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Fundholder Spotlight: Harvey Nelson

Harvey Nelson pictured with three sculptures

Traditional is not a word you would use to describe Harvey Nelson, retired co-chief executive officer and founder of Main Street Muffins, now known as Main Street Gourmet. From the way he (finally) completed his degree at The University of Akron to his adventures hitchhiking across the country to becoming a poet and patron of the arts, you'll find a new surprise with a fantastic story to go with it around every corner.

It doesn't stop there, either. That outlook influences Harvey's philanthropy and how he gives back to his community. In 2011, Harvey connected with Akron Community Foundation, which turned out to be the perfect place to not only foster his creative spirit, but also provide a non-traditional roadmap for giving with the tools, advice and support to do so.

A sense of adventure

In 1980, while working at a computer engineering co-op at the BF Goodrich Tire Company and going to school at The University of Akron, Harvey got an urge. "Something in me said I have to go," he recalled. He grabbed his backpack, flew to Boston and started on what he thought would be a "bus and cheap hotels" road trip. He quickly realized he was going to run out of money – fast. But that didn't stop him. Not to be deterred, he started hitchhiking, camping and working for money on the way. For someone who had never hitchhiked and never camped, it seemed crazy, but that's "pretty much how I did things," he says. He made it from the Northeast to Florida to California and back to Ohio, "staying with friends and family, but on the way, people would just take me in. It was wild."

Back in Ohio, Harvey went back to school and back to Goodrich, learning computer science at a time when the industry was new. He was on the cusp of a technology boom and learning skills that would be extremely valuable later in life. But for now… "I loved the adventure. I loved the thought that there was a chance I might have died every day," he said. "I had to go back, which was really stupid because I had this great job."

And he did. This time he backpacked up and down the northwest corner of the country before moving to Albuquerque for a couple years to work with at-risk teenagers.

He came home for a friend's wedding and, serendipitously, met his wife there. This time, he decided to stay and finish school. Around this time is also when his best friend from childhood, Steve Marks, asked him if he wanted to start a business. Harvey said he would do it for a year. "I wouldn't commit to anything," he laughed. The business was Main Street Muffins. And the rest, as they say, is history.


When asked where his sense of giving back comes from, Harvey shrugs his shoulders and says he can't pinpoint a time or event where it solidified, instead he mentions tzedakah, a Hebrew word which means righteousness. The term has also come to signify charity. In Jewish thought, though, giving to people in need is not something extra, like charity; it's just the correct, honest thing to do and it doesn't have to be money. Everyone has something to contribute.

"I was raised Jewish. You're supposed to give every day, what you can," he explained. "The whole thing growing up was that you were meant to make the world a better place. It's always been that way. It's normal; it just always felt right."

Whether mentoring kids in New Mexico, helping with local breast cancer awareness charity Muffins for Mammograms, or teaching students through Junior Achievement, Harvey has always found a way to give back through time and talent as well as treasure. In 2011, he decided to find a way to start planning for a future of giving back through philanthropy.

"I knew I was going to give money away at some point," he said. "I connected with the Akron Community Foundation in 2011, just to start testing it out."

Through his donor-advised fund at Akron Community Foundation, Harvey supports causes and charities that are important to him now, while also growing charitable dollars for the future. And because donor-advised funds offer a simplified, flexible, and affordable approach to charity, donors like Harvey can make significant plans for their future, while still mapping out exactly where they want to go.

"I don't have a grand plan, yet. I'm still trying to figure it out," he said. "But this way I can put it in and have a tool that makes it easy to give it back out."

Finding a Giving Groove

"Money never drove me. I always managed to have a life outside of the business, but you really must work to achieve that," he reflected. "At this stage, though, I wanted to do something else, and I wanted to experience more and many different things. I love writing, creativity, being on stage. I write poetry. And I love mentoring."

Harvey is an avid poet, who embarks on a writing program submitting a poem a week and has even been published. He has also participated in a Pecha Kucha and may be the owner and curator of the area's largest "garage" art gallery. Yes, you read that right.

"If I see art that I like, I buy it," he laughed. "Our garage is filled, as well as our house, with original and local art. I have some great stuff, too! Expensive stuff. Probably shouldn't be in the garage."

Now retired, Harvey connected with Karen Hrdlicka, director, The Center for Family Philanthropy at ACF. He was looking for ways to get more involved with people and organizations that are closer to his heart and the Center has been pivotal in helping him find a way to fuel these passions through giving.

Through the Center he was introduced to the Akron Urban League and ArtsNow, the latter of which introduced him to local artists through the Black Artists Guild, some of whom he now mentors. Through his fund, he can also direct funds to support organizations and projects they are associated with, such as Summit Artspace, which can also act as a fiscal sponsor for the artists themselves. He's also been involved with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank since the early 90s and loves that he can use his fund at the foundation to keep contributing to the organization.

"The foundation makes it so easy. I love the website," Harvey said. "They do all the filtering, all the work. Best of all, whatever is left over, I know will stay in Akron."

When it comes to contributing financially to his fund, Harvey has, of course, found a nontraditional way to do so. He directs 100% of all the fees he gets from his consulting and board roles to his fund.

"I've been meeting with artists and it's been so great. I love that I can give back through mentoring, but also by supporting arts and culture organizations and projects," he said. "It's a very cool thing to be able to give back to art."

In other words, tzedakah.

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