Ballmers will donate more millions here — quietly
Steve and Connie Ballmer will continue to spread millions of dollars around southeast Michigan — but you won't hear about it from them.
Steve Ballmer, a Detroit native and former CEO of Microsoft, and his wife announced $16 million in grants to 18 local nonprofits this week, fulfilling a pledge he made at September's Detroit Homecoming.
In a conference area above a combination coffee shop and coin laundry on the east side of Detroit on Friday morning, they held a lively meeting with representatives of some of the fortunate agencies. That's the loudest they plan to be from now on, they said afterward: While Ballmer Group has targeted Metro Detroit as one of its three principal regions for giving, any further announcements will come from grantees.
"You can't give money away without getting attention, and that's too bad," Connie Ballmer said.
They'll be taking an unconventional, under-the-radar approach with a somewhat unconventional charitable arm. Ballmer Group, which focuses on helping children and families escape the cycle of poverty, is not a foundation; it's an LLC, meaning it has the freedom to undertake anything from impact investing to lobbying.
The ultimate goal, Steve Ballmer said, is to help "a higher percentage of kids move up the economic totem pole than they do now."
That's the measurable they'll be looking at, he said, in 20 or 30 years: "Can I elevate myself and have a living-wage job, even if my mom and dad did not?"
Ballmer, 62, is the son of a Swiss immigrant he described as "a mid-level guy at Ford." Born at Sinai Hospital, he grew up largely in Farmington Hills, scored a perfect 800 on the mathematics section of the SAT, graduated as valedictorian at Detroit Country Day, and set off to Harvard expecting to become a math or physics professor.
As a sophomore there, he said, he discovered an interest in business. He dropped out of graduate school at Stanford to join Microsoft in 1980, served as CEO from 2000-14, and remains the company's largest individual shareholder — a distinction that prompted Forbes to create an online ticker tracking his daily net worth. The figure Friday was $41.4 billion.
The Ballmers live near Seattle, not far from Microsoft headquarters, and the Pacific Northwest is one of the focus areas for Ballmer Group. So is Los Angeles, where he owns the NBA's L.A. Clippers.
"It's fascinating to me how completely different the places are," Connie Ballmer said.
The principal problem they're addressing in Los Angeles is homelessness, she said, while in Detroit it's blight, "but the economic issues are the same."
They see the solutions as starting before birth; one of the local grants was to Planned Parenthood of Michigan for prenatal care and parental education. Others involved quality of life, strengthening neighborhoods and public policy.
While Ballmer Group has no interest in creating a nonprofit of its own, she said, it can assist with messaging, marketing and branding, the sorts of things smaller agencies "don't have the bandwidth to do."
A three-person Detroit office led by executive director Kylee Mitchell Wells chose the grantees and will continue a rolling process of inviting applications and awarding funds.
Mitchell Wells knows he will be watching, Steve Ballmer said, but she also knows he's not expecting perfection.
"If we're not investing in some projects that fail," he said, "we're not taking enough chances."
Above the coffee shop Friday, failure was not under discussion.
The Ballmers "wanted to know what the drivers are," said Sherita Smith, executive director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. "They wanted to know what levers they could pull to keep the process going."
Smith's organization received $450,000 across three years for strategic planning and its work on neighborhood stabilization, a figure Ballmer Group did not announce — even as it divulged the grantees.
Senior director Melinda Clemons of Enterprise Community Partners, whose grant covers an economic mobility initiative in Detroit, had the last word as the meeting ended.
"Thank you for letting our voices be heard," she told the Ballmers.
Going forward, they'll be the only voices that will.