Giving Back

Be it resolved: Leacock Foundation fosters education

The Globe and Mail

Restaurateur Peter Oliver: 'I found that the guys who were the best fundraisers were often slightly whacko.' (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

The Donor: Peter Oliver

The Gift: Raising $8-million and climbing

The Cause: The Stephen Leacock Foundation

The Reason: Funding education programs in Canada and South Africa.

Peter Oliver has been raising money for more than 20 years and he's learned a lot about how to do it.

"I found that the guys who were the best fundraisers were often slightly whacko," said Mr. Oliver who runs Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants in Toronto. "They are larger-than-life kind of guys with a big heart."

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Mr. Oliver has followed that example himself, first with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, where he helped raise more than $20-million, and now with the Stephen Leacock Foundation, which he founded in the early 1990s. Mr. Oliver, whose daughter is diabetic, once sat on a flag pole for a week to raise money and he created the Leacock Club in honour of the famous Canadian humorist. The club holds a popular debate at the University of Toronto every year and raises money for the foundation.

"I had this imaginary idea of a group of eccentric English people getting together once a year to enjoy public speaking and wit," he said. The debate "is a very sought-after thing. As it should be, because I pay for it."

Mr. Oliver has raised about $8-million for the foundation through the club and other events. At first, the donations went toward educational programs in Toronto, including pairing students from at-risk neighbourhoods with students at private schools.

In 2002, he broadened the focus after meeting Nelson Mandela in Toronto. Mr. Oliver, who is from South Africa, became inspired to include a South African school. Today the foundation's Triangle of Hope links six Toronto schools, private and public, with a school in South Africa's Eastern Cape. The foundation has also built two schools in South Africa and offers programs for about 1,200 students. All the schools are connected via the Internet and the foundation funds a volunteer teacher program that brings Canadian teachers to South Africa for six months at a time.

"It has just turned out to be way more successful than I thought," Mr. Leacock said. The Leacock Club, he added, while mainly a forum for funny debates is also "for people who feel that they have an obligation to give back. We try to stress that. And the generosity of people has been unbelievable."