Andrew Macpherson, Chair of The Violet Initiative and also Chair of Australia’s biggest social enterprise, Work Ventures, share his views on the organisation’s strategy and structure - and what brings him to this important work.
What brings you to Chair The Violet Initiative?
I have been a professional Board director for a number of years, with a mix of private, ASX listed and not-for-profit organisations. The mix is quite eclectic - agriculture, big data analytics, financial services, technology, tertiary education.
I was approached last year to become Chair of what was then called LifeCircle; an organisation that helps families supporting someone in the last stages of their life.
We all die, and most of us will be directly involved with someone close to us who dies. Most often it will be a notably uncomfortable experience - we don’t want to talk about it, we often don’t want to face up to it, the healthcare staff are great at technical and medical service, but sometimes struggle with emotions and empathy, and we don’t know where to go for counselling and support.
The specific reason I accepted the Chair role at The Violet Initiative was that both my parents died recently, and the experiences were challenging for my brother and I. Typical boys, we did it on our own and didn’t reach out for support. I regret now that I didn’t know about Violet then.
You have a great deal of experience in social enterprise. Tell us about these types of organisations.
I have been Chair of Australia’s oldest and probably largest social enterprise, Work Ventures for a number of years. We are a commercial business, and make money by repairing and refurbishing technology for some of Australia’s largest corporates, including Telstra and Westpac. We re-invest our profits in providing vocational training for disadvantaged youth around Australia. WorkVentures has been doing this work for over 35 years.
Now, I am also Chair of one of Australia’s emerging social enterprises, which is at a much earlier growth stage. We have a new strategy to support this growth.
For me, it is important that every organisation that I am involved with is run efficiently, provides excellent products and services to clients, and makes money. Just like a commercial business, a social enterprise needs to do all these things and as a result has made the money that can be invested back into the social purpose.
How does Violet generate revenue, so it can sustainably scale?
Violet has over 30 years of experience in providing counselling and support. To date, this service has been very ‘manual’ delivering through face-to-face counselling which cannot be scaled easily and quickly.
With the rename from LifeCircle, we have retained the IP, while re-architecting the business model and building a new technology platform that will deliver our services at much greater scale, to consumers, corporates and government. The recent focus has been on product development, and building the right partnerships - we are now ready to scale, with early adoption partners & customers.
Our business model is that our IP, and the use of our platform, will be free for consumers (families and caregivers), and we will charge a fee-for-service to our corporate and government clients.
From a funding viewpoint we are in a very strong position:
- We have secured substantial multi-year start-up funding from our philanthropic partners, including the Snow Foundation and The Wicking Trust.
- We have also begun to sign up corporate clients, the first of whom is Westpac who will use our services to support their staff who interact with the families and caregivers of deceased and dying customers.
- Our next task is to engage with the federal and state governments and integrate our offerings into the healthcare system.
The typical growth path to sustainability for a social enterprise is 5-7 years. Over the next 3 years we plan to spend 50% of our committed start up funds and prove the model. We also aim to be growing our revenue from corporate and government clients by year three. We are committed to not having any long-term dependency on philanthropy - this business must make money from our clients, and must be genuinely self-sustaining.
Explain the human and economic cost of regretful death in Australia.
Currently, there is an unprecedented focus on end of life (EOL). Throughout the COVID Pandemic and the Royal Commissions into Aged Care and Banking we have heard countless, heart wrenching stories of the human cost of people not having the end-of-life experience that they want and deserve. We refer to this as a ‘regretful’ death.
As well as the human cost, we also need to acknowledge the economic cost. Regretful death is a $1billion challenge in Australia - impacting individuals, businesses, health systems and our broader society. And this problem is growing, in line with our ageing population.
160,000 people will die in Australia this year; 100,000 of these deaths are predictable, that is, we know in advance that these people will die. The sad fact is that over half of these predictable deaths are regretful - the person dying did not receive the experience that they wanted.
We know, with 30 years of experience, that we have a service that is effective in closing the gap between the EOL experience people want, and the EOL experience they actually get - with support from government and the community, we can make a massive dent in both the human and economic costs.
The key challenge right now is tackling the uncomfortable, taboo topic of death and dying.
Why is this mission so important?
This issue is above any individual corporate, industry sector, demographic or ministerial portfolio - it is a widespread human issue that, for too long, we have thought about too late.
The pervasive impact of regretful death has dominated two Royal Commissions - Aged Care and Banking, causing massive reputational and financial damages to these sectors, and the Government bodies that govern them.
How can The Violet Initiative help solve this problem?
Our solution effectively guides people through the last stage of life:
- With our help, people are better prepared, more accepting, more able to have important conversations. This helps more people have the experience they would wish for, and deserve - reducing regret (and its associated costs);
- We challenge taboos around death and dying;
- We upskill individuals and families, we upskill the key parts of the workforce they interact with, we upskill our government and we upskill our society;
- We improve the end-of-life experience and consequently the significant human and economic costs of regretful death.
We want our solution to be delivered rapidly, and at scale - so, we need the support of government to integrate our solution into the healthcare system, the support of industry to upskill their staff, have crucial conversations and refer our services, and the support of our society to courageously step forward and have the uncomfortable conversations.