The last big news we learned about former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer was when he left Microsoft’s board to devote his time to his newly acquired Los Angeles Clippers (for $2 billion) basketball team. Since then, The Ballmer Group joined Blue Meridian Partners with the goal of awarding $1 billion in grants to high-performing charities serving low-income children.
Though Ballmer and his family live in Washington, he intends to give back to his original hometown, Detroit. He is the wealthiest former Detroit resident. That’s not surprising, given that he is also the seventh-wealthiest person on the planet. Ballmer’s father, a Swiss immigrant, was a manager at the Ford Motor Company. His mother’s family was from Belarus and makes the late actress and comedian Gilda Radner Ballmer’s second cousin.
Baller visited Detroit last Wednesday to attend the third annual Detroit Homecoming for expats who still love the city and want to see it restored. “I get back probably twice a year for family stuff, more funerals than weddings now than we like,” Ballmer said. Ballmer spent four hours with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and city leaders touring the city.
Ballmer told Crain’s that he and his wife Connie plan to commit much of their wealth to fight intergenerational poverty and that Detroit is very likely to be a beneficiary of his philanthropy. Ballmer is impressed by the positive energy and hope that he sees: “I’m very fired up today about Detroit.”
“They were incredibly energized,” said Connie Ballmer, who began studying poverty and philanthropy before her husband retired from Microsoft in 2014. “These are people who have been in really stellar professions elsewhere, and they chose to come back here under this mayor because they knew that work was being done. They seemed innovative. You don’t always find that in government entities—not because they’re bad people; it’s just that you don’t always get a reformer mindset.”
“Normally, when I come back to Detroit, I see no hope,” Steve Ballmer said. But now, “I think Connie framed it perfectly.”
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Crain’s interviewed the Ballmer couple at length. The conversation dwelled on the difficulty of ending cycles of poverty in general and in Detroit in particular. Steve Ballmer was animated about his willingness to get involved. “It’s attackable!” he said. But Crain’s suggests that Connie is the one who will decide.
“This is the deal,” she told an interviewer pressing for a commitment to invest in Detroit. “It’s really hard for outsiders to come to a city or a region and make smart decisions, and so we…don’t want to come and say, ‘We know what’s best for you.’ We would have to…really learn about these people in the mayor’s office, what’s going on with your county, and we’d have to really learn before we come in and make those (donations),” she said. “And we’re just not there yet.”
They said they’re in the early stages of figuring out their philanthropic plans in general, but that addressing intergenerational poverty is a priority. Steve said that he spoke with President Barack Obama about training leaders in social services after he leaves office. They are reticent about making a financial commitment to Detroit because they want to try to maximize their impact. “At this point…we’re interested in scale, and we’re interested in what can reach the most people,” Connie said.
It’s their money, and that is certainly the view of most major philanthropists. But will any billionaire from anywhere ever fire that philanthropic silver bullet? Bill Gates and others try valiantly, but what have all those billions and good effort ever finally “ended” or “scaled” to maximum effect for the causes they care about? How much suffering can be relieved today with minor league philanthropy spread knowingly but anonymously through United Ways and community foundations?
Far more important and interesting than this NPQ newswire about the philanthropic musings and vague pronouncements of the seventh-wealthiest couple in the world is this disturbing speech by frequent NPQ contributor William Schambra, “Philanthropy’s War on Community.” Schambra writes about how the biggest foundations, most powerful leaders, and brightest minds at one point in our nation’s history thought intergenerational poverty of a certain kind was eminently “attackable.”
What “philanthropy” did to the humble island community of Malaga, Maine makes one want to praise the Ballmer family for tarrying with the money. It will give Detroit residents time to better define what they want to do. Our advice to the Ballmers is to either do that or instead create a generous asset fund for each family so they can accumulate capital under their own control. Don’t you trust them?—James Schaffer