vendors took care of me. I think they would even hold a funeral for me. They were my only source of strength and support.”
The reason these two situations were memorable is that before these two people met Big Issue, they were in the blind spot of the social welfare network and were losing hope for a better life and the joy that comes from human relationships. However, they said these things to me as they were gradually recovering. I hope that society, the system, could become a reliable safety net for all who are in a homeless state. A world in which the right to housing, a basic right, is guaranteed, and housing and services are provided to help people get back on their feet even if they are homeless. A world that no longer needs the role of Big Issue. This is what I have been eagerly waiting for since our beginning in 2010.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to the supportive community, who has shown interest in the issue of homelessness after they encountered the Big Issue and the vendors. I would also like to express my gratitude once again to the Big Helper volunteers who helped to sell magazines alongside the vendors, and the celebrities and others who participated in Big Issue’s cover photo shoots and gave their precious time, strength, and hearts in support of the homeless. All of these are not easy to measure, but they are the impact brought by the existence of the Big Issue. We ask for your continuous support for Big Issue’s new initiatives.
AVPN is a unique funders’ network based in Singapore committed to building a vibrant and high impact social investment community across Asia. As an advocate, capacity builder, and platform that cuts across private, public and social sectors, AVPN embraces all types of engagement to improve the effectiveness of members across the Asia-Pacific region. The core mission of AVPN is to increase the flow of financial, human and intellectual capital to the social sector by connecting and empowering key stakeholders from funders to the social purpose organisations they support. With over 600 members across 32 countries, AVPN is catalysing the movement towards a more strategic, collaborative and outcome-focused approach to social investing, ensuring that resources are deployed as effectively as possible to address key social challenges facing Asia today and in the future. Visit our website to learn more.
MYSC is a leading social innovation consultancy & impact investor working mainly in Korea but also for other parts of the world through impact network and partnership. Established in 2011 by a number of leading opinion leaders from the private sector, academia and investment field, MYSC aims to help address social inequality and societal divide through social entrepreneurship and social innovation. As part of our theory of change, we bridge between corporations and start-ups / social ventures for “growth with impact” business models.