To Truly Make a Difference
One risks straining credulity when asserting that a person radiates warmth over a Zoom call. Nonetheless, here is Dr. Ed Birch, dressed for success in a crisp, pale-blue Oxford, doing just that as he reaches across the great pandemic divide from a computer in his study. As we speak, Birch, who is steady but not studied and accomplished without a trace of arrogance, manages the neat trick of making a virtual stranger feel like a friend at a time when we all could use such things.
I suppose this small gift of humanity would come as no surprise to those who have been long basked in the warmth of Birch’s sun. For all his apparent humility, Dr. Birch is, after all, no buried treasure. It was just a few years ago that the Santa Barbara Foundation named the president and CEO of the Samuel B. and Margaret C. Mosher Foundation its Man of the Year. The Mosher Foundation focuses on healthcare, education, and the arts and Birch was lauded then for helping Santa Barbara’s struggling neighborhood clinics regain their financial footing.
It’s hard to imagine how the foundation’s stated goal “to truly make a difference” could be any more urgent as we face challenges on multiple fronts from public health to the economy to educational access and efficacy. Birch brings a wealth of experience to bear on all these issues. An economist with a Ph.D from Michigan State University, he has breathed the rarified air of bank boardrooms overseeing billions of dollars in assets – he is the former chairman of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust – and has duked it out in the trenches of higher-education. Indeed, it was a post as vice chancellor at UC Santa Barbara that brought the then-vice president of Ohio Wesleyan University to Santa Barbara in the first place more than 40 years ago.
“I’m thinking it was one stop along the way, and we didn’t know a lot about Santa Barbara. We were here just a short span of time, then my wife and I looked at each other, and, you know, we’re going to figure out how to stay here,” says Birch, smiling broadly, his Midwestern lilt still intact as he reflects back to when he and his wife, Suzanne, first landed on the American Riviera. “And, we have a love affair with Santa Barbara, and in Santa Barbara, people do care. This is not a transitory town. They come for the right reasons and stay for the right reasons.”
As Birch’s love affair with Santa Barbara grew, so did his desire to contribute to the community. “I believe that when you are part of a wonderful place, you have an obligation to play a role, whether it’s giving of your resources, or giving of your time,” says Birch, in whose capable hands Margaret Mosher left her foundation upon her passing in 2002. “When we aligned our foundation we focused on Southern Santa Barbara County for two reasons. One, we wanted to have the resources that we had to give make a difference and not just spread like Johnny Appleseed all over the world, but basically devote our resources to this community to make it better. The second reason is that the quality of life, the people that are here, there’s a commonality among all.”
One of those commonalities, and something Birch likes best about Santa Barbara, is that “no one here really cares about blowing their own horn… You don’t have to feel like you’re on a perch above someone else, but, rather, you just roll up your sleeves, and, whether you’re working with Direct Relief or working with CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) or the hospitals, or education, you’re making a difference. You’re there with everyone else. “
Birch knows about rolling up his sleeves to meet enormous logistical, tactical, and resource challenges. He was Peter Ueberroth’s right-hand man when they defied conventional wisdom and turned “ungovernable” 1984 Los Angeles – the setting for many contemporaneous Hollywood dystopias – into the staging ground for the most successful Olympics in the modern era. In doing so, Birch helped establish not only a blueprint for all Olympics that followed, but showed that an unfathomably divergent place could pull together as a team. It’s an apt metaphor, but one Birch handles with characteristic understatement. “It takes a village, right? If you build teams, you will bring people together.”
Currently, in the face of the extraordinary demands on capital – human and otherwise – brought about by the pandemic, Birch wants to help make sure Santa Barbara’s nonprofit teams can stay in the game at a time when Birch says, “The demand is so much greater than our ability to meet those demands. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
To help fill the gaps and ensure safe passage for nonprofits to the other side of this crisis, Birch says the Mosher Foundation “decided that we would pivot and move away from programmatic funding and deal, essentially, with ensuring that the nonprofit sector stays alive and provide the funds to allow that to happen.”
Meanwhile, Birch says he and his wife and daughter have remained active in the nonprofit community, even as he’s continued to lead the Mosher Foundation. His family stays determinedly active as grassroots volunteers as well as on various boards. They know the lay of the land and given his extensive background in the nonprofit sector, Birch also knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the table: the giving and the asking. His philosophy is to keep things simple; his goal is “to make it as easy as I can for a nonprofit to secure grants.”
In practical terms, that means reducing redundancies, looking for efficiencies, and thinking outside the box in a results-driven approach. “My opening statement when I meet with a nonprofit, is to start by saying, ‘don’t give me what you think I want, give me something that is going to make a difference.’ I look at you as the brains. I’ll put the money with your brains,” explains Birch. “I want to make a difference with the funds I put on the table.”
It’s reassuring to talk to a steady steward like Ed Birch. He’s been there and done that and he is optimist about the silver linings we are all looking for these days. “I’m convinced that we’re going to be better people, we’re going to be better agencies, we’re going to be better foundation as we go forward,” he says, “because we are working harder to figure out how we can continue to do what we’ve been doing, but do it better.”
What We Do
For over 92 years, the Santa Barbara Foundation has been a catalyst for change. We analyze issues to identify challenges that burden people every day in Santa Barbara County. We convene community stakeholders to build coalitions and partner with nonprofits and other leaders working on the front lines. Together, we chart a direction and mobilize people like you to support the dynamic initiatives that makes this a better place, now and for generations to come.
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“Santa Barbara County is no stranger to community challenges, environmental problems, and social inequity. Fortunately, our County has over 3,400 nonprofit organizations that address the significant needs of our most vulnerable community members. I am proud to invest with the Santa Barbara Foundation, which supports me in understanding both our community needs and how specific nonprofit organizations provide their services to address those needs. With such depth in community knowledge, the Santa Barbara Foundation helps me to maximize my charitable dollars for good.”
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The Santa Barbara Foundation leads the effort to bring people and resources together to work for large scale, sustainable improvements in the community. We do that by facilitating dialogue among stakeholders- business leaders, government representatives, leaders of nonprofit organizations, residents and funders who want to create positive change. We look for the chance to form strategic partnerships to leverage our collective strengths and maximize the power of our donor’s dollars. Because we do extensive research into the greatest needs of the community and the people who deliver services, we are positioned to champion specific causes and organizations. We then advocate for the funding to transform innovative ideas into reality. Learn more about our work within the community.
There are approximately 1,900 nonprofits in Santa Barbara County. Even the most diligent donor would find it daunting to try to learn about all of them and vet their work. In partnering with the Santa Barbara Foundation, donors can be assured that we award our grants through a rigorous process of research, planning, due diligence and evaluation. We work to identify and prioritize critical needs for strategic grantmaking requiring special focus and additional organizational resources. Once funded, we monitor and evaluate these initiatives for impact. We are committed to working with providers to maximize their effectiveness. Learn more about our grantmaking.
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SUPPORTING THE SOCIAL SECTOR
The Santa Barbara Foundation believes a healthy, high-achieving, creative social sector enables our county to fulfill its potential. To help make our nonprofits stronger and more resilient, we share knowledge through a series of capacity building workshops, leadership development, and technical assistance programs. We engage with practitioners to develop successful approaches for improved outcomes in the community. We connect them with funders and other nonprofits to make their efforts more powerful. Since this can be a demanding line of work, we recognize and reward hard work and excellence of those working in the social sector. Learn more about the Collaboration for Social Impact.