Nigel Coates: The Business Clinic Has Been Providing Pro Bono Consultancy to More Than 600 Organisations in a Diverse Range of Sectors

October 17, 2022

Since 2013 the Business Clinic has been providing pro bono consultancy to more than 600 organisations in a diverse range of sectors, including multinationals, small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), social enterprises, not-for-profit organisations and charities, at an estimated (by the client) value of £3.3 million (2013-22).

It is provided by final year undergraduate and masters students studying business programmes in the Business School.

Tell us about yourself?

I am the Director of the Business Clinic, which is based at Northumbria University, and have worked in consumer and B2B roles for SMEs and marketing/ commercial management roles at a multi-national company.

I led the establishment of the Business Clinic in 2013 and have advised several universities on setting up their own business clinics. 

A national judge for Young Enterprise, Start-Up Programmes and the RSA Student Design Awards, I am also Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Marketing Trust, a trustee/board member of Smile for Life Children’s Charity, and a governor/ board member of Sir Charles Parsons School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

That would be just as covid impacted the running of the Business Clinic.

Initially we thought we would need to suspend our consultancy service, but both our students and clients were keen to benefit from working together.

My advice would be to embrace change by tackling the issues as a team. We learnt some positive things from the enforced changes in terms of what our clients needed.

What problem does your business solve?

The free consultancy service that we provide enables organisations to address business problems they do not have the skills/ resources available to undertake themselves.

The consultancy ranges from digital marketing and social media audits to feasibility studies on strategic decisions or corporate expansion.

They help companies to increase their operational efficiency and, in many cases, their revenues and profitability. We are all about helping businesses to grow and scale up.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

As many of our students had not been able to benefit from working in an organisation (particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with disabilities), for example through a placement or internship, the original inspiration was to enable final year undergraduate and Masters students to improve their employability skills.

We achieved this by providing them with opportunities to engage with external organisations under the supervision of experienced tutors to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems.

The Business Clinic provides clients with reports with detailed recommendations, based on sound research, which has a genuinely positive impact following implementation.

The benefit to SMEs has been recognised by the Small Business Charter, which has awarded us with exemplar status.

What is your magic sauce?

The magic sauce is the co-creation/ knowledge transfer involving, students under the guidance of experienced Business Clinic tutors and the client.

I always find it exciting to see the students getting passionate about the client brief as they can see the real impact they can make.

The client would say the magic sauce is the “young fresh pairs of eyes” looking at the problem. The students bring with them creativity in terms of new ways of looking at things.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

We are looking to develop a more interdisciplinary approach so that clients can benefit not just from Business School students but students from other faculties. 

This would provide a wider offering to help businesses. For example, this could include film and media students working alongside our students to produce videos or media content which would complement the work of our students (such as a digital marketing strategy).

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

We are pleased with the diversity of organisations that we work with but are conscious that certain sectors are underrepresented in our client base; for example, manufacturing, engineering and financial services.

The main challenges for many of our clients are digital skills/ use of technology and, in recent times, increasingly the challenges relate to the recruitment and retention of staff, particularly those at entry level (minimum wage jobs).

How do people get involved/buy into your vision?

The Business Clinic is very much part of the North East business support eco-system, collaborating with other organisations such as the NELEP, North East Ambition, and Asian Business Connexions who share our ethos of supporting the growth and development of SMEs.

By providing a low-risk service in that it is free (but professional in approach), this generates a win-win situation for business and our students.

The fact that the Business Clinic is part of the university means that clients see it as being impartial with a genuine desire to provide the best advice or signpost to other appropriate providers.

In addition, our clients have become our champions as increasingly they are referring other organisations in their network to us.

Clients have commented that the work they receive is often better than consultancy reports they have paid for. If anyone would like support from the Business Clinic, please get in touch with us at [email protected].

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