‘I see exciting opportunities for us to become leaders in learning within our sector’

Kerrie Sprason is Head of Talent Acquisition and Development at Acorns and has been leading an ambitious project at the charity called the Acorns Academy.

Building on ideas she had developed in previous roles – Kerrie saw an opportunity at Acorns with huge potential; to unite the charity’s different strands of learning and development under one umbrella.

It was a lofty aspiration for a charity like Acorns – and would mean implementing something more commonly seen in much larger organisations – where each role has a bespoke learning journey with a clear pathway to development.

However, after much scoping and viewing the possibilities through a wider lens, Kerrie and her team knew there were huge rewards to be reaped for the charity and its workforce.

A head and shoulders image of a lady with blonde hair wearing a yellow scarf and orange lanyard.
Kerrie Sprason, Head of Talent Acquisition and Development

Despite its size, Acorns is a complex organisation made up of three hospices, 45 charity shops and a number of departments all serving vital but very different purposes. To get the Academy concept off the ground in such a multilayered environment was a significant challenge.

Following 12 months of intense analysis, development and implementation across all areas of the charity, the Acorns Academy launched in September last year and has already made ripples across the UK hospice sector.

Kerrie shares how the concept came about and what’s next for this exciting project.

Hi Kerrie, can you tell us, what exactly is the Acorns Academy?

Essentially, the Acorns Academy brings all the learning across the charity, together in one place. It’s made up of around 110 bespoke learning pathways, ensuring all roles are clear in their mandatory learning responsibilities, enabling us to operate above the standard expected according to the regulatory and governing bodies.

There’s also a strong core and developmental element to the Academy. The core training empowers people to become effective in their role and develop to be the best they possibly can be in their day-to-day job. It does this through a blended approach such as scenario-based learning, immersive workshops and learning-transfer methods, all designed to continuously improve behaviours and impact results.

Acorns has a continuous focus on development, so that we can grow our own talent, making us more sustainable for the future. This means that the developmental aspect of Academy is crucial to us achieving the goals outlined in our organisational strategy.

Ultimately, the Academy’s purpose is to ensure the right learning is identified, designed, developed and implemented to all teams, enabling all our people to grow, learn and succeed.

Two nurses wearing scrubs undertake medical training at Acorns on a practice dummy baby.
A lady with brown hair scans items at the counter in an Acorns charity shop.

Where did the idea come from?

It’s hard to pinpoint as the initial concept has evolved over time. Beginning with a mix of successes I have had in much larger organisations such as the pub and restaurant operator, Mitchells & Butlers, Phones 4U and Holland & Barrett. Couple this with a deep analysis of Acorns’ needs, my own ambition, input from my talented team and a very supportive and enabling COO, Matt Bullock.

How much of a challenge was it to implement something like this at Acorns?

Acorns is a complex organisation with a wide variety of departments – from retail, to family and clinical services, fundraising and all the support functions – so yes it was and still is very challenging to meet the needs of such a diverse range of areas and roles.

The approach taken was massively varied across different areas depending on complexity and need. For example, our retail area was less challenging when compared to the clinical side, where extra layers of complexity, governance and CQC regulations need to be considered.

We are still in early days of the Academy with much more to implement and embed, although we are off to an incredible start, having won first place in the Lenny Training Awards 2023 for best training service.

What sort of things have you been doing to help embed the Academy across the care and retail teams at Acorns?

Some of the ways that are helping us embed the Academy is through collaboration and engagement with key stakeholders. We do have an ongoing embed plan which includes activities such as working with our marketing and communications team on the messaging, holding ‘Academy Campfires’ in hospices and shops, where people have the opportunity to talk to us about their specific learning journey or development. We’re also recruiting ‘Honorary Academy Trainers’ and subject matter experts from across the charity to support the creation and delivery of learning and much more.

Are there any others in the hospice sector doing similar things to the Academy?

I’ve had opportunities whilst at Acorns to work alongside and gain insights into other hospices and as far as I am aware we are very advanced in our learning offer within the sector. Saying that, I continue to widen my professional network and have met some extraordinary people with great ideas and practices.

Is this part of an overall trend towards organisations moving all their learning and development in-house?

Not really, we see more organisations bringing consultants and external training providers in house to support with the complexity of learning and development needs. It’s rare in smaller organisations to have this in house and the level that Acorns Academy offers.

Three Acorns nurses wearing blue scrubs undertaking first aid training with a practice dummy.
A little girl holding some paper plate artwork is held by an Acorns Nurse in purple scrubs

I hear there’s already been interest in the Academy from outside Acorns?

Yes, that’s right, the Academy has definitely caught people’s attention. A number of children’s hospices have reached out to us already and after some demonstrations of specific content, we are in advanced discussions over contracts for us to manage aspects of their learning through our Academy. We’ve also been approached to speak at a Charity Retail Association event as they’ve seen some of our Academy successes and snippets of the learning offer. I see exciting opportunities for Acorns to become leaders in learning within our sector and hopefully in time, the ‘go to’ place.

Are there any success stories you can share linked to the Academy?

The Academy only launched in September 2023 and we are already award winning – thanks to the Lenny Training Awards I mentioned earlier. We are very proud of this award, however success for me isn’t about that, it’s about the organisational results that come from developing our people. Whilst we often have small wins, I think it’s a bit too early to evaluate the overall success.

Some examples of early successes are that we now have three newly accredited coaches, all with internal clients and six more undertaking their Level 5 accredited coaching qualification. These qualifications will support our aim to have a coaching culture at Acorns and transfer learning into the workplace.

We’ve also been liaising with a leading global glass manufacturer, Nippon Sheet Glass Ltd (NSG) who have pledged an incredible £145,000 in levy funding that will allow us to further ‘grow our own’ nurses through our Trainee Nurse Associate Programme.

What’s next for the Academy? How do you see it developing?

There’s a huge amount of business-as-usual and developmental content being worked on so there’s definitely more to come. We’ll continue to work on the mandatory and core areas but a special focus this next year will be on the developmental learning needs of the individual, department and organisation. To help us meet these needs, we’ve just conducted an organisational-wide Training Needs Analysis (TNA) with a focus on development. Officially, phase two is about creating the volunteer Academy and then phase three is the commercial aspect, in other words – sales and generating income. As mentioned previously, phase three has presented opportunities earlier than we expected.

The next big piece of work is called Am I ready? which is all about empowering people and unlocking their role specific development activity to help them work towards the next stage in their career. We should have an internal talent pool of highly skilled people ready to go and Am I Ready? will deliver this.

There are lots of exciting things on the horizon, so watch this space!

Thanks for your time Kerrie

Kerrie can be found on LinkedIn here: www.linkedin.com/in/kerriesprason

To find out more about a career at Acorns click here.

Acorns Children’s Hospice has announced a £145,000 boost towards employee training, thanks to a leading global glass manufacturer.

Nippon Sheet Glass Ltd (NSG) has pledged the generous amount to support Acorns in upskilling its workforce over the coming year, by giving the charity’s employees access to specialist on-the-job training.

Representatives from Redditch-based Pilkington Automotive, part of the NSG family, visited Acorns for the Three Counties in Worcester to announce the funding, which has been made available through the UK’s Apprenticeship Levy scheme.

Stephanie Newell from the Talent Acquisition and Development team at Acorns, said: “We are incredibly grateful to NSG and Pilkington Automotive for pledging such a wonderful amount. It gives us a fantastic opportunity to enhance the training offer for our incredible teams and the vital care and support they provide to hundreds of local families.

“Learning and development is a key priority at Acorns, and we are committed to ensuring everyone at the charity has an opportunity to thrive. Levy gifting allows us to invest in our people and ‘grow-our-own’ talent through a wide range of qualifications, from specialist pediatric palliative care nurses, to accredited coaches that support teams to deliver organisational goals.

“We want to extend our heartfelt thanks to NSG for this continued pledge to support, this gift will be transformational for the future of Acorns.”

The Apprenticeship Levy scheme aims to create sustainable funding for qualifications and apprenticeships across the UK and allows levy-paying employers to transfer up to 25% of their funds to other employers, helping smaller organisations like Acorns invest more in training opportunities.

Emma Neal, HR Director UK and Global Functions at NSG, said: “At NSG, we understand how valuable the Apprenticeship Levy is to develop and upskill workforces to be ready for the future, and are delighted to pledge £145,000 to support Acorns to deliver its 24/25 development targets. This is the first time that NSG has transferred its Apprenticeship Levy, and we are happy that it will make a significant difference to Acorns’ workforce and the children and families they care for.”

Acorns provides specialist palliative care for children and young people with life limiting and life threatening conditions and support for their families.

Every year the charity cares for more than 700 children their families across the West Midlands and Gloucestershire, work which relies on donations and fundraising to continue.

Find out more about Acorns by visiting www.acorns.org.uk

It is with great sadness we share the news that longstanding Acorns Trustee, Jim McCarthy has passed away, following a courageous battle with cancer.

Jim, a Chartered Accountant by profession, held senior management positions in several market-leading commercial organisations, before in retirement applying his wealth of experience to the voluntary sector.

Introduced to Acorns by former Acorns Chairman, David Butcher, Jim was appointed as a Trustee and prospective Treasurer in 2011. He chaired the Resources Committee for six years before becoming Vice Chairman in 2019. He eventually stepped down from the Trustee Board in 2022.

It was in 2020 that Jim was given the news he had cancer, along with an initial prognosis that gave him just six months. However, through a combination of medical science and his characteristic tenacity, Jim continued to bless Acorns and those around him for several more years.

Jim’s impact on the Acorns Board has been invaluable, his extensive experience helping guide the charity through significant challenges, including a period of financial uncertainty in 2019, and the Covid pandemic. The charity that has emerged from these challenges is undoubtedly one stronger and more resilient thanks to the careful stewardship of people like Jim.

With over a decade of dedicated service to Acorns, Jim leaves a lasting legacy towards countless children and families across our region. He was a tireless advocate for our cause and, to everyone he worked with, a source of wisdom and sound judgement.

Acorns has received a steady flow of heartfelt tributes to Jim since the news of his passing, including from his fellow Trustees, all of whom are unanimous in their reflections of a brilliant friend and supportive colleague.

Four men in smart clothing holding picture frames featuring colourful images created by children cared for at Acorns.
Jim McCarthy (far left) with fellow Trustees Chris Sallnow and Tim Barrett at an event to mark their retirement from the Board.

“Jim had oversight of Acorns purse strings when I first met him and went on to become my choice as Vice Chair. Jim’s counsel was readily welcomed by all his trustee and executive colleagues, his insights were always worth hearing and his quiet and unassuming manner masked an inner strength and self-confidence second to none. I could not have wished for a better confidante. I was proud to count Jim as a friend and he will be sorely missed. I should like to extend my deepest condolences, and those of all his friends at Acorns, to Jim’s charming wife, Lynda, and to his family at this sad time.”

Mark Hopton, Acorns Chairman