A Sporting Chance

Having given $40 million to local causes, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and wife Connie are betting big on bettering Los Angeles

The housing projects in Watts were nothing new to Nina Revoyr. She’d been working with the community for years as the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Children’s Institute Inc., a Los Angeles nonprofit that assists families struggling with extreme poverty and violence. But on a clear morning in January 2016, Revoyr found herself in a unique situation: driving through the neighborhood in her Subaru Forester with a woman named Connie Ballmer and her husband, Steve, who happened to be the multibillionaire former CEO of Microsoft and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The couple asked Revoyr and a few others to give them a better sense of Watts and show what CII was all about. That initial meeting led to a partnership. By July 2016, Revoyr—who’s also the author of several well-received novels set in L.A.—had left CII to become the Los Angeles executive director of the Ballmer Group, a grant-making effort with aspirations higher than the Clippers’ Blake Griffin at the apex of a poster dunk.

After a few months of prepping, the Ballmer Group began dispersing grants to organizations in the Los Angeles area in late 2016. It has since given out around $40 million, with the bulk of its funding going to impoverished areas in South, Central, and East L.A. “Steve and Connie are singularly focused on improving economic mobility and helping to address intergenerational poverty,” Revoyr says. “I think what it’s really about for them is trying to ensure that more low-income kids and their families have a shot at the American dream.”

Once upon a time, Steve Ballmer felt that paying taxes was enough to aid those in need. But as Revoyr recounts, “[Connie], who’d been in this work for a decade, basically said, ‘Dude, what are you talking about?’ ”

Connie, who cofounded the organization Partners for Our Children before the formation of the Ballmer Group, says she’s often asked how she became interested in child welfare. “I always wonder, ‘How could you not be?’ ” she says. “It’s so unjust that kids have no say in, but must endure, the conditions into which they are born.”

With his wife’s encouragement, Steve took a deeper look at how the government works and how it spends tax dollars. What he found was sobering, and it helped dictate the Ballmer Group’s plan of action. “He had the data to back up what his heart probably already told him,” Revoyr says. (In the hope of inspiring and informing others, he’s put that data into USAFacts, a Website that launched this past April.) In their first full year in Los Angeles, Revoyr and the Ballmers decided to invest in roughly three dozen local organizations. (The Ballmer Group has a separate philanthropy branch in Bellevue, Washington, with plans to open an office in Detroit as well.)

Notable L.A. organizations the group has funded include Para Los Niños, which offers support for high-need children in and out of the classroom; the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a network of 18 underperforming elementary and secondary schools; L.A. Trade Technical College, which provides career pathways that can lead to living-wage jobs; and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which delivers mentorship and better access to employment to people leaving jail or prison.

Money has also gone toward improving community-safety measures. In September a community-safety initiative at Harvard Park, a flashpoint of gang violence, was officially launched thanks in part to significant funding from the Ballmer Group. The funding pays for embedded police officers, who participate in social work and communicate frequently with local leaders to build trust. “You could have the best reading program in the world,” Revoyr says, “but if it’s not safe to get to school because you have to cross gang boundaries, then that program isn’t going to do you any good.”

Moving ahead, Revoyr wants to branch out to areas where there are fewer nonprofits, like Antelope Valley. “Ultimately what Steve and Connie want to do,” she says, “is support communities in realizing their own vision for change. They do not want to come in—we do not want to come in—and presuppose what that looks like.”

This article is a part of Give Los Angeles 2017: A Charitable Registry. Click here for more