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Changemaker  |  CareersProfessional development

“It’s always the people”

8 December 2022 at 10:10 am
Ruby Kraner-Tucci
Jim Mullan led change at large non-profits including SecondBite and The Big Issue UK. As this week’s Changemaker, he reflects on the power of people and the importance of being open to new thinking.

Ruby Kraner-Tucci | 8 December 2022 at 10:10 am


“It’s always the people”
8 December 2022 at 10:10 am

Jim Mullan led change at large non-profits including SecondBite and The Big Issue UK. As this week’s Changemaker, he reflects on the power of people and the importance of being open to new thinking.

Jim Mullan’s career in the for-purpose sector spans youth work, homelessness, food insecurity and disability, and it’s far from over.

While his over two decades in senior positions across not-for-profit organisations has mostly involved change management, his passion for supporting marginalised communities has been a constant.

Growing up in Glasgow to train driver and civil servant parents, Mullan’s working class background provided first-hand experience of the contribution of social workers in his community and informed his own education in youth work.

In 2014, Mullan was appointed CEO of The Big Issue UK, leading large-scale strategic development and integration across the network. Two years later, he became CEO of SecondBite, where he helped to expand the non-profit nationally. During his five years in that role, Mullan also served as an advisor to federal and state governments on food relief throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He is now CEO of autism peak body Amaze.

Elsewhere in the sector, Mullan lectured on social enterprise at several universities and provided specialist contributions about its impact to the UK government. He was also the founding general manager of Kibbleworks, a Scottish social enterprise that provides care and education to vulnerable young people.

In this week’s Changemaker, Mullan explains what motivates him to continue working in the for-purpose space, and why he treats every day as a school day.

Your professional trajectory includes The Big Issue, SecondBite and now Amaze. What initially drew you to the for-purpose sector and why have you stayed?

I work in the for-purpose sector because it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve never really been attracted to working in any other space.

I was the product of really brilliant youth provision when I was young, back home in Glasgow, and that kind of set the tone for me. 

I’m also curious by nature and I’m very good at working when organisations are in flux or in change or need to move in terms of a new direction. What I’m not very good at is care and maintenance, so once the change has been instituted in one sector, the organisation’s beginning to move on a different track, that’s often the point at which I’ll be triggered to think, I’ve helped to steer the ship in that direction and maybe I should go and find another ship to steer. 

I’ve always worked like that, when I think I’ve made the impact that I think I’m best placed to make, I will then begin to think about what I do next.

Have all the roles you’ve undertaken across the sector related to change management?

They have either been in invention or they have been in reorganisation.

At the very beginning of my career, I experienced what the possibility was for thinking about doing things in new and different ways. Without giving away my age entirely, I remember when Intermediate Labor Market models were established in the west of Scotland in the early eighties, and no one had ever approached the creation of work experience and training in that way before. That model has become something of a world standard. 

Most of the experiences I’ve had I’ve been drawn to because either I was getting in on an idea on the ground floor or I was going to support an organisation that was ready for that evolutionary process to drive new change and to generate new focus.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt working across such diverse portfolios in the for-purpose sector?

Every day is a school day. 

I think the most important lesson that you’ll learn is that the more that you work, and the more that you build experience, the more you become aware of the things that you don’t understand. 

Sure, I’m going to understand the sorts of things we’re going to do each day at work, but there’s also the possibility every day that I’m going to learn something that I didn’t know yesterday. 

So being open to those influences and open to change – and I suspect that I may have worked through the greatest period of technological change that the world has ever seen. Going through that experience has made me acutely aware that the world is moving on quickly, and that I need to be open to new ideas, and open to new ways of working, and open to different types of thinking all the time to improve the way that I do what I do.

How has that mindset helped you through times of large-scale change, such as the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think the pandemic has changed things irreversibly. Working from home is not a genie that’s going back in the bottle. Flexible working, being creative about what we think about how things work. 

One of the examples that I would say is that for years before the pandemic, a call center was a physical location. What we know now is that call centers are a network, and it doesn’t matter where it’s geographically located or how dispersed it is, as long as the system is in place, the network works. 

While we’ve experienced this change, I don’t think that more widely, we understand yet entirely what that means. Working lives have changed. I will never fly again, as often as I flew before the pandemic. So, all of these things for all of our lives and for all of our work and experiences are changing all the time – and that’s accelerating. So you need to be as open minded as you can possibly be on a daily basis.

Have you seen similar challenges faced by the community across the spaces that you’ve worked in?

The common link between all of the areas that I’ve worked in, and I will go further back to residential care and education and youth work early on in my career, the common feature of all of these elements is systemic and in-built disadvantage.

No-one wants to be hungry. No-one wants to be homeless. No-one wants to have their life options limited by a physical or psychological condition. But the systems as they currently exist, please limitations around each of them. I think that’s the common feature. 

Again, that kind of harks back to my childhood, where in lots of communities, poverty and disadvantage was very evident. I think that has a lasting impact upon you. Working to improve that situation is a motivation that means that you don’t have any problems swinging your feet out of the bed in the morning.

How have you sustained working in this sector for so long?

I think by character and by personality, I’m kind of optimistic. My experience has taught me about the power of people, and the power of people to choose things. I’m a believer in the good that we can do as a society. It’s just about constantly encouraging others to join us in this journey. 

I would say that the outstanding feature of my entire career has been the amount of brilliant people that I’ve worked with. It’s always the people. The conditions that we live in and we work in – some things we can control, but some are often out of our control, and it’s always the people who make the difference.

How do you switch off from work at the end of the day? 

Your family and your friends are the most important people in your life for a whole series of reasons. Perhaps the most important one is that they keep you grounded and they keep your sense of connection alive. 

When it comes to how you decompress from this [work], it’s almost invariably spending time with your family or your friends, and an appreciation of the privilege it is to do the work and how lucky you have been to do it.

Ruby Kraner-Tucci  |  @ProBonoNews

Ruby Kraner-Tucci is a journalist, with a special interest in culture, community and social affairs. Reach her at

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