The emergence of Steve and Connie Ballmer as major givers is one of the more intriguing stories in philanthropy right now, with new twists and turns coming at a steady clip—including important news last week.
For those just tuning in, here’s a quick recap of why we’re watching the Ballmers, and their Ballmer Group, so closely.
First, the Ballmers control one of the larger fortunes in the U.S.—estimated at $31.6 billion as of today. To put that wealth in perspective, it’s enough to create a foundation twice the size of Ford and still have plenty of money left over. The scope of these financial resources underscores that we’re entering an unprecedented new era of mega-size giving. For all his wealth derived from Microsoft, Steve Ballmer is just the 15th-richest person in the U.S., and quite a few of the billionaires higher on the Forbes 400 list are already engaged in large-scale philanthropy. Much more is to come.
Second, while the Ballmers have not signed the Giving Pledge, or otherwise said how they will dispose of their fortune, it’s becoming clearer all the time that much of this wealth will go to philanthropy. The Ballmers have been putting in place both an infrastructure and strategy to engage in giving at a major level.
Third, the Ballmers are clearly interested in engaging in philanthropy in a strategic and thoughtful way, with the ambitious goal of tackling deep social and economic inequities that exist in U.S. society. In contrast to mega-givers like Phil Knight, John Paulson or Stephen Schwarzman, the Ballmers aren’t going to take the easier path of big-time giving by making nine-figure gifts to name-brand institutions. Rather, they’re moving deeply into the tough terrain of intergenerational poverty and entrenched disadvantage.
Fourth, both the Ballmers appear to be all in when it comes to philanthropy. This isn’t a sideline gig for either of them. They both have offices at the Ballmer Group’s headquarters in Seattle and are scaling up their giving in a hands-on way, including travel in the field to educate themselves on the issues and meet current and prospective grantees. Beyond the anti-poverty giving, Steve has been closely involved in a data project, USAFacts, to shine new light on how government operates.
So how are things playing out so far? Well, as we’ve reported, the Ballmer Group has articulated a strategic framework for grantmaking aimed at “improving economic mobility for children and families in the United States,” and said it will focus “on interventions designed for those who are disproportionately likely to remain in poverty.” Its approach involves pulling multiple levers for impact, including scaling up effective organizations with multi-year general support and backing policy and advocacy efforts.
The Ballmer Group’s strategy has both a regional and national focus. Its biggest moves so far have been in Los Angeles, where it has emerged in the past year as one of the largest funders of anti-poverty work in the county, with many large grants going to groups working to boost the fortunes of disadvantaged children and families. The rapid emergence of large-scale Ballmer grantmaking in Los Angeles underscores how emerging mega-givers are increasingly altering established philanthropic landscapes with game-changing levels of giving. The Pacific Northwest is the Ballmer Group’s other area of geographic focus.
The Ballmer Group’s national plans are less clear so far, as its grantmaking operation continues to take shape. Last year, the Ballmers helped launch Blue Meridian Partners, an effort to channel $1 billion in funding to high-impact groups working to help disadvantaged children. Outside of that effort, there’s a bunch of national organizations focused on low-income families and kids in poverty that could be obvious grantees for the Ballmer Group. Who knows? Maybe such funds are flowing already; the Ballmer Group tends to very quiet about its doings.
This week, though, we did get another indication of how the Ballmer Group might engage on a larger stage when it made a $10 million, five-year grant to help close the achievement gap in Minneapolis. The money will flow to the Northside Achievement Zone and is a big boost to a $35 million campaign to sustain a promising program that was funded with a now-expired federal grant. Part of the Ballmer grant will be used to support an early-learning scholarship fund to help prepare children for kindergarten.
So now the Ballmer Group is involved in work to raise up the most disadvantaged children in Minneapolis. What’s next?