Even in charitable giving, the adage “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” rings true. That was the approach Alan Harman, director and portfolio manager with ScotiaMcLeod Inc. in Toronto, took when he founded the Alma Children’s Education Foundation in 2009.
“I’d been involved in a number of charities here in Toronto and I was suffering from United Way fatigue,” says Harman, who is 53 years old. “These very large charities had good intentions but, in my opinion, either weren’t working or I was having trouble seeing the effectiveness of their work.”
Harman decided to create Alma after a six-month family vacation travelling through South America five years ago.
“[We] just fell in love with the people in Peru, particularly,” he says. “Everyone was wonderful, but [Peruvians] were particularly nice and, ironically, particularly poor. So, I just wanted to do something about that.”
After Harman’s return to Canada, he did some research, discussing with academics at home and experts on the ground in South America about how best to help people in Peru. In the end, he decided to focus on education, and now the Alma charity operates 13 projects. The majority of the projects are in Peru, but there also are a couple of programs operating in Bolivia.
One of Alma’s more successful projects is its homework clubs. The homework clubs provide children with individual attention from three teachers – whom the charity trains and pays – in communications, mathematics and computer training.
“We’ve had huge success with these clubs,” says Harman. “We’ve had one in Cusco [province in southern Peru] in which we have 40 kids regularly showing up to this little cement bunker.”
In addition to helping students in Peru, Harman says, Alma has helped kids in Canada as well. Over the years, colleagues at ScotiaMcLeod and their teenage children have visited Peru with Harman to see first-hand the projects that Alma runs. As well, a private school in Toronto is engaged in fundraising for the charity and often asks Harman to come in to speak with students.
“That, for me, is really gratifying,” Harman says, “because, when you see young people motivated like that, I like to think it changes their outlook on the world and, perhaps, they’re going to go on to do… social change-oriented activities because of their experience with Alma.”
But not all of Alma’s initiatives have been a success. Several nutritional programs have been particularly difficult to get off the ground, Harman says. In January, a mudslide wiped out a trout farm in a village in Cusco that had sustained a lunch program for local students, putting that entire program back to Square 1.
Harman spends about half his day working on Alma, focusing primarily on fundraising initiatives. The charity has one full-time employee in South America, a program director who keeps an eye on current projects and looks for future initiatives to start. As well, the charity also employs a part-time administrative assistant. About 10 volunteers in Toronto help out with various jobs for Alma.
In the future, Harman hopes to increase the foundation’s presence in Peru and Bolivia and to expand to other parts of South America and the Caribbean, such as Cuba. Harman is particularly keen to start projects in very remote areas of Peru because they’re largely untouched by non-governmental organizations.
Social change and charitable endeavours are never far from Harman’s mind in either his professional (his business consists entirely of socially responsible portfolios) or personal life.
As well, Harman sits on the boards of directors of three charities: Variety Village, which provides programs for people with disabilities; the Small Change Fund, which connects donors with grassroots organizations; and Adopt-a-Dog/Save-a-Life Inc.
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