Lucy Jackson, CEO of Spread a Smile

S1 Ep11: Lucy Jackson, CEO of Spread a Smile Podcast Transcript

Chris: Have you ever wondered how the businesses you know and love have evolved? What inspired the founders to create them? What chances do they take and what mistakes do they make along the way?

Hi, I’m Chris, the CEO of Uncommon, a company that creates exceptional spaces for work. In each episode of Alive with Possibilities, I get to sit down with a different business leader whom I admire and discuss the journey they’ve been on.

In this episode, I’m joined by Lucy Jackson. Lucy is CEO of Spread a Smile, a charity that strives to make a positive difference to the lives of seriously ill children and their families.

Lucy has spent 15 years working in communications before stepping into the charity sector. So, I’ll be speaking to her about her career transition, what it’s been like to lead a charity and how they navigated the pandemic. I’ve had lots of dealings with the charity over the last few years and they really do spread a smile.

So, Lucy, I’ve mentioned a little bit about the charity, could you please tell us more?

Lucy: So, Spread a Smile started 10 years ago, we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year. And it was started by two really amazing ladies called Josephine Segal and Vanessa Crocker.

And it was after Josephine’s nephew, Aaron, who was nine-years-old at the time, was diagnosed with cancer and he spent five or six months at Great Ormond Street Hospital having horrible, horrible treatment.

And he was down and depressed and lonely and isolated. And the family had tried everything they could to try and kind of lift him up again. And it was only after his Auntie Josephine organised for a magician to see him in hospital that suddenly he felt like himself again.

And actually, I heard him describe it recently that it was kind of the first time someone had seen him as him rather than a patient and a kid with cancer.

And so profound was the effect of this visit that his auntie Josephine promised him that when he was better, she would organise for more magicians, more entertainers to see children in similar circumstances and that is how Spread a Smile started.

Today, 10 years on, we’ve got 27 hospital partners, 82 entertainers who are working for us and a list of hospitals as long as my arm that want to work with us and are in need of our services. And I should add actually one very important point, which is that Aaron is now 20 at university doing incredibly well. A very, very amazing young man.

Chris: I was there at the 10th anniversary kind of party, and he spoke on stage, and it was amazing. It was amazing to see what he’s kind of gone on and done and how eloquently he spoke.

So, tell me about your kind of journey to what you do now at Spread a Smile and what does that actually involve on your kind of day to day?

Lucy: So, I started my career in a big PR agency and actually in the grand scheme of things, I spent almost no time there at all. I was there for three years before I was introduced to the guys at Teenage Cancer Trust. And I spent I think eight years there as comms director and I just loved it.

I mean it’s the most amazing charity, they do the most amazing work. And I joined at a time when charity was still relatively new. They weren’t earning huge amounts of money. There was a real opportunity to kind of put them on the map in comms terms and I just loved it, and built a team there.

Anyway, I stayed there until I had my first child just over 14 years ago. And then I didn’t go back after my maternity leave, I went back into agency for a bit, didn’t love it.

And then I started working at another charity called Nordoff-Robbins who do music therapy and I stayed there, oh my goodness, I don’t know how long, six years, seven years maybe before I joined Spread a Smile about six and a half years ago. If you add all that up it makes me sound really old.

But yes, I’ve been at Spread a Smile for six and a half years. I joined as Director of Strategy and Communications, which seems like a very big title for a small charity. And I think within six months I became CEO and it just felt amazing for so many reasons.

Chris: It’s clearly played a big part in your life. Would you ever go back to working, I guess in the kind of private sector is the charity side, it’s what you do and you really kind of find purpose in.

Lucy: I don’t really know what the answer to that question is. So, lots of people kind of assume that I get so much out of my job because of the cause, and I think I do. I think I would definitely go back into the private sector at some point. I think my husband would like it if I did.

Jokes aside, I definitely wouldn’t rule it out but I’m definitely not looking at moving on. I just absolutely love my job at Spread a Smile, and I love the team and I love everything about it.

Chris: So, just for some context, can you just explain maybe how Spread a Smile actually helps? How does it help a family or kind of a child?

Lucy: We are all about spreading smiles and laughter and creating a much-needed distraction for seriously ill children in hospital. So, imagine these kids are spending weeks, months, years in some cases in hospital and there is very little to distract them, to remind them of a childhood outside of the hospital.

Very little opportunity for their parents to see their kids smiling and happy and laughing, which is something that we all take for … I say we all, those of us we’ve, wild children take for granted.

So, we send entertainers into hospitals, fairies, singers, magicians, face painters, artists, therapy dogs. They’ll spend 5 to 10 minutes at a child’s hospital bedside and just bring them some light and laughter and opportunity just to smile and be happy and forget the situation they’re in for a moment.

We also organise regular family events. So, as you can imagine for a child who’s very seriously ill in hospital, a day out with the family, going to the theatre or to a tea party is very low down on the list of priorities. Not to mention financially prohibitive especially if a parent had to give up work to care for a sick child.

Twice a year, we take 70 people to see the Lion King in the West end. Disney very generously gave us those tickets and they also gave us a room to use in the theatre. So, we had a pre-show party.

It is amazing to see these kids surrounded by other people going through the same thing and they’re just smiling and laughing and happy. And for some families it might be the last opportunity that they actually get to do that together as a family.

So, at Spread a Smile, we will literally do anything we can to get a smile. We’re all about, we call it the personal touch. We know that it’s never ever one size fits all and we treat every single child and every single family as an individual and we look at what their needs are and then how we can fulfil those.

If we think about our work, three elements, our visits, our events, and our art initiatives. So, we paint murals on hospital walls and windows to brighten hospital spaces, make them less frightening for children in hospital. And our artist also paints radiotherapy masks for children undergoing treatments.

These are not very nice things to think about. The kids having treatment for head, brain, or neck cancers, having radiotherapy have to wear a mask that’s been moulded to their face. And it’s grey and our artist paints on the masks.

So, she’s taken all kinds of briefs. She’s done unicorns, she’s done Chipmunk, she’s done Bob Marley.

There’s one particular one that sticks in my mind. Little boy wanted a snow leopard, and his mum bought him a snow leopard onesie. Marina painted him a snow leopard mask and he would go in for his treatment as a snow leopard. Suddenly it was much less frightening and much less scary for him to do that.

There’s another story about a little boy who was able to take his mask into school and show all his friends what it was all about.

Chris: My assumption is that COVID, certainly from the charity point of view because of what you do, was the biggest challenge that it’s ever faced. Tell me more about that.

Lucy: We thought it would be very temporary. We thought, you know what, it’ll be two or three months before we’re back in hospitals because we weren’t obviously allowed in hospitals during lockdowns.

And there was a moment of panic for us. We were nervous about not being able to go into hospitals; how can we keep going? We can’t keep raising money if we’re not actually doing anything.

So, we started delivering our services virtually. It was really funny at first, none of us knew how to use Zoom. Our entertainers especially didn’t know how to use Zoom. We didn’t have any digital safeguarding in place, and we thought we’ll do this, it’ll be three months and then we’ll be back in hospitals. It was 27 months before we were allowed back in.

And by that point those virtual visits and everything else we did during the pandemic. So, delivering treats into hospitals, be it chocolate or sweets or ice cream or colouring books or other arts and cross activities really took hold.

And so, we went from in March 2020, having nine hospital partners to the 27 we’ve got now, and our plan is to have another 11 this year. We could grow outside of London for the first time. We could support children on any day of the week.

So, for example, our day at Great Ormond Street Hospital was always on a Thursday. So, if you were a kid that came in every Wednesday for treatment, you would probably never even know the Spread a Smile exists.

So, it meant when you were coming in on Wednesday for your treatment, you could have half an hour with a Spread a Smile magician on an iPad that we’ve been given some money for. We bought some iPads and we donated to the hospital, and it just changed the face of what we did.

Chris: Certainly, from the experience I had of seeing you guys with your grotto downstairs in the hybrid building that we’ve got was amazing. You kind of go in and you’ve set up a whole grotto that you’re then passing presents through the TV and that’s like it was so amazing to then see the kids on the other side receiving them in hospital and it’s very creative to then make sure that it all kind of continues and keeps going.

From your experience seeing the children almost every single day and seeing the impact you have, does it change the way you kind of think about the world or does it put things into perspective on a daily basis for you when you see all of these things and go, “Wow, that’s hard?”

Lucy: Yes, I think it definitely does. I mean certainly my relationship with my own kids, you know, I often say that there’s not an evening that goes by that once I’m home from work and I’m tired and I sit down in front of the TV and think, “Oh mommy, can you come up and say goodnight?”

Like there’s not an evening where I would say no to that. Because I think about these parents, and I think what they wouldn’t give for that opportunity to do that. It certainly helps me, puts life into perspective for sure.

Chris: Yeah, for anyone I think they’d struggle not to have that. But it also comes with a kind of, I guess an emotional cost on a daily basis when you kind of see that and it’s just hard.

Lucy: Yeah, I often say to my newer colleagues, particularly on the fundraising side of things, that you have to sit in meetings and talk about these things and sell a charity and you almost have to kind of switch yourself off from it emotionally. Because I think if you really start to think about exactly what you’re talking about, it’s difficult, it’s hard.

Chris: It’s that balance, the reality is that you are there to do a job, especially from the fundraising side, it’s how the charity keeps going. How do you actually kind of celebrate the successes that you have with the team, whether they’re big or small? Is there anything that you guys do in particular?

Lucy: We are very good at celebrating successes at Spread a Smile.

Chris: Good.

Lucy: Probably something that I learned from our co-founders. When we were small, it used to be amazing. We used to all bring a dish and we would sit round the table and eat this amazing lunch together.

We don’t do that anymore. There are too many of us and everyone’s too busy and yeah, certainly food, still celebrating things with food and possibly a bottle of Prosecco every now and then.

But just celebrating our successes collectively as a team. It is one of our values that we are always there to celebrate each other’s successes and congratulate each other and be proud of each other and it’s something that’s really important to all of us as a team.

Chris: That’s good. I think people don’t do that enough and it’s certainly from the various guests I’ve had, I think it’s something that a lot of companies struggle with, certainly as they grow, what was easy in the beginning when they were kind of a smaller company gets a lot harder when you kind of add size and scale and if you can bond around something, whether that be food, it’s a very good thing to do.

Has there been from a habit or practice point, whether this is you kind of personally or the business that you think has kind of really led to some of the growth that you’ve had in the development of a company or the charity I should say?

Lucy: I guess I’d break that question down as COVID was transformational for us, a period of transformational growth for us. I think at the time I was going through a period of kind of personal change and personal growth, and one of the things is my team would probably describe me as, I could be wrong, but I think they probably describe me as quite a calm person and I’m not calm at home.

My family would not have described me in that way. If I can be that calm person at work, why can’t I be that calm person at home? And realising that had quite a profound impact on my relationship with my kids.

I suddenly became the calm parent, which I hadn’t been in the past, all happening at a time when things were going crazy for Spread a Smile. I get up at 5:00 AM every day and exercise, which has a massive impact on me in terms of my productivity and my ability to function and just having some time to myself early in the morning, my energy levels, everything.

Chris: Do you ever have a question of kind of motivation, or do you ever have kind of down periods with it?

Lucy: No, never have down periods with it. There is always a new challenge. And whether that is about changing what we do, or setting up a new way of dealing with our finances internally or an HR issue or a recruitment issue or going through a period where I’m worried about our income or there is always, always, always a new challenge and it keeps it fresh and interesting and never dull.

And you know what Chris, I get to work with really great people, so you being one of them and that makes my job really interesting and exciting all the time.

Chris: It’s a lovely thing to be able to say in many ways that you never have that moment. It’s great and it’s probably why you can kind of keep going and keep evolving it and kind of keep pushing the charities to new heights.

From a point of view of the future, with all the work you’ve done for charity so far, do you ever have a view or a thought about your legacy regarding it? Does Legacy come into it? What are your kind of personal views on it?

Lucy: I don’t know, you know what, I’m not that person. I do the job and I get on with it and I would say kind of always get a bit embarrassed blowing my own trumpet but I’m pretty good at my job. I enjoy it and I keep turning up day to day.

I should say that at Spread a Smile in particular, we have the most incredible team of people who are also passionate and committed and it’s hard not to be without cause.

But obviously, they’re the ones that mean we can deliver that service and that we continue to get the most amazing feedback from the patients and families and why our supporters keep on supporting us year after year. And there’s a reason that all that happens, it’s not just luck.

Chris: Is the plan to keep on growing Spread a Smile?

Lucy: Yes. The plan is to keep on growing Spread a Smile. So, our ultimate ambition is to be able to provide our services for every single seriously ill child in the country. We want to be in another 11 hospitals this financial year, so from the 1st of April. And then we have a plan to kind of work our way up to get round to all of those hospitals.

It’s quite a big change from where we are now. We’ve been very London focused up until now. So, all of our entertainers are based in London, and it just takes some careful coordination to think about how we’re going to grow and develop. We pride ourselves on having a very high quality of service.

So, suddenly if we are sending entertainers in person to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, you can’t do that from London, you can’t run that from our team who manage all our entertainers in London. So, we just have to think about how that all works, how we maintain that control and that quality and how we’re going to raise the money to do it all.

Chris: The challenge of growth is no different in one sense for a charity as it is any other business, it may be arguably even harder because of some of the bits you have to go through and constraints that are on it. It’s very much a business that you’ve got to work within constraints because it financially is your main constraint.

Lucy: And also, as a charity, we should be taking every opportunity to get what we can for free, spend as little money as possible for sure. But obviously it makes things difficult, and we should always be like that.

We should always be seen to do that. We need to raise 1.4 million pounds this year. That’s what it’s going to cost us to deliver our services and it’s hard. We’re in a tough economic climate.

I remember talking to one of my friends a couple of years ago about the charity and how it works, and he said, “God, it’s just like running a business.” I was like, “Yeah, of course, it’s just like running a business.”

Chris: I generally think it’s harder because I know businesses, you sit there and you start the year and you say, right it we want to get to X revenue and then we will be, whether you’re saying that into profit, whatever metrics you want to use.

Whereas yours is, we have to get this to cover costs. And as you say, the years will look different, but you always start with zero every single time and that’s tough. Like does that kind of keep you awake at night or does that cause stress?

Lucy: I’m quite lucky that very little keeps me awake at night, my head hits the pillow, fall asleep, and wakes up at five o’clock in the morning. But ultimately it is stressful and we are trying to move towards a position where we have more funding that is committed to us so that we don’t start the year on zero.

So, for example, if a particular organisation says I want to give you X amount this year, X amount next year and X amount the year after, I’m going to make a three-year commitment, that’s the ideal scenario with all our partners and however they’re funding us, that they will commit a certain amount and then we know that we are not starting the year on zero.

Chris: That makes a lot of sense. I can see how that’s helpful certainly. If you kind of then I guess look back on the Spread a Smile journey in your own journey, is there anything that you would’ve changed or done differently?

Lucy: The six and a bit years I’ve been there have just been the most amazing journey. I said I’ve worked with our co-founders who are just the most inspirational, amazing, kind, compassionate people, and my promise to them was always that the charity would remain true to its founding vision and values and mission.

Got a really amazing chairman, got an incredible board of trustees, I said already our team are wonderful people. Is there anything I do differently? No, I don’t think there is. It’s got brilliant offices, obviously.

Chris: Lovely thing to be able to say that not thinking of doing things differently, which is great.

I mean you’ve had adversity that we’ve already discussed, certainly around the COVID point that it’s kind of allowed the charity to pivot and then probably has had the lucky impact of them fuelling your kind of further expansion because it’s probably easier to service all the different regional locations with that in your arsenal, should we say?

Lucy: Yeah.

Chris: If we think about leaving the listeners with kind of one key takeaway piece of advice or some tidbit of wisdom from your journey, what would it be and why?

Lucy: What I’ve learned recently is about authentically being yourself, showing up at work as yourself. I mean similarly outside of work as well and just really understanding about people and your team and the importance that they play in your organisation and that we are literally nothing, nothing without them.

I think I would say that. And I would also think that I would like to say push yourself a bit more and for me that’s been kind of physical. So, I’ve just returned from Morocco where I climbed a mountain with a team of, well there were 14 of us and we raised 34 grand for Spread a Smile.

By the way, we’re doing a trip next year if anyone wants to come. No more altitude though, please. I did that, I did three peaks last year and I just pushed myself and I think I came back from both of those trips thinking actually I can do anything. Anything I put my mind to, I can do.

Chris: Finally, we ask our guests of the podcast to leave a book on the Uncommon bookshelf for listeners to look upon and hopefully be inspired by. What book would you like to leave and why?

Lucy: So, I struggled a bit with this one because I read a lot of books. I recently, recently in the last, I don’t know, three or four years discovered kind of management books, leadership books honestly found them life changing. So, I struggled a bit with this. So, there’s one that I settled on, but can I give you my top three or four?

Chris: Yeah, yeah, please. More the merrier.

Lucy: Okay, so The 5AM Club, honestly, well a lot of it was a bit weird. I listened to the audio book and funny, every time my husband would come to me like, “What on earth are you listening to?” But just little bits that I took away from it, which enabled me to kind of the last few years changed my life, get up at five.

And so, I think that, I think Daring Greatly by Brene Brown was a real eye-opener and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was also amazing. I remember when that book came out and I read all the PR about it and I thought, “I’m never going to read this book. This doesn’t apply to me.”

This is a lady who has childcare and help coming out of her ears and this is not reflective of my life. And then I thought, “You know what Lucy, you’ve got to actually stop bitching about that book and read it.”

Oh my god, I just absolutely loved it, and I will recommend it to anyone. But the book that I’m going for on your bookshelf is Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. And I actually read it twice, have you read it?

Chris: I very weirdly have two copies on my bookshelf. It’s very good. Why do you love it so much?

Lucy: It just reinforced everything that I thought about the value of people in an organisation and the kind of organisation that I want Spread a Smile to be and the kind of organisation that I want my team to work for and talk to me about the kind of leader that I want to be and it was just amazing.

Someone very wise said to me about a year ago, “If you love a book that much, then read it twice,” so I did. The other thing I read twice, which should also be on my list is Atomic Habits, have you read that.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s good. I think the Leaders Eat Last book, the bit that’s fascinating, is just about verbalising what I think people in businesses have been feeling for quite a while, which is kind of that thought that it must be something more.

And there must be, as a leader, you must kind of view it that way. It’s not the traditional way that you thought business should be, which was a shouty boss that just goes for it and goes out front, it’s the opposite.

It’s kind of, you are actually there to be the best version of themselves and that requires you to do something and act a certain way. I guess my summary is that it gives you a different take on what you think traditional business should be which I found very helpful certainly.

Lucy: Your summary was much better than mine, thank you. Everything you said, that’s why I want to leave it on the shelf.

Chris: I’m not quite sure. I need to go read it again, it’s been a while. From the point of view of our listeners, if they want to get involved with Spread a Smile, where can they find you?

Lucy: You can find us in Uncommon in Highbury, and you can also find us online at So, that 1.4 million pounds I mentioned earlier, we have to raise all of that money ourselves. We don’t get any government funding whatsoever and there are lots of ways to get involved with what we do.

So, we’ve got a brilliant fundraising team who are really, really good at supporting all our corporate partners. Chris, I’m sure you could attest to that. We love adding people to our Spread a Smile family.

We would be delighted to hear from anybody who wanted to find out more, whether that’s about your company supporting us, supporting us as an individual, whether you want to run a half marathon for us, whether you want to come and volunteer at one of our events, just be in touch.

All our details are on our website, or you can find us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, all the usual places you would expect to see us.

Chris: Very good. I can truly attest to the wonderful work that you guys do. It’s certainly inspiring. It’s certainly inspiring in what you do personally. It’s wonderful seeing the team grow and you reaching more and more hospitals. So, the last thing for me to do is just to say thank you.

Lucy: Thank you and thank you for everything Uncommon do for us. Your team are brilliantly wonderful, and we love working with them. I love working with you and having got to know you over the last couple of years and just thank you for everything really means a lot to us.

Chris: You’re very welcome.

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Firstly, I really enjoyed speaking with Lucy. I love her honesty, passion, and enthusiasm. It’s conversations like these that make me stop and think just how amazing the people who work in the charity sector are.

They’re constantly trying to balance financial targets while dealing with the stories that really tug on heartstrings. They really should get nothing but praise.

Secondly, the creativity and resourcefulness, which Lucy and the team displayed when the pandemic effectively shut down their whole operations, you really get a sense of their passion to ensure their message makes it to children and their families.

Lastly, Spread a Smile as a charity is really making a difference. And I do encourage you all to go and have a look at the work they do.

I hope listening to the story has inspired you. And if you haven’t already, follow Alive with Possibilities wherever you get your podcasts, as there are different learnings in each and every.