Shifting priorities in the wake of COVID-19

In our ‘Meet the Impact Manager’ guest blog series, we hear how some fund managers in our portfolio have been responding to COVID-19. This week, Bevis Watts, CEO of Triodos Bank UK, shares how the sustainable bank responded to the immediate crisis and why they are now calling for a reset of the economy.


Written by

Bevis Watts, CEO, Triodos Bank UK

For 25 years in the UK, Triodos Bank has been enabling values-led organisations to create positive impact. For us, 2020 was set to be a year of celebrating what our community of customers and passionate co-workers have achieved over the years – across the social, cultural and environmental sectors.

Little did we know at the beginning of the year how much we would need to – and could – adapt. Instead of a time for reflection, it became all about the here and now. The arrival of COVID-19 swiftly saw our priorities focus 100% on caring for our co-workers and supporting our customers.

The immediate effect of COVID-19

By the middle of March, 95% of our team moved to working from home, with just a few attending our Bristol office to keep all our services running. I am immensely proud that there has been no change to customer service levels through the crisis, with our phone lines open and our teams supporting hundreds of customers and businesses to help them through this incredibly challenging time.

One of our strengths as a bank is our personal approach – each business lending customer is allocated a named relationship manager to contact directly. This enables the team to really understand the organisation, the challenges it faces, and the context it works in.

As the severity of the COVID-19 crisis became clear, our team proactively called our most affected customers. Not only were customers relieved, they felt valued – some hadn’t even had time to digest what COVID-19 meant for their organisation, so were reassured that we could offer flexible support, which included:

  • Offering 12-month capital repayment holidays to borrowers affected, to support them in having considerable time to adapt and plan their recovery
  • Restructuring borrowing and lending more money to some customers where appropriate
  • Varying approach and agreeing some smaller loans than usual to support those with cash flow issues, particularly charities
  • Varying deposit terms for those needing to access notice funds quickly

As new initiatives were announced by the government, we analysed each to see how it might benefit our customers. In the first instance, the easiest way for us to support was to extend our commitment to providing finance to Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs) to enable them to deploy more money to businesses in need. With their strong regional presence and readied government accreditations, many CDFIs were able to quickly flex their offerings to make loans available through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). For example, BCRS Business Loans delivered £3.1 million worth of CBILS lending in the West Midlands by the end of May, safeguarding an estimated 575 jobs in the region.

We also became an accredited CBILS lender in our own right, supporting both existing customers and new enquirers to the bank. This has allowed us to explore some interesting and impactful partnerships, which we are hoping to announce over the coming months. As with all our lending, details will be published on our website so that our deposit customers can transparently see what their money is supporting.

Our customers’ continued energy has inspired us to keep going throughout this time and many have similarly adapted their offerings to better serve society. As just one example, many of the community energy projects that Triodos is involved with have been using their profits – generated by renewables – to help those affected by the pandemic.

Looking to the future

Once the decisions were made on immediate support, we turned to consider what kind of recovery we want to see. The crisis has exposed structural weaknesses in the contemporary global social economic system, with many countries struggling with deep divisions, social exclusion and inequalities of income and wealth.

We believe that national and international recovery plans should build on agendas like the European Green Deal and the redesign of the current food and agricultural system, reconnecting finance to the real economy. They should be based on markets steered by true prices and circular regulation, smart public investment plans and greening of tax systems, grants, financial regulation and trade regimes.

Overall, we need to rebalance social, ecological and economic values to ensure the promotion of broad welfare and inclusion. There’s huge amounts of thinking that has gone into this from our chief economist, Kees Vendrik, along with others throughout the bank, and we have published a paper called ‘Reset the economy’ to help lay out a policy, business, and finance agenda for ourselves, and other like-minded organisations, to consider.

But we obviously can’t make this call alone. We have also worked with a number of organisations to create a united voice in demanding change. For instance, I joined with over 60 CEOs to sign an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to create a resilient economy with a green and just recovery. And of course, we supported Big Society Capital in calling for a much-needed extension to social investment tax relief (SITR).

Never more relevant

One of the many statistics that has stayed with me this year is that, when surveyed in May, 80% of people wanted the government to prioritise health, wellbeing and the environment over economic growth moving forwards.

We can only hope that this awakening in society will have a knock-on effect for social impact investing, as people are more considerate of protecting the most disadvantaged or vulnerable in society and – as the Black Lives Matter movement has also shown – empowering those that have been most marginalised by the current systems.

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