Like We Said, Keep an Eye on the Ballmers. A Social Work School Lands a $20 Million Gift

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how tech billionaire Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie gave $11 million to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship to fund scholarships for low- and middle-income students pursuing degrees in STEM and health care. Last year, the Ballmers announced a $50 million gift to Connie's alma mater, University of Oregon, and an undisclosed donation to Harvard's computer science department.

Why have we been keeping a close eye on this couple?

For one, while the Ballmers don't yet have a formal charitable vehicle, they are keenly interested in philanthropy, and our hunch is that this couple will emerge as among the top mega-donors of coming years. The ex-Microsoft CEO Ballmer is worth $22.1 billion as of this writing. In addition, now that the 59-year-old Ballmer is no longer heading up Microsoft, we've noted that the couple's philanthropy could really get going. Connie certainly has the skills and knowledge to ramp things up, with long experience in the nonprofit sector. Will the Ballmers create a major new foundation, one that could instantly rank among the biggest in the nation? And in which issue areas are they most interested in making an impact? These are intriguing questions, indeed, and we read the tea leaves closely on this front. 

Related: In a Gift for STEM Scholarships, More Hints Where a Tech Philanthropist May Be Headed

Well, now comes news of another donation from the Ballmers, a $20 million gift to the University of Washington School of Social Work. About $10 million of the funds will go toward a steady interest of the couple — supporting scholarships. The rest of the money will fund various initiatives at the UW School of Social Work.  

In the past five years, UW School of Social Work has received a total of $32 million from the couple, including this most recent $20 million gift. Connie has actually been interested in this area for a while, and was moved toward this cause after reading harrowing news stories about Washington State foster children. In response, she met with UW School of Social Work Dean Edwina Uehara and former Washington State Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Robin Arnold-Williams. In 2006, this produced Partners for Our Children (POC). POC provides "data analysis of the problems faced by individuals involved with Washington State's child welfare system... and strives to influence policy and practice, helping caseworkers, kids and families achieve better outcomes." Connie is a board member and strategic advisor for POC.

We often write about how relationships fostered years earlier have implications on philanthropy down the line. Connie has been digging into this area for a while, and has made alliances with those in this space.  On some level, the seeds of this gift were sown at least 10 years ago.

As the Ballmers' big STEM scholarship gift suggests, the couple is particularly attuned to the struggles of lower-income students. In Washington, about three-quarters of social work students remain in the state for work after school. However, many of these students finish their studies more than $37,000 in debt, on top of undergraduate debt. The couple's efforts here share features of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship to make STEM pursuits more feasible for lower-income students. 

As Connie puts it: "The School of Social Work is a valuable resource to our community that is educating a new generation of social workers — unsung heroes in our community... The work they do is absolutely critical, but the compensation they receive is often relatively low. Through this support, we can reduce the amount of debt that social work graduates face and make the field financially viable for them.”

Related: IP's Profile of Steve Ballmer