Family Vocation: How To Give Back While On Vacation

Increasingly, Canadian households are eschewing corporate charities in favour of launching their own grassroots organizations. Inside the complex world of doing good, family-style.

Family Vocation: How To Give Back While On VacationJanet Chaucca Paucar used to start her mornings high above the clouds, in a crude adobe-brick home 3,800 metres above sea level. For almost three hours, the teenager and 37 other students from the remote, indigenous village of Q’enqo in Peru’s Andes mountains wound down a rutted dirt road carved into the side of a cliff. The route to the nearest high school in the Sacred Valley was so perilous a clump of white crosses marks the spot where drivers unfamiliar with the area died going over the edge. After a six-hour round trip, few of the children, if any, did homework.

A journey Alan Harman took along a similarly treacherous mountain path-the 43-kilometre Inca Trail to Machu Picchu-would change not only his life but Paucar’s, too, and those of hundreds of other Peruvian children and their families.

Harman, a Toronto portfolio manager, his wife, Carine Blin, a nonprofit fundraiser, and their three children, Michael, 18, Tiana, 16, and Saskia, 12, made the Trail trek while on a much-anticipated vacation in 2008. But once there, among the mythic ruins, Harman couldn’t fully enjoy himself. Watching porters lug his packs up steep crags for pennies a day made him deeply ashamed. “We were wearing expensive hiking gear, and they were wearing $2 flip-flops. It seemed terribly unfair, and I wanted to do something about it,” says the 52-year-old. “We thought we would try to do some kind of volunteer work, but organizations don’t really want volunteers for a day or a week.”

So instead, Harman came home and registered a charity, the Alma Children’s Education Foundation. Now, by day, he manages portfolios for Cana-dian clients at Scotiabank, and by night he helps provide quality education to Peruvian youth. While most of the country’s children attend school, the system they’re depending upon is deeply troubled. Of 65 countries, Peru lands almost dead last in the Organ-isation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s ranking of student performance. And things are worse in the Andes, where indigenous peoples speak Quechua instead of Spanish, the language of instruction: Rural literacy levels are 15 percent below the national average.

To address these inequalities, Alma takes a micro-philanthropy approach. With its annual budget of $110,000-raised from 40 or so private donors and a small number of corporations-the organization currently funds 10 projects in Peru, working primarily in partnership with local initiatives. Undertakings include a library and tutoring centre; a vocational school that offers career training to teen girls; and a weekend academy to help students in rural communities get into university. For a year, starting in May 2011, Harman paid drivers to transport Paucar and her classmates to and from school, shortening their travel to just over an hour each way. Teachers reported improvements in the students’ performance: Fewer fell asleep in class, and more did homework. “There were days when I wouldn’t go,” Paucar confessed through a translator. “Now I arrive well.”

The Harmans aren’t the only Canadian family returning from a vacation inspired to help. Alma is among the roughly 86,000 registered charities listed by Revenue Canada. While the exact number of family-run charities isn’t tallied, over 5,000 of the organizations are private foundations, which are often family affairs. Households wary of large corporate charities are launching grassroots endeavours, hoping to transform the lives of others and add meaning to their own.

It’s a kind of giving that feels more rewarding than cutting a cheque to a charity that can end up handing over only a fraction of funds to the needy, Harman explains. Lack of transparency-not knowing what a charity spends on fundraising and administration-is a key concern of Canadian donors, according to the Muttart Foundation, which works to support and develop the charitable sector. According to sector watchdog Charity Intelligence Canada, nearly 20 percent of the country’s 100 largest charities don’t provide public access to audited financial statements, though the new federally funded online tools Charity Quickview and Charity Focus aim to broaden public access to financials.

Then there’s the feel-good factor. “I am substantially more engaged in this than any big-name charity I just donate money to,” Harman says. One of his goals is to inspire Canadians to get involved in philanthropy, maybe even influence the next Craig Kielburger. To this end, he’s partnered with Canadian schools and led trips for donors and their families to his projects. His daughter Tiana has been to Peru twice to see the work Alma is doing. Prior to those visits,  she says,  “I was living in a bubble and had no idea how the majority of the world was living.”

While running a family charity can be rewarding, it comes with a cost: time, frustration and paperwork. Harman had tried at first to work through the Tides Canada Foundation, which serves as an administrative conduit for donations to various causes, but he grew frustrated with the fees and the lag between raising money and being able to distribute it. So he decided to strike out on his own. He was intimidated enough by the registration process that he hired a lawyer to expedite things, and even then registration took six months. Yet, once registered, few charities fail. In previous years, Revenue Canada revoked the status of approximately 2,000 charities annually, mostly due to failure to submit tax returns. Now, with a better reminder system, that figure is closer to 600.

Staying registered takes meticulous accounting, a challenge in developing countries. “We need receipts from people who hardly know how to sign their name,” Harman says. Then there’s the risk of fraud. In August, Harman discovered that a school administrator was stealing fish from a trout farm funded to feed the students and selling them. Harman is now advancing funds incrementally, evaluating projects based on a banker’s principles of return on investment, and funding only those that show measurable results for students: better grades, attendance or health.

Yet, in an era when “voluntourism” became a catchphrase and Westerners heading to Africa on so-called “guilt trips” to volunteer turned into a rite of passage, Harman is aware overseas development may be accused of being ineffectual or harming communities with handouts. “Our support, however well-executed, may be perpetuating a culture of dependency. I see a lot of new schools with volunteers’ names on them, empty. I am trying to do the work that is less glamorous: teacher training, feeding kids, transporting kids, working with kids with special needs.”

Harman hopes to eventually devote himself to Alma full-time, but he wonders what will happen when he’s no longer around to guide his passion project: Will a board member, volunteer or one of his children step up? “If I got hit by a truck tomorrow, I’d like to think it would continue. There is money there. But whether someone would jump in with the same passion that I have, I don’t think so.”

Succession planning is a hurdle, yet some family charities have endured for generations. One of the longest-running Canadian examples operating internationally is Sleeping Children Around the World (SCAW), launched by Murray Dryden (father of former NHLers Dave and Ken Dryden) in 1970. While on holiday in India, he tripped over a child sleeping on the street-a poignant experience, as he’d spent his youth sleeping in train stations during the Depression. Starting with $3,000 of their own money, Dryden and his wife began sending bed kits to orphanages in India.

Today their three children carry on their legacy: Over its 40-plus years, SCAW has raised more than $23 million for programs in 33 countries. Daughter Judy, a retired public-health nurse, stresses that the key to the charity’s success is its growth from a family mission into one supported by 370 volunteers, some of whom have contributed for decades. There is just one paid employee. “It’s not the strength of our family that sustains SCAW,” Judy says. “It’s the dedication of our volunteers and donors.”

Harman maintains that his commitment is strengthened by stories of individual students, from Paucar to Maria Teresa Riquelme, who in 2011 was funded by Alma to attend school. The organization also paid Riquelme a stipend to teach a weaving class there, allowing her to spend her free time studying rather than scrounging for room and board in a new town.

Back in Canada, a world away from Peru, Harman contemplates the risks and rewards of Alma. Over the years, some projects have thrived while others have been cancelled. It’s been a steep learning curve, but Harman believes Alma has something to contribute. “Surely Peruvians know more about growing potatoes and feeding their children than I do,” he says. “But maybe the right combination of our capital and a bit of our expertise will help them realize their dreams.”

All in the Family: Canadian charities conceived on holiday

African Spirit (
African Spirit was founded in 2004 after Ottawan Tobie Cusson and his mother, Rose, visited East Africa. Cusson manages the projects, his mother serves as vice-president, and his brother Denis is treasurer. The family’s charity has built a $40,000 ten-classroom school in Tanzania and launched micro-finance projects.

Alma Children’s Education Foundation (
Mayan Families Canada (, B.C., teacher Robin Pawliuk and her daughter Leigh launched their charity following a 2004 Guatemalan trip. Pawliuk’s husband, David, and son, Nick, are also involved. The family raises $50,000 a year to provide scholarships for 30 children and supply food, homes and fuel-efficient stoves to families in remote communities.

Nicaragua Children’s Foundation ( In 2006, Vancouverites Mona and Allan Donovan travelled to Nicaragua with their three children. They have since raised more than $150,000 to help build, equip and run a special-needs school in San Juan del Sur, as well as provide teachers, school supplies, scholarships and renovations to other rural schools.

Sleeping Children Around the World (

(Illustration: Umberto Mischi)

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada