In conversation with… Mark Thompson, Chair of Bright Red

Insight /  10 August 2023

We sat down with Mark Thompson to discuss his background, his involvement with Bright Red, the importance of business partnerships and some of the challenges the charity has faced.

Based in the Northern Centre for Cancer Care at the Freeman Hospital, Bright Red aims to improve the lives and treatment of people with blood cancer across the north of England. Through care, research and education, the charity strives to beat illnesses such as leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma myelodysplasia and myeloproliferative diseases.

Originally known as Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant 2000, Bright Red has supported haematology treatment and research within the north of England since 1988. Its investment of over £6 million into haematology has seen diagnosis, treatment and research within the region go from strength to strength. The region now has the second largest bone marrow transplant centre within the UK, treating an increasing number of patients from outside the area.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

In my day to day job, I’m the Managing Partner at Ryder, an architectural firm with its home in Newcastle but now with a national and international footprint, including offices in Amsterdam, Vancouver and Hong Kong. I joined Ryder in 1988 (which was the year, incidentally, when Bright Red was formed), becoming Director in 1994. I have overall responsibility for the strategic development of the firm. We have grown rather rapidly recently, and some of our notable local work includes the design of The Lumen at Newcastle Helix, the redevelopment of Pilgrim Street, Lilidorei at Alnwick Garden, offices at Sunderland Riverside, new facilities for Durham University and the transformation of Newcastle’s Central Station.

As well as being Chair of Bright Red, I’m also the Vice Chair of NewcastleGateshead Initiative, a board member of North East England LEP, and a member of the CBI North East Regional Council.

How did you come to be involved in the Charity sector and could you give us some background on your involvement with Bright Red?

Back in 1988, my then fiancée, now wife Dawn was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During one of her appointments at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, I was sat in a waiting room and got talking with George Walker, a patient who told me about a charity he was establishing – Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant 2000 – and asked if I would be willing to take part in the Great North Run to raise funds. Having done that for several years, I then became involved in other fundraising initiatives, such as Last Night at the Proms at Newcastle’s City Hall, which Ryder went on to sponsor.

In 2006, I was asked to become a trustee. I accepted, and not long after that, the Chair told me he was going to retire and asked if I wanted to take on the role. At the time, the Charity was solely focused on research. I felt that they needed to invest funds into other areas, such as patient care and supporting nurses with their continuing education, so we enrolled some doctors and nurses from the ward and developed a ‘business plan’. Some of them became trustees and with the generous support of Gardiner Richardson we began with a rebrand (the original name didn’t exactly slip off the tongue!) to position Bright Red with more of a patient/people focus, whilst continuing the great work being done in research.

Could you comment on some of the challenges the charity has faced in your time as Chair?

In the beginning, it was a very Newcastle Hospitals focused charity, so it was quite a challenge to grow Bright Red across the wider region.

We needed more time invested if it was to fulfil our ambitions for it to become a recognised and respected local charity. And even though I had been enlisting those close to me for admin support (notably my colleague Karen and my children Hannah and Chris), it was a significant milestone when we recruited our first full time colleague – Ashley Elliott. We now have a team of one and a half full time people. I’m not as hands on now as Lisa Saxton does a fantastic job of running Bright Red day to day, supported by Angela Angus.

As you can probably appreciate, leading a business is very different to chairing a charity. As you aren’t as knowledgeable about the operations and activities, you rely on others and you need to turn the volume down and listen more (mind, I’m sure there are people at Ryder who would say I should do that there too!). But, like any organisation, you need to attract the right people – colleagues, ambassadors and trustees. In the case of Bright Red, we also need input from nurses, doctors and researchers. All I feel that I’ve done is facilitated it; and yes, maybe I’ve kept it together for a number of years, but I’m a big believer in collaboration. I know that with what we’ve done at Bright Red, and elsewhere in my career, the successes have been a result of collaboration. When we work together towards a shared goal, the results are often fantastic and way beyond what people working in isolation could achieve.

Could you comment on the importance and impact of business partnerships like this one with UNW?

It’s partnerships like this that show us as a well-respected and worthwhile local charity. It essentially puts us on a pedestal because it gives us the credibility that UNW’s team chose us. It means a huge amount in terms of our profile locally. And at a practical level, I hope we’ve gained a treasurer in UNW’s Beth Sheldon!

You mentioned the challenges of attracting new trustees. Could you expand on that at all?

Firstly, too many people think that they aren’t good enough to be a trustee; because they aren’t from a professional background – business, finance, law, marketing – that they have little to offer. That’s a sad perception because it’s passion for the charity that is the main ingredient. Another problem is that there seems to be a misconception among young people that you need to have more experience to become a trustee. The energy of youth brings different views and ideas to the table. I’d take energy before experience any day of the week.

On the whole, we need to be encouraging more people to become charity trustees. It’s a great learning and development experience, whatever your stage of life. If you’re gaining experience and building your skills at the same time as doing others good, then that’s a win win scenario.

And finally, what do you see as the charity’s biggest achievements?

Fundamentally, I’m proud that we are still here, especially after Covid. But looking back, I’d say it was patient involvement and the amazing influence of patients’ families that has been key to our success. It’s been working really closely with the Bright Red community that has helped us punch above our weight. This support evolved into our ambassador programme, and ultimately into incredible initiatives like the Lee Robson Patient Care Grant, a relief grant given to patients that are struggling financially in their hour of need due to lack of sick pay or how long their welfare takes to come through following diagnosis.

Alongside research, our largest grants fund our Bright Red Nurses. I’m especially proud that we have created six Bright Red nursing posts in local communities across the region. From my wife’s experience, I appreciate what it’s like when you’re going through chemotherapy and have to get yourself ready and possibly onto public transport to attend an appointment for treatment. We only lived a few miles away but it’s not uncommon for people having to make round trips of 60 to 80 miles! I think it must be pretty unique for a charity like Bright Red to be able to bring nurses into patient’s homes. Obviously larger charities like Macmillan do it, but for a small charity it’s a significant amount of money to raise and in my eyes, a huge achievement.

We’ve also funded ward improvements, especially for those patients spending extended periods in isolation during treatment, and complimentary therapies. We try to make stays in hospitals as comfortable as possible. And in the end, I’m proud to say that every penny we raise goes to benefit patients and their families across the region, whether through research or patient care.

Passionate people have a huge amount to offer, whatever their background.
Mark Thompson,  Chair - Bright Red