Karen Fowler: Reflections of a Fundraiser

26 October, 2022 | Profiles, St. Boniface Hospital

As National Philanthropy Day (November 15th) approaches, we spoke to Karen Fowler, the President and CEO of the St. Boniface Hospital Foundation, about why philanthropy matters, how it’s evolving and why, 30 years into her career, she still loves it so much.

Réseau Compassion Network (RCN): There’s been a lot of change in the philanthropy sector through the years. What have you noticed?

Karen Fowler (KF): Fundraising as a profession has only been around for 50 or 60 years. It’s still relatively new, but there are definitely trends that have shifted over time. Thirty years ago, there were a lot more donors who were giving in smaller amounts. Now, there are fewer donors who are giving larger amounts. And donors are much more sophisticated in how they make their gifts. Those who can afford to make larger investments are really thinking through the impact they want to have with their giving. It used to be about getting a tax receipt for some donors, but now it’s about the difference they can make. As fundraisers, we’re adapting and facilitating introductions between donors and researchers, for example. Any moment where you get to actually see the connection of the donor to the impact that they’re having is really beautiful. It’s a full circle moment because they made a gift to support a particular area and suddenly, there’s a personal connection there, too. Everyone is working towards the common good.

RCN: Are there any aspects of philanthropy that have stayed constant?

KF: Lots of things haven’t changed at all: the fundamental reason people support a hospital has stayed the same. Someone has watched their loved one be cared for, or their own lives have been saved or improved through the care they’ve received during a difficult time. That’s what drives them to give. The staff at St. Boniface Hospital live the values of compassion and care every single day, and donors want to recognize that. 

RCN: As health care becomes more complex and costly, how can hospital foundations make the most impact?

Karen Fowler

KF: We talk about this a lot at the board level: what’s the true impact of our foundation in St. Boniface Hospital? We know that they are funded by the province to operate and that’s the main revenue that keeps the hospital running. Our contribution is a lot smaller but we know the money that we give really enhances the culture of the hospital. If a department needs a piece of specialized equipment, we can help with that. We can renovate a space. We can help to build a new Emergency Department (ED). In the current plan for the creation of our ED, there are pieces that will only exist because our donors have funded them1. We have an ability to enhance almost any area in the hospital. 

RCN: You’ve worked in annual giving, planned giving, special events and with major donors. You started as a database clerk in a children’s hospital and have worked your way up to President and CEO. The need for fundraisers is great in so many sectors. What is it about health care that has kept you here?

KF: It’s really heart-warming to see that philanthropy is alive and well in our community. What really keeps me here is the stories of those who donate to the hospital. Not everyone is making a gift because of a happy event, you know? Often, these gifts are in memory of a loved one who has passed away, but they see the importance of supporting because of the compassion they were shown. I get letters from donors that touch me so deeply. I get emotional when I think about all that some people, some families, have been through, and yet they still take the time to think of the hospital, to give back. The opportunity to work in a field where you have the ability to celebrate the kindness of others is a total privilege.

1 The St. Boniface Hospital Foundation is currently running a $10 million capital campaign to support the new Emergency Department. To find out more or to make a donation, please click here.