The Bigger Picture: Behind Millions in Grants to Drive Policy and Systems Change on Education



The Ballmer Group is behind a new $20 million challenge grant program from StriveTogether to use data to promote policy and system change in communities across the country with the intention of bettering student outcomes.

The nonprofit is known for its collective impact approach to education reform, which engages different systems to improve education outcomes, in contrast to the narrower focus on school-level interventions often favored by ed reformers. The organization has developed a following within the funder community, most notably from the Ballmers.

Steve Ballmer amassed his estimated $42 billion fortune mostly through his work at Microsoft. He was one of the company's first employees and served as CEO for many years. He and his wife Connie have slowly been ramping up their giving over the past several years through the Ballmer Group. The couple has not signed the Giving Pledge, but every indicator suggests that much of their wealth will flow to philanthropy.   

The Ballmer Group is the funder of StriveTogether's Cradle to Career Community Challenge, which will be making grants over the next three years. StriveTogether plans to raise additional cash to support the 16 organizations and communities picked to participate in the challenge.

The work is intended to build on the Accelerator Fund initiative that launched several years ago. As part of the initiative, StriveTogether provided leadership development, technical training and funding to communities to boost education outcomes. The Ballmer Group supported that initiative, too.

As part of the recently announced challenge, seven of the organizations received money from the Strategic Initiative Fund to engage policymakers, support grassroots advocacy and coordinate state and local coalitions. This type of grant scored grantees up to $350,000 a year for three years to push for policy change.

The rest of the money to the Opportunity Fund will go to nine communities to scale data-driven work to align systems. The plan is to connect systems like education, health, housing, transportation and employment, through data. Communities will get up to $500,000 a year for three years.

The grants combine policy and systems change work, which fit with the collective impact approach for which StriveTogether has gained a reputation. The collective impact philosophy prioritizes a broader approach than the traditional school-based changes pursued by earlier education reformers. The method tends to involve engaging stakeholders across different systems, in the belief that student performance is influenced by factors both inside and outside school walls.

The collective impact approach can be seen partly as a response to the education reforms of the 1990s and 2000s that focused heavily on changes within schools—whether that was to curriculum, testing or teaching—without engaging much with other systems, like housing and health, that touch students’ lives.

The holistic approach has served StriveTogether well. Its work has attracted funding from a number of foundations. But nobody has gotten on board like the Ballmers, whose funding has been truly transformative. Last year, the Ballmer Group committed $60 million over six years to support the nonprofit’s Cradle to Career Network, which focuses on reducing the racial and socioeconomic gap in education outcomes. The initiative emphasizes improving connections among school systems, education service organizations and groups providing services to low-income families. The recently announced Community Challenge grants are part of the Cradle to Career Network initiative.

The Ballmer Group doesn’t work exclusively on education. The funder’s mission is to increase economic mobility for kids and families. That mission has led it to support work in a number of fields, including workforce workforce development and prison reform. It makes sense that the Ballmer Group would have an affinity for StriveTogether’s cross-system approach, given the funder’s dedication to tackling poverty across fields.

The Ballmer Group isn’t the only funder backing StriveTogether. Last year, the Chan Zuckerberg and Ford Foundation included it as one of the organizations behind the Student at the Center Challenge, an initiative to encourage more communities to adopt personalized learning. StriveTogether has also been in on an initiative backed by J.B. Pritzker to promote early childhood learning.

Additionally, the nonprofit counts the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Lumina Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Living Cities among its backers. On the corporate side, StriveTogether gets support from the MetLife Foundation, Tableau Foundation and Target.