Don’t look now, but another tech billionaire is using his vast fortune to make a mark on K-12 education.
The Ballmer Group, created by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie, has quietly committed more than a quarter-billion dollars to K-12-related organizations and projects over the last two years, according to an Education Week analysis.
The flow of money includes more than $100 million granted to organizations working to improve opportunities for children and families in poverty, as well as a $59 million investment in a for-profit software company seeking to ease the flow of student data between K-12 school districts and nonprofits.
“These grants place the Ballmer Group among the larger funders in K-12 education,” said Sarah Reckhow, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University who tracks philanthropic giving in education.
They also reflect an approach to K-12 education that diverges in significant ways from those of other high-profile education funders from the technology sector, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The Ballmer Group has quietly emerged as a major player in the world of education venture-philanthropy, committing more than $250 million to K-12 related efforts during 2017 and 2018. As a limited liability corporation, the group is free to make charitable donations and for-profit investments—none of which have to be publicly disclosed. Here’s a sampling of the Ballmer Group’s work, as identified by Education Week in press releases, media reports, and interviews:
- $60 million grant over six years to StriveTogether, a national nonprofit that supports partnerships among school systems, education service organizations, and other human-services groups
- $59 million investment in for-profit company Social Solutions, to support development of software that facilitates greater datasharing between K-12 school districts and nonprofit and social-service organizations
- $30 million grant over 10 years to provide general operating support to BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a nonprofit summer learning provider
- $20 million grant to College Advising Corps, which helps low-income, first-generation students enroll in college by training college counselors
- $16.5 million in two grants to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an independent nonprofit working with the L.A. Unified school system on an in-district school transformation effort
- $16 million in grants in Southeast Michigan, including to City Year Detroit, Detroit Children’s Fund, Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., Community Education Commission, and the Education Trust Midwest
- $15 million grant over five years to provide general operating support to Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit focused on drop-out prevention
- $10 million grant over five years to Teach For America
- $10 million grant to Achievement Network, a nonprofit creating a “Breakthrough Results Fund” to support up to six school systems or charter management organizations with resources such as coaching, instructional tools, interim assessments, and professional learning
- $10 million grant over five years to the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis to continue the early-learning scholarship fund and antipoverty programs started with a federal Promise Neighborhood grant
- $5 million grant over five years to Genesys Works, a national nonprofit focused on youth employment and workforce development
- $2.25 million grant over two years to Teach For America – Los Angeles
- $1.5 million grant over two years to Teach For America – Washington
- $1 million grant to the nonprofit group Reading Partners, which uses trained volunteers to support early literacy intervention programs inside schools
- $750,000 grant over three years to Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a California-based nonprofit charter school network
- $600,000 grant to the nonprofit Children’s Bureau of Southern California, which works to prevent and treat childhood abuse and neglect
- $600,000 grant over three years to Para Los Niños, a nonprofit in LA that operates preschools and charter schools and provides mental health and social-service supports to families
- $525,000 grant for general operating support to InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit advocacy group involved in a coalition of organizations pushing for racial equity in school funding and other issues
- $75,000 grant to support a partnership between California’s Pomona Unified School District and WINGS for Kids, a nonprofit that provides social-emotional learning supports in afterschool programs
- Undisclosed grant amount to a new $3 million philanthropic fund established by the Los Angeles Unified School District
Yes, the Ballmers have given more than $10 million to Teach For America, plus millions more to a handful of charter school networks. They are also big believers in the power of data and technology. And like Zuckerberg, the couple has structured their philanthropic organization as a limited liability corporation, rather than a traditional foundation. That means they can use the Ballmer Group to pursue a mix of charitable donations, for-profit investments, and political activity, all with minimal transparency requirements.
But to date, at least, the couple has not sought to fundamentally disrupt public education. They haven’t thrown their considerable fortune behind efforts to spread the adoption of personalized learning in K-12. And they haven’t focused on issues like academic standards and curricula.
Instead, the Ballmer Group’s known activity to date primarily reflects a “wraparound approach” to education, said Reckhow. It emphasizes the community context in which children grow up, and it relies heavily on people with extensive experience in the social-services field and deep roots in the communities where grants are being awarded.
“When you look at schools through a neighborhood lens, they look different,” said Nina Revoyr, the executive director of the Ballmer Group’s work in Los Angeles who previously worked for more than two decades in education and family mental health. “The idea is that the community drives change, and people from multiple sectors [should] come together to push towards better outcomes.”
$2 Billion Fund
Revoyr recalled the first time she met Connie and Steve Ballmer in 2016, when she was still working as the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Children’s Institute Inc., a nonprofit supporting Los Angeles families dealing with challenges related to behavioral health and trauma.
“I drove them around the housing projects in Watts in my Subaru,” Revoyr said of the Ballmers. “They didn’t have an entourage. They wanted to talk to people and meet folks who were affected by our services.”
Now worth an estimated $43 billion, Steve Ballmer got his start at Microsoft back in 1980, when he became the thirtieth employee hired by Bill Gates.
By 1998, he was the company’s president. Two years later, Ballmer replaced Gates as CEO.
Upon retiring in 2014, Ballmer bought the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. He and Connie, a former public-relations executive at Microsoft who is now a general partner at the youth-focused funding collaborative Blue Meridian Partners, established the Ballmer Group.
To fund the initiative, the couple has contributed more than $2 billion to a donor-advised fund at Goldman Sachs.
Their biggest known donation to date—$60 million to a national nonprofit called StriveTogether—embodies the Ballmer Group’s approach. StriveTogether focuses on reducing racial and economic inequality by bringing together school districts and groups providing services to children and families. The Ballmers’ grant aims to help the organization expand such partnerships and share what it learns with other youth-development organizations.
“We have witnessed the amazing power and possibility of intensive, inclusive community-based work,” said Connie Balmer, who has worked for years on early-childhood issues in Washington state, in a statement released at the time.
Increasing economic mobility for children and families stuck in intergenerational poverty is the overarching goal connecting all of the Ballmer Group’s work, Revoyr said. That means a wide-angle focus on everything from workforce development to criminal justice reform to support for those who have experienced trauma. Funding is often provided for general operating support, to help established organizations scale up their operations. And while the Ballmers have a national agenda, they are focused most intently on three regions of the country: Detroit, where Steve grew up; Washington state, where the couple now lives; and Los Angeles County, where the Clippers are located.
The Ballmer Group’s K-12 work, Revoyr said, fits into that broader context.
The organization does provide direct support to charter schools, including a $600,000 grant to a California-based nonprofit called Para Los Niños that also operates preschools and provides mental health services.
But the Ballmer Group has given much larger sums to outside-of-school groups providing educational support services, including a $30 million grant to a nonprofit summer-learning provider called Building Educated Leaders for Life. The Ballmers have also funded advocacy organizations, including a $525,000 grant to a nonprofit called InnerCity Struggle, which helped lead a successful campaign to change the way public education dollars are allocated in Los Angeles.
In addition, Revoyr said, the Ballmer Group has given directly to efforts involving traditional K-12 districts.
That includes a pair of grants totaling $16.5 million to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an independent nonprofit that is working with the L.A. Unified district to improve 18 low-performing schools while keeping them under district management.
“It doesn’t always have to be about charters,” Revoyr said. “The vast majority of the kids we care about the most are in traditional public schools.”
Revoyr was quick to note that the Ballmer Group’s strategy isn’t “reactive” to some of the challenges faced by other large K-12 funders in recent years. The organization has worked in partnership with a number of other philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Blue Meridian network, she said.
Still, the Ballmers represent a “leading example” of a shift away from some of the biggest trends in edu-philanthropy over the past two decades, said David Callahan, the founder and editor of the digital news site Inside Philanthropy.
“For a long time, we had many philanthropists coming to education with a pretty narrow ed-reform agenda focused on schools and systems,” Callahan said. “What we’re seeing now is an important shift in the landscape, with more funders showing up and saying, ‘OK, we buy the idea that poverty matters.’ ”
That’s not to say everything about the Ballmer Group is different.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Steve Ballmer—a long-time tech executive and avowed “data geek,” in Callahan’s words—is, like Gates and Zuckerberg before him, interested in building up the data infrastructure in and around the K-12 sector.
The Ballmers have also gotten on board with the trend of merging charitable giving with venture-capital investments and calling it all philanthropy.
Those elements of the couple’s approach are reflected in their hefty investment in Social Solutions Global, to help the for-profit company develop nonprofit case-management software that will be able to integrate with the student information systems used by most K-12 school districts.
“We want to help raise the bar on the capabilities of software offered to social-service organizations,” the Ballmers wrote in a joint op-ed about the investment published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last August. “It’s capitalism being given a chance to advance the complex work of addressing poverty.”
By structuring the Ballmer Group as an LLC, the Ballmers have certainly given themselves more levers to pull in service of their goals, said Reckhow, the Michigan State professor. But they also seem to have embraced the notion that billionaires working to reshape public policy and service delivery don’t need to be transparent about what they’re doing.
That could lead to profound conflicts of interest.
As with concerns leveled against the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for example, it’s not hard to imagine the Ballmer Group providing campaign donations to a school board member who may ultimately be voting on contracts with a software company they’ve invested in, or a nonprofit they’ve helped fund.
Officials from the Ballmer Group, however, told Education Week they would not commit to publicly disclose all the organization’s grants, investments, lobbying work, or support for elected officials and campaigns.
“I don’t love the trend,” Reckhow said. “It would be really nice if we could move towards the expectation that if you’re going to work in this space, you share what you’re doing and operate transparently.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Tech Billionaire Takes New Path With K-12 Giving