Next Up in the Ballmer Group's Opportunity Push: Taking on Youth Incarceration

photo:  digitalskillet/shutterstock

photo:  digitalskillet/shutterstock

With a net worth of nearly $40 billion and clear interest in giving back, Steve and Connie Ballmer have the potential to become some of the biggest philanthropists of our time. Their giving operation, the Ballmer Group, is still young, but is starting to develop a clear set of priorities. In these early stages, every new gift hints at where the couple’s giving could go in the long term.

One of the latest gifts from the Ballmer Group was a $20 million grant to Youth Advocate Programs, a nonprofit that matches kids and young adults with paid mentors in their communities as an alternative to time in juvenile detention or other institutions. The gift fits with the Ballmer Group's goal to encourage economic mobility for children and families, but tackles the challenge from a criminal justice angle.

“Youth Advocate Programs offers unconditional caring for kids with the most complex needs,” said Jeff Edmondson, managing director of Ballmer Group. “We believe everyone deserves a shot at moving up, so we are proud to support an organization that embraces the belief that every single child is critically important to making this happen.”

While the immediate goal is to keep kids from entering the criminal justice system, Youth Advocate Programs lists economic mobility as one of its downstream goals. That’s right in line with Ballmer’s focus on equity.

The Ballmer Group has lately distinguished itself for its large-scale giving to organizations that serve low-income kids. In 2016, the funder joined Blue Meridian Partners, a grantmaking collaborative set on giving $1 billion to high-performing nonprofits that raise children out of poverty. In Los Angeles, the Ballmer Group has quietly made tens of millions of dollars in grant commitments to local anti-poverty groups since it first began focusing on the city a few years ago. It also recently opened an office in Detroit, which is another focal point of its giving, along with Steve and Connie's home region of the Pacific Northwest. 

Meanwhile, the Ballmer Group has stepped up its support of national organizations, including those working at the nexus of education and poverty. Earlier this year, the funder gave $20 million to the College Advising Corps, which trains college counselors to enroll more low-income, first-generation students in colleges. There was also a $15 million gift to Communities in Schools and a $60 million grant to StriveTogether.

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

The criminal justice system is another facet in Ballmer’s expanding equity work. When considered in the context of another $20 million gift to the Vera Institute of Justice, announced earlier this year, this grant to Youth Advocate Programs points to a growing interest in criminal justice reform at the Ballmer Group. 

The group has supported criminal justice work in the past mostly on the state level in California. Previously, the funder gave to reentry organizations like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and A New Way of Life, and advocacy groups like National Center for Youth Law. 

"Many people whose lives are touched by the criminal justice system live in the geographic areas we most care about," said Nina Revoyr, Ballmer's Los Angeles executive director. "We understand that the well-being of kids, families, and communities depends on their engagement with the criminal justice system looking much different—or not happening at all.“

This recent gift is a big bet on an established player with a national presence. Youth Advocate Programs started in 1975. The nonprofit runs programs in 22 states and the District of Columbia. It serves about 13,000 people in 100 communities across the country. The nonprofit pairs kids with paid mentors in their communities to provide supervision and support at home as an alternative to serving time in a youth prison. 

The organization says that community-based interventions like its mentor programs have a better track record when it comes to rehabilitating youths and reducing recidivism. About 80 percent of the kids in the program stay out of the criminal justice system, according to the nonprofit.

It’s hard to determine the national recidivism rate for kids in juvenile detention because the criminal justice system and the level of tracking differ by state, but research supports the assertion that stints in detention facilities make repeat offences more likely.

Placing kids in institutions increased their chances of repeat offenses, even among the kids convicted of the most minor crimes, according to a 2011 study from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In contrast, kids who were instead supervised in their communities were less likely to commit crimes in the six months after release.

Kids who stay in their communities, like those that Youth Advocate Programs serves, were more likely to go to school and hold down jobs after their release than their peers who were placed in institutions, the study found.

There's a long history of philanthropy seeking to improve juvenile justice. Most notably, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been working on the issue for over two decades. The MacArthur Foundation was another longtime funder in this space, before it pivoted its criminal justice work in a different direction a few years ago. A number of local funders, especially in California have also worked to reduce the incarceration of youth, with some success, as we've reported. That said, there's plenty of room for reinforcements in a critical funding niche that remains largely overlooked, and Ballmer money could go a long way, here. 

Youth Advocate Programs plans to use the $20 million in unrestricted funding to expand its work, including launching services for kids who have been sexually exploited or have problems with substance abuse. The nonprofit also plans to launch a skills development program to provide economic opportunities. Down the line, the nonprofit wants to expand into additional states and increase its endowment.

The unrestricted funding means that Youth Advocate Programs can invest in its own long-term growth. The nonprofit plans to work on recruiting, training and keeping more staff. There are also plans to update technology systems to make recording data easier. The organization also hopes to raise its profile and attract more donors like Ballmer through improving its marketing and communications.

In other words, the Ballmer Group is providing Youth Advocates with exactly the kind of support that most nopnrofits say they urgently need to succeed: large chunks of cash that the organization's leaders can deploy as they see fit to advance their mission. 

Such unrestricted support is a core part of the Ballmer Group's modus operandi. But it's important to remember that the majority of grants from institutional funders still take the form of restricted program support.