Big Gifts, But No Grand Plan Yet: A Look at Steve Ballmer's Philanthropy

Ever since former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced he was stepping down last August, there has been a lot of speculation about what his next moves would be.

On the business side, answers came pretty quickly, when he swooped in to buy the LA Clippers. 

On the philanthropic side, it seemed likely that Ballmer would follow the examples of Microsoft cofounders Paul Allen and Bill Gates and begin spending down his fortune by supporting charitable causes. At Inside Philanthropy, we were looking for nonprofit veteran Connie Ballmer to play a major role, and for the couple to focus on organizations that help children, among other causes. 

Related: Three Things to Know About Steve Ballmer's Philanthropic Game Plan

Now more information is coming in about Ballmer's philanthropy, with the announcement of two big gifts. Before getting to those, though, we should mention that there's actually some overlap between Ballmer's business dealings and his giving plans. 

As part of the Clippers deal, $200 million of the $2 billion purchase price is being used to create a foundation run by the organization, which Ballmer will co-chair with Shelly Sterling, wife of former owner Donald Sterling. The foundation will support programs that benefit underprivileged families, battered women, minorities, and inner city youths.

As for those new Ballmer gifts, they're the biggest ever made by Steve and Connie. First, the University of Oregon—where Connie got her BA and where she sits on the board—will be receiving $50 million, with $25 million going to a financial aid program for low-income students, and $20 million going to its anti-obesity program, which the university hopes to establish as one of the leading programs in the country. The remaining $5 million will be used to promote the university’s academic brand.

Steve got his undergrad degree at Harvard, and while the exact amount of the donation to the university was not revealed, Ballmer confirmed it was in the neighborhood of $60 million. The gift will fund 12 professorships in computer science, and is part of a plan to double the size of the department in the next decade to meet growing student demand.

Even without counting the foundation being set up through the Clippers, the approximately $110 million the Ballmers have shelled out in the last week is good enough to make them one of the top 25 or so biggest givers of 2014. And we’re also starting to get hints about how things may play out with the couple's giving. 

The gift to Connie's alma mater, which we assume she closely shaped, reflects her longstanding interest in helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, in part by addressing obesity, a major health issue that disproportionately affects such kids, and in part by helping them afford a college education.

The gift to Harvard, meanwhile, will help the nation's richest university hire more professors. 

Earlier this fall, Connie told Forbes: “I’m more of a save-the-world person than Steve is, so I need him to catch up with me. It’s all really new for him.”

Ballmer told Forbes that he was engaged in deep dive to figure out where to go with philanthropy. The magazine wrote:

... he is approaching the vast world of social programs with an economist’s precision: reading books, gathering data and talking to experts everywhere from Washington, D.C. to leading universities. It’s as if he’s trying to complete a self-assigned Ph.D. program in public-good studies before taking the irreversible step of moving any major chunk of his money into a foundation... Seeking insight everywhere, Ballmer has marched through all 577 pages of Capital, French economist Thomas Piketty’s testy critique of income inequality. 

It's not clear where all this is leading or how long such deliberations will take. As Connie told Forbes, “We’re somewhere between 12 months and five years from knowing exactly what we’ll do."

But the big gifts to their alma maters, as well as the new Clippers' foundation, show that the wheels are starting to turn. 

One question is if, or perhaps when, we’re going to see a more long-term commitment in the form of creating a family foundation or donor-advised fund to help the Ballmers give away some of their fortune, which now stands at $22 billion.

And who knows? Maybe they'll finally decide to sign the Giving Pledge.

See Ballmer's full IP Profile