The Ballmer Express: Where's This Anti-Poverty Funder Heading Now?

  photo: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/shutterstock

 photo: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/shutterstock

The Ballmer Group, the philanthropic outfit founded by Steve and Connie Ballmer, made a splash in the world of education philanthropy this week with the announcement of two big gifts that add up to $30 million.

Steve Ballmer built most of his fortune—now estimated at $39 billion—at Microsoft, where he spent over three decades, including many years as CEO. Since leaving Microsoft, Steve and Connie have scaled up their giving through the Ballmer Group, which has lately emerged as one of the more exciting acts in philanthropy, combining deep pockets with big ambitions and a fast pace. While it can be hard to keep up with all the major Ballmer gifts going out the door, it's worth paying close attention, given how much wealth is waiting in the wings. 

The couple has said their main aim is to improve economic mobility for children and families, but it’s only in the last year or so that a clearer picture has emerged of how they intend to do that. We've known for a while that the Ballmer Group is strongly committed to building the capacity of high-performing nonprofits with big general support grants. And that it's also combining deep work in several places—Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest, and Detroit—with support of national organizations. What's been less clear is the breadth of the Ballmer Group's mandate in terms of what issue areas it will work in. That’s why these two new gifts are notable. They flesh out the Ballmer Group’s agenda and hint at what its grantmaking may prioritize in the future. 

So what do we know about these grants? The larger of the two is a $20 million gift pledged to the College Advising Corps, which is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The nonprofit trains and places recent college grads in schools where they help students and families navigate applying to college. The gift will support the organization’s goal to enroll 1 million low-income, first generation students in colleges by 2025. It’s worth noting that Steve Ballmer is a first-generation college graduate.

These gifts are further evidence that education will play a large role in the Ballmers’ plans to increase economic mobility for kids and families, and college access is part of that. As we've reported, the Ballmer Group made a $15 million investment last year in Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that places coordinators in schools to connect vulnerable students and families with community resources. It also pledged $60 million to StriveTogether, a national nonprofit that works to "accelerate progress and sustain success in education."

RelatedScaling Up: With Another Big Cash Infusion, This Education Nonprofit Is Set to Grow

Of the gift to the College Advising Corps, the Ballmer Group’s Managing Director Jeff Edmondson said, “Our focus is on economic mobility for kids in this country who might not otherwise have a shot at moving up. Getting a degree from a two- or four-year institution remains the surest, safest path to getting ahead that there is in America.”

However, Edmondson was also careful to note that college is not the only path to achieving that aim. Education and college achievement are one piece of a larger whole.

“But college access is only one aspect of what’s needed to improve economic mobility, and only one piece of the puzzle we invest in. It starts with stable families, early childhood supports, a K-12 education and eventually access to a living wage and career,” he said.

It's good to hear Edmonson mention jobs with decent wages. There are inherent limits to upward mobility in today's economy, given that around 40 percent of all jobs in the U.S. pay less than $15 an hour. Anti-poverty funders need to address this larger structural problem to achieve the impact they want. 

RelatedSystemic Failure: Four Reasons Philanthropy Keeps Losing the Battle Against Inequality

The second gift is more focused on the K-12 piece of the puzzle. A $10 million gift will go to the Achievement Network (ANet), an organization based in Boston that works to improve teaching in vulnerable communities. The grant will support the launch of the Breakthrough Results Fund. The fund supports a four-year collaboration with up to six school districts or charter management organizations.

Each district or management organization will get up to $1 million in matching funds to ensure teachers and system leaders have resources like coaching, instructional tools, interim assessments and professional learning opportunities. The remaining funds will go toward evaluating the project and sharing lessons learned.

"We know that improving teaching and learning is hard but possible—and that it takes time. The Breakthrough Results Fund will be a four-year partnership so that districts have the runway to build these practices over time," said ANet CEO Mora Segal. "We will also demystify that change for superintendents, principals, and teachers by sharing what instructional improvement looks like across entire school systems."

On clear display with both of these gifts is something that has emerged as the Ballmer Group's M.O.—finding promising ideas and betting big to help them scale quickly. ANet’s CEO mentioned room and time to grow in her statement above. Edmondson attributed the group’s interest in the College Advising Corps in part to the group’s plans to scale, coupled with a strong track record.

The approach has become a hallmark of the Ballmer Group’s giving. In 2016, the group became one of the partners behind Blue Meridian Partners, a grantmaking collaborative catalyzed by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that plans to move at least $1 billion to high-performing nonprofits that serve low-income kids and teens. The Ballmer Group teamed up with several other funders to back the collaborative, including EMCF, the Duke Endowment, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Samberg Family Foundation, and Stanley and Fiona Druckenmiller. This collaborative has since grown to include other deep-pocketed donors such as Sergey Brin, as well as legacy foundations. 

The Ballmer Group's big investments in StriveTogether and Communities in School is a good example of its approach to capacity building. The latter organization, for example, has been around since the 1970s, but is launching a five-year strategic plan that emphasizes scaling its model.

The Ballmer Group's strong commitment to general support grantmaking comes at a time when there's rising pressure on funders to provide such backing. Unrestricted funding allows nonprofits to build staff and infrastructure to scale in a way that’s often hampered by giving tied to specific funding.

That big new donors like the Ballmers are going all-in for general support and capacity building sends an important signal and is one reason why the Ballmer Group is important to watch.

The couple's hands-on approach is also notable. They reportedly went on a yearlong learning expedition before ramping up their giving, and since then, routinely travel out to the field to meet with grantees. Both maintain offices at the Ballmer Group's headquarters. While the couple hasn't signed the Giving Pledge, it seems pretty clear that their intention is to give away most of their wealth. Which means a lot of big moves are yet to come. 

Related: