To Truly Make a Difference

By Joe Donnelly   |   January 12, 2021
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.”


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