Life of giving started small

The first time Tom Leanse seriously thought about charitable giving was in the 1970s, when he was helping his parents file their tax returns.

“My parents had made a $250 contribution to ADL [the Anti-Defamation League],” said Leanse, who along with his wife, Barbara, met with a reporter  recently over breakfast. “That, for some reason, stuck out at me as a charity that my parents supported.”

Like parents, like son — on Dec. 10, ADL will honor the Santa Monica-based couple with its prestigious annual Humanitarian Award for their support of the nonprofit since the 1980s. The award, this year celebrating ADL’s centennial, will also acknowledge the Leanses’ contributions of both time and money to myriad other community organizations, including SOVA, the community food bank run by Jewish Family Service; Jewish Vocational Service; and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“They exemplify ADL’s ideals — striving to make this world a more loving, respectful and peaceful place — and are really ‘once-in-a-century’ heroes of ours,” Amanda Susskind, ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional director, said.

Barbara Leanse became a social worker at Cedars-Sinai in 1985 and is now the staff director of the nonprofit hospital’s volunteer services. Tom is senior executive vice president, chief legal officer and secretary of the Macerich Co., a real-estate company based in Santa Monica, where the Leanses live. They will celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary on Jan. 1. 

Tom described how he was awed when, in the 1980s, he attended a Jewish Federation gala.

“I was a very young lawyer at the time,” he said. “I could never fathom making the kind of contributions that were being pledged at this particular event.” 

“I remember someone pledging half a million dollars and somebody pledging three quarters of a million dollars,” he continued. “I thought to myself that I never was going to get there.”

Leanse decided to start relatively small — he began by making a monthly contribution of $83.33 to either ADL or Federation as an automatic charge to his credit card, bringing the total for his first year of giving to an even $1,000. Leanse wrote in an e-mail that the $83.33 increased slowly, and he used a similar formula with his other charitable initiatives — going from $1,000 to $1,200 to $1,800 and up. (The Leanses would not disclose how much they now give to their various causes.)

Like Tom, Barbara said she learned about giving  from her parents, who were supporters of the City of Hope, the cancer research and treatment center based in Duarte.

The couple, both previously married, have four children, Michael, 22, and Annie, 19, and William and Morris, both 16. Following their own parents’ example, Tom and Barbara have have made it a priority to encourage their own kids to give, as well. Barbara said that every birthday, in addition to giving gifts of money for their own use, they give each child an equal amount that must be donated to a charity of the child’s choosing.

“They take the time to find something that appeals to them,” Leanse said.

The Leanses also lend their support to two synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard and Leo Baeck Temples: “People say, ‘Why two temples?’ And I always say that I need all the help I can get,” Tom quipped. And although they also fund some cultural landmarks, including the Hollywood Bowl, the theme running through most of their giving is that they want to support “programs that are designed to help those who can’t help themselves.”

The Leanses’ advice for young people who want to give, but feel they don’t have the financial capability to offer large sums, is to start small with a regular, monthly contribution, as Tom did with his first contribution of $83.33.

“Do something monthly. If it’s on your credit card and you pay your credit card, it’s just like a tank of gas or your dinner,” he said. “You don’t think about it. It’s already done.”

“That $83 didn’t change my life — but it started me down a path.”