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Retiring hospital foundation president leaving legacy on Saanich Peninsula

Karen Morgan helped save the Saanich Peninsula Hospital in its time of need
Karen Morgan, president and chief executive officer of the Saanich Peninsula Hospital and Healthcare Foundation, seen here in the rose garden of Saanich Peninsula Hospital, is retiring from her post after more than 20 years. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Karen Morgan had not sailed on BC Ferries for a long time at the time she interviewed for what is now the Saanich Peninsula Hospital and Healthcare Foundation.

“I have lost track of the fact that you need to plan around the schedules,” the foundation’s outgoing president and chief executive officer recalled. “So I set the time for the interview and then went out to the ferry terminal a few days later without really thinking about it. I got on the ferry and I realized that I was going to be late.”

What followed was something that might strike many as archaic: a call from a pay-phone on board the ferry. This was, after all, 2000.

“They were gracious and said they would wait and I think I was only half an hour late,” she said. “And we just had the most amazing interview in the end. I came out thinking, ‘this was probably the best interview of my life and they are never going to hire because I was late.’”

Morgan was wrong as the foundation offered her the job.

As she prepares to retire from her current post at the end of September, some two decades after her delayed interview, she leaves with a record of having transformed health care on the Saanich Peninsula.

Paul Hayes, who served as president of the board for three years and has known Morgan for 20 years, said she has been a passionate advocate for Saanich Peninsula Hospital and the foundation since her arrival. “She is a real believer in community health and community support. She moved the foundation along over the years and helped to make Saanich Peninsula a better place (in terms) of community health.”

When Saanich Peninsula Hospital faced the prospect of closure, Morgan used her connections and passion to help save it, Hayes said.

“She is basically the driving force behind where we are today,” said Shelley Mann, current board president. “Our hospital and our community would not have all of the amenities that the foundation has provided over the years.”

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Like Mann, Hayes pointed to Morgan’s network of connections in praising her leadership in various fundraising campaigns for medical equipment. He specifically pointed to her role in fundraising for the hospital’s purchase of a CT scanner.

“That was basically knowing that it wasn’t going to be funded, unless it was funded through (donors),” he said. “Karen went out there and she made that happen.”

Morgan also has the ability to make every donated dollar go so much further, said Mann, who also credits Morgan’s foresight. “She is very forward-thinking as to where the needs of the hospital are, and what we can do as a foundation and what we can bring to the table to help them get what they need.”

When asked what she considered her greatest accomplishment, Morgan said she hoped people see the creation of the Shoreline Medical Society as the foundation’s greatest accomplishment.

“In 2011, the physician shortages were getting so bad on the Peninsula that it was getting difficult to staff the hospital,” she said. “If we didn’t have doctors in the community, we wouldn’t have doctors at the hospital.”

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The creation of and continuous growth of the society (supported by the foundation) has reversed this trend. “We started in 2015 with five doctors and Shoreline now has 25 doctors,” Morgan said. “What I am really proud of is that people who need medical care are getting the care they need in and out of hospital.”

Morgan arrived on the Peninsula having worked two years as a fundraiser for the Fraser Institute. Being hired by the conservative think tank was no small feat for a card-carrying member of the federal Liberals, who twice ran for the party in 1990s on the Lower Mainland and served on a national roundtable on the environment and economy, where she first met now-local MP Elizabeth May.

The Fraser Institute initially rejected Morgan for a communications job, but her interview performance nonetheless impressed the organization.

RELATED: Saanich Peninsula foundation looks to grow funding for hospital memory garden

“It was the most intellectually stimulating place I have ever worked,” said Morgan. She noted, however, that the organization had a professional ceiling. “So I started to look around and the job here came up. And they just about did not interview me. Dale Henley, the board chair of the foundation at the time, thought I was too big city for them. But they decided to take a chance.”

That comment points to Morgan’s background.

Born in Toronto, “when it was very WASP and considerably smaller,” she has lived and worked in Winnipeg and Vancouver during her professional career, which has seen her work in a range of industries, starting as a Spanish translator for a now-defunct insurance company. “This insurance company was still settling claims from the Cuban revolution,” she said.

She then pursued a more people-focused career, working for a publishing company selling textbooks to universities and colleges.

“It was fascinating,” said Morgan, whose sales territory stretched from Windsor through Thunder Bay. She then pursued a masters of business administration in Winnipeg before finding her way to Greater Vancouver with her first husband, who ran a turf business. Morgan went back into the publishing business, working as an editor for UBC Press until the birth of her second daughter.

“Then I decided to take a little time off, which turned into my career in politics,” she said.

It is easy to see how these different aspects of her career have helped Morgan flourish in her role with the foundation.

“Fundamentally, fundraising is a marketing exercise,” she said. “And having the ability to run my own organization gave me the opportunity to test all of the marketing theory that I always wanted to try out.”

Over the years, she has also drawn on her professional training in publishing and financial analysis.

Her love of languages (she also speaks French and Latin) has also allowed her to engage with people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Morgan is “extremely personal, extremely connected within the community and even outside of our community,” said Mann. “She is extremely approachable … and is also very involved with the people who are donating the money to us.”

Looking ahead, Morgan said she keeps telling people she plans to sleep for the first month of her retirement. “This has been an incredibly demanding job,” she said. But it becomes a labour of love.”

Travel plans are also in the works.

Ultimately, that potentially inauspicious start in 2000 could not have worked better.

“It was the best decision I have ever made,” she said. “I knew it was coming over here for a great job. I didn’t realize what living on the Island would be like. Occasionally, over the years, I have gotten calls from head hunters in Vancouver. ‘We’ve got this job with this high-powered organization.’ And I have said, ‘unless, it pays a million dollars, I’m not interested. ‘What? You don’t want to come back to Vancouver?’”

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