Karen McDonald

Top 40 Under 40 2011

Photography 3Ten/Aaron Pedersen

Age: 32

Job Title: Director of Community Relations, Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton

Why She’s Top 40: She brought her private-sector savvy to the non-profit sector, to help a staple seniors’ centre increase its budget and tread new terrain.

Key To Success: “Always learn more, either by reading more or listening to others, just have curiosity and explore new things.”

While working toward her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Alberta in 1998, Karen McDonald took an administrative assistant job at a high-end seniors home. Ten years later, she still had a desk there, only it wasn’t the front desk. McDonald had taken on marketing and communications.

When it was time to move on to a new company, she couldn’t shake her passion for seniors’ issues. “A lot of us have the image of seniors from an RV commercial, where they’re frolicking on a beach with blond grandchildren. Perfect dentures and flowing grey hair. That’s the reality for some people, but in Edmonton we have seniors coming from diverse communities,” she says. “I was interested in getting into the non-profit sector, but I didn’t feel like my skill set was transferable.”

In 2009, she followed her instincts and was hired as a program co-ordinator with the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE), a downtown facility offering aging Edmontonians more than 20 programs to help with social, physical and mental well-being.

Right from the beginning, she impressed her colleagues and executive director, Roger Laing. She consolidated two unwieldy service directories, one for housing and one for seniors’ services. “I knew that nobody uses these publications in isolation,” says McDonald. By restructuring the ad rates and increasing corporate sponsorship, she drove up revenue and now, two promotions later, she’s director of community relations.

She likes to point out that, like the old directories, she doesn’t work in isolation. There’s a strong team at SAGE but, still, her leadership can’t be ignored. This year, she successfully pitched a Dragons’ Den-like investors panel for $10,000 to develop the SAGE Wellness Centre, a one-stop shop putting audiologists, therapists, masseurs and more under one roof.

It’s her dream to see it become more than just an idea on paper, but in the meantime, SAGE has plenty more on the go, including a new social networking class. “Today, a lady sent her first e-mail, and she put her hands in the air and she said, ‘I’m empowered!'” says McDonald, joking, “You can’t even make that stuff up for a grant application.”

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