Ever since Steve Ballmer retired as CEO of Microsoft a few years ago, we've been dying to know how, where, and when he and his wife Connie would start engaging in large-scale philanthropy. After all, the couple controls one of the largest fortunes in the United States, with Forbes estimating Steve Ballmer's net worth at nearly $30 billion. What's more, Connie has long been involved in the nonprofit world and has a well-known passion for helping children. After Steve left Microsoft, the couple reportedly engaged in a deep learning dive to figure out their philanthropy.
Over the past year, a picture of where things are headed has slowly come into focus.
Last February, we highlighted the creation of a youth-focused donor group called Blue Meridian, which is a grantmaking collaborative the Ballmers got involved with early on, with Connie becoming a general partner and founding investor. This was big news, because the Ballmers, still relatively new to the philanthropy scene, teamed up with some more familiar players, including the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which incubated the effort, the Duke Endowment and the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Blue Meridian, which aims to invest $1 billion in the highest performing nonprofits that help children has since attracted more backers and stands out as one of the more interesting examples of "big bet" philanthropy of recent years, especially in the way it brings together living donors and legacy foundations.
Joining Blue Meridian Partners was a big step for the Ballmers, and since then, we've been getting more insights into how this couple’s philanthropy could manifest.
The vehicle for the couple's giving, the Ballmer Group, has a one-page website that lays out its giving strategy, which is to "support organizations and initiatives aimed at improving economic mobility for children and families in the United States. We focus our giving on interventions designed for those who are disproportionately likely to remain in poverty."
So far, the strategy includes a several pieces, including backing "strong and innovative nonprofit organizations through long-term general operating support and larger catalytic investments aimed at regional and national scale." In addition, the Ballmer Group will bolster the effectiveness of public agencies, including by building "advocacy capacity in policy areas that influence economic mobility." As well, it says it wants to build the "capacity of existing neighborhood transformation networks" and "empower local leadership."
The Ballmer Group says it will support both national and regional efforts, but so far, it's mainly focusing in Washington State and Los Angeles County.
Overall, there's a lot to like in this strategy. The Ballmers have embraced key longstanding critiques of the nonprofit sector and anti-poverty efforts. They're not interested in spreading around lots of restricted program grants, but instead want to scale up the best nonprofits with serious resources. And they understand that influencing government policy is ultimately the real prize, noting that many of "the services that support the populations we care most about in achieving economic mobility are primarily publicly funded." At the same time, the Ballmers want to avoid parachuting in as know-it-all outsiders and stress the need to work with partners already in the field, working in high-poverty neighborhoods that "have suffered from systemic neglect."
People make a lot of generalizations about the new philanthropy emerging from the tech sector, with critics often zinging these donors for their arrogance or cluelessness. But as we've written before, it's actually pretty hard to typecast tech philanthropists, since they take a diversity of approaches.
How the Ballmers are handling things as they emerge among the biggest potential givers the tech sector has yet produced, underscores this point. Clearly, they have done a lot of listening and learning, as well as collaborating, and their philanthropy is off to a very promising start.
In an indication of the kind of grantmaking by the Ballmer Group that may lie ahead, it recently awarded a $600,000 grant to Para Los Niños, as a way to improve economic mobility for children and families. This is a three-year grant to benefit challenged neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Para Los Niños has six preschools, three charter schools, and offers various mental health and social services.
With this grant, Ballmer went with a very well established and reliable grantee, considering that the group has been around since 1980 and served at least 50,000 children since then.
It makes sense that Los Angeles has emerged as an early geographic focus for the Ballmer Group. Steve Ballmer is the owner of the L.A. Clippers, after all. Para Los Niños focuses its efforts on Downtown/Skid Row and Westlake/Pico Union. “The Ballmer Group is honored to support Para Los Niños as it works toward improving the lives of Los Angeles’s highest-need children and families. We believe that PLN’s strategy of blending social services with quality schools and early education centers can help close the achievement gap for children in poverty,” said Nina Revoyr, the Ballmer Group's executive director for Los Angeles, who was hired last year. Previously, Revoyr spent years at the Children's Institute, which serves at-risk children, youth and families throughout Los Angeles County. It was founded in 1906.
The Ballmer Group also showed its support for vulnerable Los Angeles families when it recently committed a multi-year, $600,000 grant to the Children’s Bureau of Southern California. This is another very well established grantee, serving the region since 1904 and over 30,000 children and families each year.
We’ll be curious to learn more about how the Ballmer Group's regional grantmaking strategy is shaping up in the Pacific Northwest, as well. It's worth keeping in mind that Connie Ballmer co-founded Partners for Our Children (POC) in Washington State in 2006. 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 remains a board member and strategic advisor for POC, and knows her way around the public-private landscape landscape in her home region.
Meanwhile, the Ballmer Group is growing, so this is definitely a funder to keep an eye on as its builds out its grantmaking infrastructure. Ballmer is currently working with Waldron, a company that conducts leadership searches for foundations and nonprofits, to hire two new portfolio managers in its Bellevue, Washington office.
As a final point, it's important to keep in mind that collaboration seems very important to the Ballmers. In addition to Blue Meridian Partners, earlier this year, we learned that the Ballmer Group was a part of the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, alongside the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others.