Spotlight on Not-for-profit Leader Melissa Reader

Melissa Reader,
Managing Director & CEO, The Violet Initiative
and CEW Scholar

This is the story of Melissa Reader, who is CEO, The Violet Initiative and 2021 CEW Entrepreneur Scholarship recipient.

Melissa understands better than most how challenging conversions around death can be. She dealt with grief as a young widow having to navigate the last stage of her first husband’s life. This experience spurred her on with the real purpose to establish The Violet Initiative, a national model that aims to normalise conversations and constructs around death and helping people to be better prepared and supported through their experience.

Through personal experience, Melissa found that people are uncertain and unprepared for the last stage of life. As a result, many Australians aren’t having the end-of-life experience they want or deserve. Like pregnancy, adolescence, and retirement, the last stage of life is real, universal and important. It’s also one that carries enormous system costs, estimated at $1B1 and rising. It is a life stage that can be hard to acknowledge and plan for – harder still, to talk about.

Melissa Reader, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at The Violet Initiative, has dedicated her career to creating positive impact the last stage of life so that more people are better prepared to die well.

As a national not-for-profit, Violet provides guidance and support about the last stage of life, grief, and loss. Violet also delivers training to organisations and providers whose work intersects with the last stage of life, helping them to build capacity, have better conversations, and refer people through to Violet for targeted support. Violet’s organisational model has seen an early adoption from aged care providers, banks and insurers, with powerful outcomes for individuals, caregivers, families, partners and stakeholders.

“Death remains a taboo topic, and one that we often choose to avoid. Enormous progress has been made in talking openly about other taboo topics like mental health,” Melissa explains. “We had no language for mental health a decade ago, now we have a narrative and breadth of support services. That is what we want to see for the last stage of life, and the end of life.

“A spotlight has been shone on death and dying, through the recent Aged Care Royal Commission, the rise in voluntary assisted dying legislation, and the substantial and enduring impacts of the pandemic,” she says. “We’re ready for a language and narrative that will normalise conversations and constructs around death.”

The recent release of the Lancet Commission on the Value of Death Report emphasised the need for change, explores the relationship between medicine and death and “the role of death in our health system, our communities, our society, our faiths and beliefs, and our physical world.”

“The evidence shows that this is a social issue that we must begin to look at differently. Dying has become overly medicalised and there’s an imbalance as society moves the very act of dying from the context of family, community, relationships, and culture to sit siloed within the health-care system,” said Melissa.

Melissa led the rebrand of the organisation and chose the name Violet, representing the first colour of the dawn and the last colour of the day – providing a safe, gentle and reassuring entry for people who reach out for support. She recognises the universal and unmet need that Violet provides and hopes it will come to sit alongside Beyond Blue and Lifeline in the public consciousness.

Melissa appreciates now is the time for this change and she hopes to use the AVIRA Overview: INSEAD course from her CEW Scholarship to help propel her and the work of Violet in the coming years. She was attracted to the course as it describes a focus on learning, reflection and growth as well as the need for leaders to “distinguish and grapple with both challenges that require changes in technology and those that require changes in behaviour”.

Armed with this additional ‘Awareness, Vision, Imagination, Role, Action’ understanding, Melissa hopes to help normalise the stigma around death and to help change the behaviour towards the final stages of life.

CEW offer several scholarships for women leaders, specifically tageted at leaders working in the not-for-profit sector, if you are interested in or know someone who would benefit from this opportunity, check your eligibility and apply now.