The Hands-on Giver

By James Buckley   |   January 12, 2021

Leslie Ridley-Tree’s prodigious philanthropical career began more than 30 years ago, precisely on February 14, 1988 upon her marriage to Paul Ridley-Tree and the couple’s subsequent move from the Los Angeles area to Montecito. Ms Ridley-Tree is a member of the Church of England – Anglican – and as such, has “always tithed,” meaning she was accustomed to donating 10% of her income (“before taxes,” she stresses) to the church, or to any worthy cause of her liking. “The more you have, the more you share; it’s just part of life,” she adds.

We can classify Ms Ridley-Tree as a “hands-on” giver, in that she attempts to learn as much as possible about an organization before deciding to donate funds to it. She, in a notable example, became a member of the board of directors and ultimately president of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to learn exactly what the museum did.

Other questions she considers before making a final determination to give are: How are things administered? How is the money going to be used? How many organizations in the area are duplicating the same service? How long has it been in service and how many times has it turned over? And, she does all the research herself, including visiting their offices and sitting down with the CEO or Director. If a CEO moves from more than one organization to another, she wants to know why; what it is about the organization he or she currently heads that is better than the previous one. There are good answers and not-so-good answers.

Leslie Ridley-Tree gives, “because there’s a great big hole in the world, of emptiness, of people who need, people who are hungry.”

She says too that if someone under consideration begins dodging questions, or is not prepared to present their program properly, she will likely “stand back and wait awhile” before committing. Large salaries are a no-no (“If they’re paying big salaries, you’re definitely not going to be interested, because that’s not what it’s about,” she says). Overly high administrative costs are also troublesome.

Ms Ridley-Tree has a yearly budget, so when she begins to consider something new to support, she often has to reduce an amount another nonprofit has been receiving. Sometimes, she even drops that support entirely. Next year, for example, a recipient of her largesse that has been with her for more than 20 years won’t be receiving anything: not because of anything they’d done or not done, but because the money is needed elsewhere. She confesses that it is always painful to have to tell someone they won’t be getting anything, but that “it has to be done.” She tells them in person, and never uses a go-between.

Ms Ridley-Tree’s list of giving includes UCSB (whose KITP graduate science area is of special attention, as are some 40 scholarships for young people with disabilities), SBCC (30 single-parents-returning-to-education scholarships), Westmont (next year’s plan includes the launch of the Ridley-Tree Nursing Program, complete with 33 scholarships at Westmont, which currently doesn’t have a nursing program), Cottage Hospital and Sansum Clinic (the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center received over $10 million), Ms Ridley-Tree has been involved in the Santa Barbara Zoo for over 30 years (“since the day I arrived,” she reports). There are and have been many recipients of her generosity, too many to list.

To sum up: Leslie Ridley-Tree gives, “because there’s a great big hole in the world, of emptiness, of people who need, people who are hungry. There are needs to be filled, whether it’s in education or medicine or hunger, there’s just not enough to go around evenly and there are areas where you just have to share. It doesn’t mean you have to give it all away and walk barefoot, but it does mean that you have to share; there’s that need, and you can’t look at it and walk by.”

 

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