Not long after billionaire Steve Ballmer purchased the Clippers in 2014, coach Doc Rivers still was getting to know his new boss.
“What do you do now,” Rivers asked the former chief executive of Microsoft, “other than own the Clippers?”
“His answer was incredibly simple, but shocking,” Rivers recently recalled. “He said, ‘I give money away.’ It made me sit up, like, well, pardon me?”
The money went to education, Ballmer told him. That led to the topic of inequity in schools, which led to racial inequities felt nationwide.
It was unlike any conversation Rivers had with a team owner in his previous three decades in the NBA.
“Wow,” Rivers recalled thinking. “This guy is really invested.”
Around the NBA, Ballmer’s financial and emotional investments in the Clippers have become well documented since then. The wealthiest owner of a North American sports franchise, Ballmer might also be the most exuberant. His cheering was so demonstrative during October’s season-opening victory against the Lakers that he tore a hole in his dress shirt.
Nonprofit leaders say Ballmer has proven to be just as invested in fighting economic and racial inequity — a stance they say he and his wife, Connie, took long before sports leagues, schools and businesses rushed to address racism after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
When the Ballmers founded Ballmer Group, their philanthropic organization, five years ago, it was to support children and families in need. But alarmed by 2017 research showing Black boys and men face the most difficulty moving up, or staying near the top, of the economic ladder, that focus was broadened to include “acknowledging structural racism and working to fight it,” Connie Ballmer said.
During the last three years, Ballmer Group says it has given more than $300 million to more than 70 nonprofits working in communities of color from Detroit, where Ballmer was raised, to Seattle, where the Ballmers live, and Los Angeles.
In an interview, the couple said that financial support represents only the start of their contributions as they continue to lean on grassroots leaders for ideas.
“You see him like ‘Yes!’ at the Clippers, and it’s like ‘Yes!’ in philanthropy, too,” said Charisse Bremond Weaver, the president and chief executive of Brotherhood Crusade, a South L.A. nonprofit. “We know our city could be so much better off if we had 1,000 Steves and Connies to understand the conditions in our city, especially for Black folks around equity.
“He’s changing the lives of African American and Black young men and Latinx young men in this city. The results we’re making because of their support will pay dividends for life.”
The funding has helped Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in South L.A. recruit doctors, pushed for the training of more Black teachers in California and supported the construction of the Destination Crenshaw civic space.
“This is an area that is not that well invested in, and frankly it seems an issue of basic fairness that every kid should at least have some kind of a shot at the American dream,” Steve Ballmer said. “And that’s not really the case today.”
The Ballmers rarely discuss publicly the depth of their philanthropy but plan this week to publish a complete list of grantees who work on racial inequity, should it provide guidance for those looking for ways to contribute. The decision comes amid what they feel is a rising urgency to spur long-term change by sustaining the current, mainstreamfocus on social justice.
“If we miss this,” Connie said, “if something doesn’t happen as a result of all of this passion, wow, shame on us.”
“Shame on us, the world,” Steve said.
“But everybody has got to look,” Connie said. “We’ve got to look, look, look. Where should we be contributing? What can we do? We’re looking.”
The Ballmers began by looking in Los Angeles through the windows of a Subaru in 2016.
Nina Revoyr drove them past housing projects and safe-passage zones for schoolchildren in Watts. She knew the area well from her work at a community nonprofit.
At Markham Middle School, she pointed out a berm running the length of its soccer field. It wasn’t landscaping, but for children to drop behind to avoid gunfire. Steve Ballmer was stunned.
It is a story he often has retold, and not only because it is essentially the origin story of Ballmer Group’s work in L.A., where Revoyr runs its operations. The trip also underscored the “cradle-to-career” view of philanthropy Connie first realized a decade earlier through her work with foster children in Washington. Affecting lasting change meant not only reforming the foster system, but also child welfare, education, health care and juvenile justice.
“You kind of have to look at the whole thing, and you’ve got to do it within the community setting to see what’s going on in their world,” Connie said. “And all the way along as we looked at this, it was crystal clear from the beginning that racial inequities were a huge issue.”
Grants typically last at least three years and the funds’ use is unrestricted. Befitting Ballmer’s tech background, data is used to vet organizations and track their progress. Organizations with national reach, such as Teach for America’s Black Educators Initiative, the Equal Justice Initiative and Woke Vote and Push Black, also have received funding.
“They understand it’s not just a check,” Bremond Weaver said. “Your level of commitment is being a part of the story and understanding the story and understanding why the investments need to happen.”
For Brotherhood Crusade, grant money helped increase the size of its operations in 15 South L.A. schools, where a mentorship network aims to divert young men away from the juvenile justice system toward graduation and higher education.
Davon Hunt considers himself one of the program’s success stories. He credited the program’s mentors with helping him address childhood trauma and evolve from a self-described anti-social freshman at Washington Preparatory High into a 2020 graduate who says he now hopes to build his community from within through his own mentoring.
“They really prepared me on how you may have a life plan but other things may come between that, and how to adapt and really push forward,” Hunt said.
Most philanthropy organizations direct their funds toward specific issues, or specific regions, said Katherina Rosqueta, the executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. The Ballmers can afford to think big picture, given a wealth that Forbes values at north of $70 billion. As a limited liability company, Ballmer Group can fund a broader array of initiatives than traditional foundations, which are restricted to 501(c)3 nonprofits.
That includes backing advocacy groups who try to help shape state and national policies on criminal justice issues including bail reform and expunging criminal records. Ballmer Group also works from the other direction, regularly talking with lawmakers from legislators in the state of Washington to Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), in D.C.
“They are looking at all the systems that could, if addressed, lead to better outcomes, and those systems are not just with specific nonprofits,” Rosqueta said. “It could be funding in the way that government works, and that may also be in the ways that the business sector can contribute.
”… That’s just a way of thinking of how to deploy philanthropy which is consistent with how we view high-impact philanthropy.”
Their areas of interest could continue to broaden. The Ballmers said they have yet to dig in on issues such as transportation, housing and policing.
As L.A. outsiders, Connie Ballmer said they understood if there was skepticism about their goals. The couple stressed that they’ve never claimed to be experts, only listeners.
“Some people can donate, some people can give their time, some people can give — whether it’s volunteering in the social service agency, whether it is volunteering for an advocacy organization, whether it’s getting out the vote, whether it is voting,” Steve Ballmer said.
“We all need to learn from each other, but it should be grounded in kind of how the communities work and what community leaders in the not‑for‑profits and the advocacy organizations are pushing for.”
Maria Brenes, the executive director of Boyle Heights-based nonprofit InnerCity Struggle, a past Ballmer Group grant recipient, agreed that those working in the communities should take the lead in generating ideas. But she didn’t doubt Ballmer’s support because she’d seen it in person last year, while attending a discussion on education funding featuring civic and philanthropic leaders.
“He was aligned with us,” Brenes said. “The billionaire with the grassroots.”
The Ballmers have long sought to keep separation between their personal philanthropy and that of the Clippers, who operate a foundation. But Floyd’s death brought the work of one and the interests of the other closer together.
As players, coaches and staffers began asking how they could take action, Ballmer Group’s list of vetted organizations was shared internally. In June, employees of the Clippers, the team’s G League affiliate in Ontario, and the Forum were informed by the Ballmers that financial gifts to nonprofit agencies and schools of their choosing will be matched and doubled, up to $15,000 in a calendar year. Gift matching is common in the tech sector, such as at Microsoft, but less so in sports.
“I’ve never been with an organization in 30 years where that’s been done,” Rivers said.
The Clippers also are planning videos in which players will detail personal stories of facing racism. The idea came from players out of a virtual team meeting, which Ballmer attended, that often turned emotional.
It reminded Rivers of his first meetings with Ballmer, in which he said the owner acknowledged that as a white man he did not have the same experience as Black players and coaches. But he promised to listen and take action, Rivers said.
“I love that he’s not scared,” Rivers said. “He is not a scared owner. He’s going to do what he thinks is right — humanity is right. And he will not apologize for that.”