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Champion Profile: Steve and Connie Ballmer

If philanthropy is always a mixture of heart and head, then Connie and Steve Ballmer, who launched Ballmer Group to focus on improving outcomes for children, youth and families affected by poverty, exemplify that combination.

“Steve and I approach things very differently and I think we balance each other well,” Connie says. “But what matters to us both is, does anyone get better as a result of what we are funding and the service that is being provided?”

Since Steve retired as CEO from Microsoft in 2014, the Ballmers have focused their philanthropic efforts on expanding economic mobility for children and families– “removing barriers to success,” as Connie says — and supporting organizations that use data and investments wisely. Their philanthropic focus builds on Connie’s many years of supporting children and education in their home state of Washington and beyond, including her work in 2006 to co-found Partners for Our Children, which works to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families in Washington, particularly those involved in the child welfare system.

“Many people have asked me over the years why I became involved in the issue of foster care, when I didn’t have any specific experiences with that system,” Connie says. “As a mother of three sons, I have experienced and understand the importance of stability and support to enable children to grow up feeling safe and able to thrive. Healthy, prospering children are the foundation to our future, and every strong community in this country needs stable families.”

With the launch of Ballmer Group, the Ballmers have prioritized helping organizations achieve higher levels of impact, scale and replication, with a special emphasis on building an organization’s capacity to partner effectively with the public sector to achieve greater results and expand.

“I believe the best work today in philanthropy is when multiple sectors — public, private and nonprofit — come together to tackle problems, because everybody brings a different perspective,” Connie says. “Sometimes it’s a little painful, because we are all so different, but I really think that’s where the power is. It doesn’t matter how much money you have– there is still a limit to what you can do,” reflects Connie. “Together, we all go farther.”

The Ballmers’ involvement with City Year began with a visit to a Seattle middle school, where Connie observed City Year AmeriCorps members serving students in partnership with principals and teachers.

“We were just really touched by the corps members and the connections they made with the kids and how the principals and teachers really wanted to partner with City Year,” recalls Connie. “Then we learned more about how City Year continuously evaluates and improves its program, and how it uses data to measure and improve outcomes. The organization has figured out how to partner with the public sector, so it’s not only dependent on philanthropic support but can sustain itself and replicate. City Year is an organization that needs to be lifted up as a great example and brought to as many communities as it can serve.”

Today, Ballmer Group supports City Year Seattle, City Year Los Angeles, and City Year’s work nationally. Last year, the Ballmers made an innovative national challenge grant to all City Year sites across the country, designed to catalyze transformational partnerships between local City Year programs and school districts. The “City Year Ballmer Challenge” provided a strong platform for City Year sites to deepen their school district partnerships through multi-year commitments for funding and expanded access to student level data with the ultimate goal of achieving even better and more sustainable outcomes for students and schools.

“The Ballmer Challenge has been a game-changer for our organization — it has completely revolutionized our partnerships with the local public education sector,” says City Year CEO and Co-Founder Michael Brown. “It’s increased our sustainability and enabled us to become much more strategic in the deployment of our AmeriCorps members and data-driven in how we identify and better serve students who need City Year’s services the most. We’ve also become a proof point for the potential of cross-sector collaboration, and we couldn’t have done it without such creative and generous philanthropic support from the Ballmers.”

That spirit of collective action is captured in Ballmer Group’s logo, which italicizes the “all” in Ballmer. “It really does take a village,” says Connie, “and no one can do this work alone. The “all” represents the coming together of multiple sectors, and it also represents the multiple interventions needed in any child’s life, in any family, and how a community can lift all of us up, together. It’s going to take everybody.”

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