Jessie Williams – the Groundswell Project

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Jessie Williams wants to live in a world where everybody is learning, privileged people work for equality, and dragon boat racing is the united nations sport of choice.

She is Executive Director of the Groundswell Project, a leading social enterprise known for using innovative arts and health programs to create social and cultural change about death and dying. As a learning entrepreneur, she’s facilitated for over 20 years for The School for Social Entrepreneurs, The Centre for Community Welfare Training, the Hunger Project and the Create Foundation. In all of her spare time, she runs learning sessions on grief, ethics and coaching.

When she’s not creating new partnerships and projects for GroundSwell, or in a room with 20 spirited entrepreneurs who want to change the world, you can find her captaining the underdog crew of the Sloths dragon boat team, dreaming to compete in China. Or watching Game of Thrones, or arguing with her husband about the existence of Feng Shui.

After losing her first-born son in 2006, she experienced post-traumatic growth thanks to her community and the practice of death ritual. Her passion with the GroundSwell Project keeps her up at night and she invites everyone to be a part of the collective change around death and dying in Australia.

As a social entrepreneur, I manage myself just like a business. Every morning I ask myself: What is my purpose today? What does Groundswell need today?

Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

Lived experience is a powerful catalyst for action. For me, it was when I reflected on the experience of my son dying and realising that the role of everyday people in helping me was fundamental to my healing and growth. I started to wonder about ageing and dying and the role that everyday people play at the end of life and stumbled upon three critical stats, firstly; 10/10 of us are going to die. Woah. Ok. And second, 70% of deaths are expected, so we have time to experience our dying moments as a part of our lives; lastly, 70% of Australian’s want to die at home but only 14% do.

Many Australian’s who are conscious about their mortality and want to live well to the end are seeking ways to improve their end of life experience. We call this developing one’s ‘death literacy’. There has been a groundswell for death literacy in the past few years and we see this drive for change as fundamentally a social movement. All social movements need all kinds of leaders. I took on the ED role with Groundswell after sitting on the board for 3 years. Our co-founders Kerrie Noonan and Peta Murray were finishing their PhDs and it was a great opportunity to grow our projects and impact. 

Can you explain your business model?

We are a registered charity with DGR status and a social enterprise. We run a number of projects that have a broad funding base that includes grants, fee-for-service, donations and corporate sponsorship.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

We only do stuff we love, let me list both our current work and an exciting new initiative:

Reflected Legacy: We have an amazing artist called Flutter Lyon in residence at the Palliative Care Hospital in Liverpool. Flutter conducts ‘pressing sessions’ where she captures the life stories of people who are in the final stages of their lives in beautiful visual artworks and sound recordings.

We deliver “10 Things to Know Before you Go”, a 4-hour workshop for everyday Australians to think about, talk about and plan well for their end of life.

Lastly, we’re thrilled to be launching our workplace initiative in March called: ‘The Compassionate Workplace’, building positive culture for people facing challenging times.

How do you make ideas happen?

When an idea springs forth, I’ll often sit with it for a few days, test it out with whom ever crosses my path, and consider it against our strategic equation to see if and how it fits. I’ll then consider the multiple and varied partnerships and relationships we as an organisation have, as nothing gets launched without working with others. Some explorations take time and need nurturing, others happen quickly, I suppose it depends on the energy, resources and timing of all parties. Networks are everything to getting ideas to happen.

What role have mentors played in your business life?

I have a constructive learning network made up of multiple, diverse people. Whether they are an executive or a spiritual teacher, they all contribute to my knowledge and I take those relationships seriously. They are all my brains trust and they are personal.

What does your typical day look like?

Let’s start with some metrics! 5 ground-breaking conversations, 4 hours of emails and writing, 2 face-to-face meetings, 1 hour engaging with my kids.  As a social entrepreneur, I manage myself just like a business. Every morning I ask myself: What is my purpose today? What does Groundswell need today?

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

Like so many, our challenge has been to grow from a grant-dependant organisation to a growing, thriving organisation that is wholly financially independent. With our new board, I’m excited about our new 3-year strategy that tackles this head on.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

“Your Network is your Net-worth”. If you are clear on your values and purpose, don’t conduct your business with those who don’t share them. In other words, don’t partner with people you don’t love.

What other people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?

The School for Social Entrepreneurs (I’m a bit biased as I consult with them) are starting to do some really interest things – I reckon watch this space for SSE!.

Tender Funerals is getting ready to launch – an amazing NFP funeral service in Port Kembla that’s going to disrupt the funeral industry 

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.


Peer Academy:

The Centre For Workplace leadership:

Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter.




Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea?

We have lots of opportunities for marketing support so totally get in touch if you’re interested in giving us a couple of hours each week. 

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Gratia – A social enterprise in Surry Hills. The food and people are divine.


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