'In Conversation with' Annie De Jong

Webinar Recording

'Balancing The Business of Death Care - Stakeholders, Sustainability and Risk'

The time and resource demands upon the modern Death Care sector are more significant than at any time in history. In this conversation with Annie De Jong, CEO of Ballarat General Cemetery Trust, as we discuss how she approaches management of three particularly demanding requirements within the industry:

  • Community and commercial stakeholder engagement.
  • Environmental and economic sustainability.
  • Fence it or fix it risk management

Transcript

John Hayley

OK, well, I think we might kick things off any and I guess. Thank you, everybody, for joining me today for our event in our latest in our conversation with Annie De Jong is going to be speaking with me on balancing the business of death care, stakeholders, sustainability and risk. And I'll properly introduce you in just a second and if I may, but before I do a couple of little points, we're going to be speaking for about 30 minutes today with some time at the end for questions and answers. If you've got any questions, please, we really would love them. Throw them into using the controls on the bottom, throw them into the Q&A. And if you have any related comments or chats or issues, throw that into the chat panel, if you would. That makes it a bit easier for us at the end to sort through and identify the actual questions out of the general chatter. So that would be fantastic.

We're going to be recording today's event as well and distributing copies of those recordings at the end. And of those recordings, please share them with anyone that you think might have an interest or benefit from them.

So. Annie De Jong, it's my very great pleasure to introduce you to our audience today. Thank you for joining us. And I loved you, sent me the two pictures. I loved your COVID normal pictures so much that I had to throw them both up there on the screen. So thank you very much for joining us.

Annie De Jong

Thanks, John.

John Hayley

You can see a few things about any and Ballarat General Cemetery up on the screen at the moment. But Annie has got better than 23 years of senior executive experience in the statutory and public sector across a diverse range of leadership roles that include CIO governance. And there's an enormous strength, as we're going to hear about today, in working with elected members, councils, community groups and organisational communities and things of that nature and that's the strength that's really let Annie lead her team into an ability to effectively target services into the community that meet the expectations of the community. And that's going to be part of our focus today.

So I know there is a broad amount of content for us to cover today, and we might just jump straight into it and see where it takes us and to throw the first one at you. We call today's topic balancing the business of death care and compassion, and providing a service is why we exist. But we do need to acknowledge that there are some commercial realities that enable that as well and I guess walking that line between compassion and commerciality is a bit of a challenge. And can you tell us a bit about how you, how that informs you and your team approach, that type of that type of balance?

Annie De Jong

Yeah. Thanks, John and hello, everybody. Look, you can say in front of you a bit of a stakeholder's list. Which we keep at hand here and it's certainly not an exhaustive list, but you know, primarily we're in the business of death care and you know although we're a not for profit you know, we need to be financially viable. So the primary function is to provide death care services to our community, no doubt about that, that's our primary responsibility and but as, this might be a little bit different in the regions, although I don't know that it is, I think if you want to be known as an essential community asset, you know, and one that a community can visit at any time and at any point. And part of that is sharing what you do with the community, and particularly I suppose over the last couple of years, for me, it's been a little bit more of the business community. So we're seen as a community asset and really now seen as also a recreational asset for people to wander the cemetery and I think cemeteries are certainly being a heightened awareness of beautiful parks that people can walk through, recreate through and that they might not always be a sad place, that they're a place for memories and reconnecting and seeing people and understanding, you know, the social history of communities.

So you just need to think that, like, we have lots of different stakeholders and balancing the essential part of death care, but also wanting to people to be interested in your facility and your community. We have a role to play in that and that only brings business to you because it's really that component of the market that you want to capture where people might not be considering placing in the cemetery. So that's a commercial arrangement and this is the opportunity. So I think the first thing is just to do a list of who you think your stakeholders are. And that's probably one of the very first things that I did when I started here.

And then in everything you do, you just go back to that list and you might not engage with all of them, but you'll engage with some of them. And we adopted the IAP2 framework because it's really simple, because you want to think about what's your purpose of engagement, not engaging just for the sake of engaging, but what's the purpose? You know, some of the long term purposes might be investment and some of the shorter term purposes are we want to inform. So this is the IAP2 engagement tool we use and it just sort of helps you think that and perhaps we could go to the next slide John, it just helps you think about everything, anything you're doing if you want to consult around it or talk to people around it, what's the purpose? So, for example, there's inform, consult, involved, collaboratory, empower. So decide who you want to engage with, for what purpose, and then how are you going to do it?

So, for example, if we're doing a change in cemetery practice, we're just going to tell the public, or visitors or the holder of rights what we're doing and then how we're going to do it. We don't necessarily want their feedback at this point, but if we do, they you'd think about another way you might be consulting so you do want their feedback or your sharing an idea or actually you want them to be part of a design.

So whenever we're doing anything, we think about this little table. So you can read the forty-five pages of the IAP engagement tool, or you can just simply think about it in a really simple form. You've got your stakeholders, who do you want to talk to, and why do you want to talk to them and, so we're very small organization, so we really think about it in a simple way. And when you get it right, you get some great community benefit and you bring it and you increase your community's awareness of the work that you do. So partly when you get it wrong they'll be forgiving.

John Hayley

If you've got some credit in the bank.

Annie De Jong

Yeah, that's right. You've got some credit in the bank. So, I mean, engagement with the community is essential. And I think thinking about your business stakeholders as well as, you know, people who use your cemetery, your neighbors, and also being seen as somebody to be consulted, you know, when there's anything to do with death care and, you know, the pandemic has certainly taught us about that, you know, times when you need to be independent and make decisions and times when you need information from others. So if you built those relationships, it just makes it much easier.

John Hayley

Yeah, and I was looking through, you know, some of the things that you're doing out there and I love so much the things you're doing around the workshops with the fruit pruning and rose pruning. I mean, I think those are just wonderfully creative, but they speak to all of the things that you're talking about there as well, engage with the community, they get them to think of you in a different light. They get them to think of you as a source of knowledge and advice as well. Yeah, I just I love that so much. Where did that kind of idea come from out of this framework? I guess looking at the stakeholders

Annie De Jong

Some of it came out of the framework, but some of it you know, we have a dozen staff that really work in the grounds all the time and it's actually about understanding what we do well and how we can share that. You know, if I didn't have a team of staff that looked after roses and fruit trees, we probably wouldn't run it, you know, because people stop them and ask questions and ultimately, we're a commercial organization and we want them to buy so we bring them to the cemetery for another purpose then that's a whole opportunity to engage.

John Hayley

And again, it's building that credit in the bank as well, understanding that yes, there's a commercial there, but they're giving back to me as a community as well.

Annie De Jong

Yeah. And, you know, my team come up with the ideas, the the staff come up with the ideas, you know, and they talk to people they know what's around, you know. Heritage Weekend, a wonderful staff member that just has wonderful ideas of how we can talk to the community. It's just about having the resources and to actually do it.

John Hayley

And I mean. You talk about building a credit in the bank and, you know, you sent through a little bit of things for me and I did a bit of looking around myself with this. The intangibles that we talked about, and then there's just the tangible stuff like this, I mean, when it goes right, the benefits that you get in the community engagement or the community profile that you talk about, there's no such thing as bad publicity, fine. But when you get the good publicity. Well...

Annie De Jong

Yes. Yes, that's right that this one that worked really well for us, but you know, there have been others that haven't. And you're right it's about having goodwill in the bank so that hopefully when you do get a bit of bad publicity or something goes wrong, people can say, yeah, that was really bad, but mostly they get it right. You know, it's interesting working in this industry because it's an industry really that we can't get too many things wrong from a service perspective because people remember forever it's not like you redo it.

John Hayley

Yeah, the emotions are so heightened. And I guess that's a beautiful Segway, one of the other things that we put in the topic header was around the concept of risk and management thereof and, you know, when you and I were chatting and throwing around some of the ideas for this event, you threw a great, great tagline to me, fix it or fence it, I think the phrase that you use, which again, I just loved and will shamelessly use for the rest of my life. So thank you.

Annie De Jong

I have a motto around that, because risk is really, you know, something that I've done a huge amount of work on from really big risk frameworks to really simple things. And for me, you just got to know about that because then you can manage it and make a decision about it. You know, the picture on the right of the gravestone, well that's been fenced for two and a half years, maybe three years, you know, because you can't fix everything and, with limited amount of resources and we can't find that family. So hopefully at some point somebody will walk in and say, hey, I know about that and give us a call, but really, we're going to have to lay those monuments down. We can't find the families, but at the moment we don't have the resources time to do it so I'm happy to fence it.

You know, as long as you don't fencing your whole cemetery

John Hayley

It's like we said at the very start, there's a balance to be walked. Yes. We're a caring, compassionate death care organization, but there are commercial realities and someone has to pay the ground people and someone has to pay the monumental masons, and that's life.

Annie De Jong

And, you know, those rotundas they're a  beautiful historic asset that we just haven't had funds to fix and now they've gone to a certain point, but, you know, we've got five of them and we've got to raise half a million dollars somehow or have it funded to fix them. So, again, I'd love for them not to be things, but they're safe, they're solid, they protect our community and we'll get to it.

John Hayley

Absolutely.

Annie De Jong

So for me, risk is about knowing and then not no expectation that you can fix everything, nobody can. Understanding what's an acceptable risk and what's not and if it's not just mitigating it and that might be fencing it.

John Hayley

Fix it or fence it.

Annie De Jong

Yeah fix it or fence it.

John Hayley

And again, that's a nice little Segway into the concept of sustainability, because I guess one of the things that when we were chatting that really struck me is that there's the two parts to sustainability, nowadays we talk about sustainability and the first thing everyone thinks of is environmental sustainability, and that's crucial. But right alongside that is economic sustainability. I mean, cemeteries have an enormous debt into the future economically. You know, we can see some some stuff there. Can you say a few things about that?

Annie De Jong

Yeah. Sustainability is a word that is thrown around a lot and for me there's alot, you know, there's financial sustainability, there's succession planning, sustainability of your staff and environmental sustainability, and for me, I suppose I want to talk a little bit here about environmental sustainability, because, you know, it's it's a hot topic and people want to save our planet and make sure that it's available into the future. But, you know, you talk about perpetual maintenance, I'd love to talk to a cemetery that's got enough money put away for Perpetual maintenance. That would be really fascinating.

But this thing about sustainability is that there's lots of people out there that, you know, I'm really happy to help. Like, we've got this solar purchasing agreement that we've just gone out to tender for well we have an environmental group in Ballarat who wrote the tender for us, helped us get funding for it and really we've spent a bit of time on it, but we haven't actually had to do all of the work. And this is going to save us a quarter of a million dollars over twenty five years. So ten thousand dollars a year. And after so many years, we'll own it.

So, but we had to put a little bit of time into it, but we don't have to put any capital in it. And, you know, this is we're a bit larger than some organisations and this is about one hundred thousand dollar build. But I think you need to think about environment on a really small level and anything you can do, you do. So, for example, you know, we've got a local guy who moves bees and we had bees in our cemetery and we don't want to kill the bees because we want to be sensitive to the environment. They play a really important role and he comes in moves them for us. You know, we've, when we think about our small plant like whippersnippers and small plant like that, we've started to move to powered, electric powered. So we're not using fuel that's not good for the environment, but you do a little bit at a time. But what I'd say is there's lots of people in the community that really want to do this stuff that, you know, they might take a lot of your time sometimes and they're very enthusiastic

John Hayley

passion comes with a price

Annie De Jong

Absolutely, but usually they'll give you a bit of volunteer time. And I would just encourage people to let them have a go. Carve off a small bit like at the moment and has been really good, is really big for a long time is the integrated pest management. So using some pests to kill other pests to get rid of them rather than pesticides. So we haven't done any of that and we're about to start to dabble. There's a member of our community who is really enthusiastic and wants to come in and provide us with some advice and we'll test a little bit, you know, and it's not going to harm anything. You might not get rid of the pest, but then we'll have another go next year so I suppose this is a bit of a big project for us, but I'll just encourage people just to embrace the community, have a go. You know, every little bit helps.

John Hayley

You know, it's the wonderful culmination of everything that we just spoke about. Start with some of the analysis of what is my risk environment, because risk can mean more than just the obvious. How do I? Who are my stakeholders that I can reach out to, that I can take some of my credit to the bank with and bring them back in and loop it through, and then, you know, I can imagine that you could quite easily get some fantastic community stories out of a lot of these things as well.

Annie De Jong

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we've got a wonderful group here called Breeze that, you know, just come in and provide us advice when we need it, you know, like, I'd love to play around with biochar and I know nothing about it, but they'll connect me with somebody who knows something about it and and, you know, there's usually people that are willing to give a bit of free advice around this stuff.

John Hayley

Also just to tangent off into a different direction, but again related. I love some of the work that you've done around looking at what's the traditional engagement with a cemetery? What are the things that people are putting forward from a historical perspective and try to get some stories of women out there? I saw that, I think, I forget the number, but it was an overwhelming number of the stories relating to the people in your cemetery that were all men. And as a man that I don't necessarily always see all that, but when you pointed out, yeah, absolutely.

Annie De Jong

Yeah. And we had a lovely gentleman that was on our community advisory committee and he found a caricature of people who had built Ballarat. And it was a book that was published about 30 or 40 years ago and started to build those stories of people who were in our cemetery, which was awesome. But we sat down, had a bit of a look at the book, and it was all men so for our hundred and fifty years, we started a bit of a program of collecting women's stories who built the fabric of Ballarat. And we, of course, Ballarat, we started with the Eureka women in the Goldfields because that had already been written about. But now we're at a point where we really want everyday women stories. And that's a way that you can engage with your community and they'll tell you. When we say to people, you don't have to spend a lot of time, just think about what the eulogy was, you know, because a eulogy is a great story about a person and very personal from usually a family member or friend, I said just send us that and we'll put the stories up.

John Hayley

That's so great and, you know, again, to bring that complete loop back in around the community at the other end, there's the things you're doing around the Anzac Day, getting the kids in to plant the flags, which again is approaching that at a different demographic, in a different section of the community, and hopefully bringing them in with a different relationship to death and cemeteries right from the very start, I guess.

Annie De Jong

Yeah, you're right, John. And I pinched that from Geelong they were doing that in Colac long before we were which was fantastic and I think that that's also the point is that, you know, we're not trailblazers in this. Like we're not different to any other cemetery, everybody has these ideas and I've pinched a lot of them from other cemeteries. So we share and that's the beauty of our industry and our industry associations in being able to share that information across, you know the women idea although it came from that I was visiting in Adelaide and I think it's Torrens Cemetery over there have done a booklet on their women. So, you know, I think that my husband would say not another cemetery because whenever we go away I look at a cemetery, because you get great ideas by talking to other people, you know, we're not on that. These aren't all our ideas, we've pinched them from lots of people.

John Hayley

Yeah, it's not it's not pitching, it's inspired by it's like the music that's inspired by, these were my influences.

Annie De Jong

I'm a bit more down-to-earth in that, we pinch.

John Hayley

Ah very good. Sorry I'm just looking down my little list of notes and things here. You know, one of the things that we spoke about in one of my earlier events too, was the question breaching out of sustainability around natural burials and things like that and again, the questions of economic sustainability, the questions of environmental sustainability, the questions of risk around that. And do you have some thoughts around that sort of area as well?

Annie De Jong

I do. And I know that you've had a presentation on natural burial areas. And I my view is that there's no one model that everybody agrees with around the natural burial. I think the challenge for us in cemeteries is people have different views around what a natural burial means to them or what a natural place means to them. You can take the environmental definition around an undisturbed area, but for some people, it's being buried at a depth that you return to the earth.

You know, for some people, it's being buried in a shroud so you return to the earth quicker. For some people, it's being buried in an area where it's not marked and a tree grows on you. You know, there's a wonderful organization that have, and I think GMCT did this, again, you know, you learn from others. The living legacy trees where they mix organic matter with ashes that become part of the DNA of the tree and give back the oxygen that you've taken from the planet. That's a beautiful, beautiful story. So, I know that there's some pure definitions of a natural burial, but I think that there's lots of interpretations around that, which all makes it really challenging for us to create a natural environment because we can do a shallow grave right now. It's just whether you want a tree grown on you, it's I think that that's a challenge for cemeteries is, is defining what that looks like and what the offering is and there's lots of talk about it. I'm not sure it makes money yet, but it's a great option. I think it's got to be in your options for your community.

John Hayley

Well, that's what I loved about the model we looked at the start to go out and understand all the different influences around something like this. Who are the stakeholders? What's the buy-in, what's the community element to it? What's the commercial element to it? And then to look at the risk element to it as well, because there is a significant risk element to some of the aspects of what that means.

Annie De Jong

Yeah, and I think for me, a natural burial, that's where I would go back to that,  that the IAP framework and say that's one actually that I want the communities view on. So what does natural burial mean to you? Like what's important to you before I developed anything. And is there a driver? Which is interesting because consultation about death and dying is really hard. You know, not everybody wants to talk about it. So sometimes you just have to build it and see if people use it. So one of my colleagues has a fantastic final question, whenever she's talking to someone you may have heard her ask it before. What's the question that I haven't asked you that I should have Annie?

Annie De Jong

Oh, that's...

John Hayley

There's a question without notice for you.

Annie De Jong

Wow, that is a question without notice. I suppose you know that I think the thing to acknowledge is that when I get it right, you know, we've had situations where we've narrowly missed a really bad story on the front page of the paper or, you know, where we've had to, where we've had to, where we've done something wrong, because you can't you can't be...

John Hayley

It's gonna happen

Annie De Jong

You can't do it right all the time. And for me, it's in this environment that we work in I always apologize first. So what do you do when you get it wrong? I'm terribly sorry that we didn't meet your expectations, because most of the time that's all. Sometimes not, most of the time, that's what people want to hear. But, you know, it's easy to get up here and say this is how we do it right? This is how everybody gets it wrong. And in our environment, because it's such a sensitive environment and it's really tough to manage, really tough to manage.

So I think if anybody says that, you know, that I have I don't get it wrong for the community, I'd question it and it's really hard. It's really hard because you can't redo a funeral when you get it wrong, it's something they'll remember for a long time. Yeah.

John Hayley

But, as we've alluded to here, if you if you've got the right reputation amongst the community and the right values within the business and or the organization, and you've got that credit in the bank, then as you say, they might not forget it, but hopefully they'll at least accept it.

Annie De Jong

Yes. You hope, sometimes it works.

John Hayley

That's the goal anyway.

Annie De Jong

Yes.

John Hayley

Which brings us perfectly onto our time here, I guess, before we go to questions. Do you have any sort of closing words and you might have hit them there, but any closing words you'd like to impart to our audience Annie?

Annie De Jong

Oh, look, I just think, you know, I've been in this industry now just over five years, and beautiful people work in this industry, like it's really, I had little concept of how big it is and how sometimes complex it is but the one thing is, you know, we talk about getting it wrong. Nobody walks into work every day and says, I'm going to do it wrong today. You know, they're genuine mistakes and everybody in our industry genuinely just wants to provide a great service. So that's really fantastic. Like, it's a credit to everybody and, you know, people share, it's fantastic. They just share, which is terrific. So, you know, it's a great industry to work in.

John Hayley

Yeah and I absolutely would endorse that.

It's been one of the great delights as I've moved in, you know, out of more pure tech and into tech for this sector, the sense of community and, you know, we've talked about it a couple of times, but at heart, all of the organizations are community organizations that are about care and compassion and yes, they've got to a commercial balance they need to walk. But if they have to fall on one side of that, we generally know which side of that compassion versus commercial line they're going to fall.

Annie De Jong

Yeah. And, you know, a big thank you right now during the pandemic to our community.

John Hayley

Just on that. So. As an excellent way to end up just looking down the questions here, sorry, and throw any more, we don't have too many today. I hope that's a good sign. One that we've got here in relation to community engagement is and as always, I'm going to sort of paraphrase here a little bit is about, you know, for even smaller organizations  that might have only volunteer based trusts and boards and all that type of thing. What advice can you give them about trying to find the time to reach out to the community and get that level of engagement? I have some thoughts, but yours are the more important.

Annie De Jong

Yeah, like, um, I think in smaller communities, it's a little easier. I was talking to a small cemetery the other day and, you know, I think they're going to have a little stand at their local market, you know, so, you know, so it might not be necessarily bringing people in. It's actually might be just going to a community events and just talking. So I think yeah, I think that is what I'd say. It doesn't have to be a big engagement. And sometimes it's putting up a sign in your local post office or in your local community hall. And I know that everything takes time, but it can be simple things like that, like a trestle table at the local market, for  a couple of hours.

John Hayley

Yep

Annie De Jong

and little gems might come out, you might get another volunteer. I think that's the biggest challenge is finding volunteers and that's something that we don't do particularly well and would like to start, but I'm with them, it's about finding the time. So I think it's the little things that can be little gems. So if you don't have a brochure, you don't have a brochure, put a sign up and sit on the trestle table and talk to people about the cemetery.

John Hayley

I mean, my refrain personally on all of these things comes down to whether it's community engagement, whether it's systems, whether whatever it is, just start. Anything is better than nothing. As you say, two hours at the local farmer's market is a million times better than not spending 2 hours at the local farmer's market

Annie De Jong

Yeah. Or the local crochet group or, you know, the local rotary or, you know, spending, you know, asking if you can speak for ten minutes about any needs in the cemetery. Rotary and Lions Clubs andCFA and CWA are fantastic for cemeteries.

John Hayley

Tapping, tapping into other volunteer focused organizations where you've got the community of volunteers, people that already are engaged with the community. I can see that.

Annie De Jong

And if you don't have a website or an email or anything like that, you know, Facebook for our demographic really works.

John Hayley

Even the other day, I went down to the local library and they had in the window some pictures around a couple of community groups that were doing history as it relates to this specific area and I sort of was thinking what an easy tie in to approach those same sort of people and say, can we can some discussion about the people that are in the local cemetery into those same lectures, and a win for everyone?

Annie De Jong

Yeah, and some of that if anybody has, like neighborhood houses, they usually have a bit of a history group associated with them or a volunteer group that you might find somebody who's interested and and look, we don't do you volunteering very well here yet.

John Hayley

Yeah, that's OK. As you said, you can only do so much and you've got to start somewhere. Very good, look that, for a change is the end of our questions. We didn't get a lot today. I hope that that's a good sign. I think it was I thought was fantastic and really appreciated your time Annie.

Annie De Jong

My pleasure

John Hayley

So I guess with that you can see the contact details on the screen at the moment. Reach out to either of us if we can offer any sort of insight or advice or anything. Speaking purely self-serving from OpusXenta, head to our website and have a look at some of the things on there and the same at Ballarat Cemeteries. There are some amazing resources on there as well, including your same as ours, the events that you run, the prunings that I talked about, the pruning workshops.

Um, so thank you, everybody, for your time and we look forward to speaking to you again.

Annie De Jong

Have a great day. Thanks

John Hayley

Cheers

 

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