“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, ….the intro to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens has never been so apposite.  Our world has changed fundamentally within the last eight weeks as the realities of Covid-19 have hit home and even the wonders of science and technology can only slow the pace of the  pandemic, which, like so many other catastrophes,  affects the vulnerable disproportionally to the fit and strong. 

In the world of business we’ve seen some examples of great leadership and generosity, others of greed and exploitation and also the hard truths of the law of unexpected consequences, particularly effecting the freelance and micro-business community.

There are three examples of north east generosity that I’ve come across that I want to share, and all of them from business/organisational sectors most affected by the virus. 

Newcastle-headquarted Fenwick was the first of the department stores to shut its doors (and then its new online presence) to protect its staff and their families.  In the early days it donated items from the food hall to the City’s needy and was then the first commercial company, regardless of sector, to make ‘a substantial donation’ in the words of Council Leader Nick Forbes, to Citylife Line to help local residents get the provisions they need. The family-run business has also been a long-time supporter of homelessness charity, Street Zero, with a £30,000 donation raised by Leo Fenwick’s participation in the Great North Run going to support those made even more vulnerable by Covid-19. Furloughed drivers have added further to the effort by volunteering their services to Fare Share and are using the distinctively-branded Fenwick vans to distribute food to local food banks.

In the south of the region, business owner and NHS surgeon, Dr Rachael Coates, has used her medical expertise to co-author and publish a book that gives practical advice to other small business owners: The Small Business Guide to Surviving Covid19 Pandemic.  It’s all the more remarkable that she and Reza, her co-author, are offering the publication free to Tees Valley based businesses – and giving all charitable donations received in return to Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Society to support local needs.  And spare a thought for new hospitality providers! Emily Bentley and Martin Smith opened their second of their two coffee shops (Bentley’s) the weekend before lockdown.  The business is too new for her to be able to claim furlough terms for all her staff, but guess what, she’s paying them all just the same.  And with no money coming in for the foreseeable that’s tough. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, doing the right things for the right reasons.

And how about this piece of lateral thinking and generosity.  A DJ who goes by the name of Stagger Lee who until Covid, appeared regularly at the Cumberland Arms, Ouseburn decided to live-cast his regular ‘Lazy Sunday with Stagger Lee’ Sunday afternoon gig and charge something to donate to Newcastle’s food banks. He has continued the virtual event free for two hours on every Sunday since, raising the spirits of all who listen in. Not content with that he decided to do a 24 hour DJ marathon recently and raised a further £500 which he also gave to food banks.

And there’s the Segway to my last point. We know that many north east businesses and individuals have community at their heart and in some cases put their worries aside to look after the needs of those less fortunate.  How I wish that Joe Wicks and all the other celebrities had given the same level of thought and care to their generous offers to keep us all fit and entertained.  They may not need the money, but lots of freelance training and well-being providers do.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to see them collect or recommend a small donation to  a chosen or created fund for small businesses every time people signed up for free.  They’d then be contributing to both to the nation’s health and small business well-being simultaneously.   

This is the best of times and the worst of times. I for one will try to think more carefully about my actions and how they might affect others at this time. I have also been struck by how organisations with a clear values-based purpose are able to pivot and tilt their business model to adapt to the changed circumstances. They deserve our support when the new normal of business embeds.

Caroline Theobald – Director NIBE