Tag Archives: UCSB

The Hands-on Giver

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.”

To Truly Make a Difference

photo by Edward Clynes

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.”

“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.”

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.”

We’ve Got This, Santa Barbara

Celesta M. Billeci, UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Miller McCune Executive Director, is on her 12th Zoom call of the day. It is 2 pm. 

Despite scrambling to ensure the community had access to Arts & Lectures while COVID-19 steamrolled its 2020 season, Billeci is upbeat, bullish on 2021 and her institution’s place in the community. 

Quoting the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, she says: “We must be headlights and not taillights.”   

“We promise to be headlights for the community,” she says. “We promise to innovate, not hibernate.”

During lockdowns, this has meant moving lectures and performances that would be typically scattered at stages across Santa Barbara online – a practice Billeci and her team will keep on doing. “That we can bring people from all over the world to Santa Barbara is fantastic.” 

Yo-Yo Ma (photo: Jason Bell)

Looking forward to 2021, Arts & Lectures has already lined up a diverse slate of performers and thinkers – Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bryan Stevenson, chef José Andrés, opera diva Joyce DiDonato, David Sedaris, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Jon Batiste and many more  – to “entertain, educate, inspire.” 

“Each of those elements has its own urgency these days,” Billeci says. “We desperately need to be awestruck, amused, and entertained.” 

Arts & Lectures is so much more than what happens on stage. Contributors and friends of the organization enjoy special access to these global thinkers and world-class performers in informal chats, dinners and private sessions. And Arts & Lectures’ massive education and community engagement programs serve all ages and learning levels, from school-age children to college students to parents and families, to seniors. Billeci points to Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma who always give a master class to students that is also open and free to the public – transformational experierences. 

“I joke with Yo-Yo, that I like his master classes better than his performances,” Billeci quips. 

Arts & Lectures serves more than 110,000 each year with its over 300 public events and education programs – including 15,000 community members who enjoy the Spanish-language music and dance programs of ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara! This community-driven program provides performances and educational activities throughout Santa Barbara County, including agricultural communities of north county.   

For Billeci, who loves Santa Barbara for its residents’ intellectual curiousity and willingness to be challenged, the Herculean effort of entertaining, educating, and inspiring the community is a matter of pride and responsibility. 

“We connect this community and the community needs us,” she says. “We did not create this community, but we are vital to making sure it is vibrant and alive.”