By Trevor W. Coleman
Concentrated poverty in Detroit and its surrounding counties is at 32%, the highest rate among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. Creating a path to prosperity for many previously excluded residents is going to require large-scale systemic change driven by collective action.
Enter a relatively young player in the Detroit philanthropic scene partnering with other kindred spirits in moving the needle on poverty and other disparities in the region.
The Ballmer Group, founded by Detroit native Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie in 2015, opened their southeast Michigan regional office in 2018. Since that time, it has provided critically needed funding to local nonprofits dedicated to eliminating poverty and educational disparities and advancing the goals of social justice and racial equity.
The Ballmers’ have donated more than $2.1 billion to causes throughout their lifetime and they have invested more than $100 million in grants so far to organizations working in Michigan.
Supporting Success From Cradle To Career
Steve Ballmer grew up in Detroit and Farmington Hills and made his fortune as an early partner in Microsoft, eventually rising to the rank of president and chief executive officer. Now retired, he is also the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
He told Detroiter Magazine the goal for the Ballmer Group – both nationally and in southeast Michigan, Washington State, and Los Angeles – is to support organizations and leaders who are making progress in improving economic mobility for kids and families
“We think philanthropy can make a difference – in leveraging government resources, in championing community-based partnerships that bring leaders from different sectors together and holding each other accountable,” Ballmer said. “And in ensuring a stronger social services sector; and supporting technology and data solutions that give service providers a soup-to-nuts view of what’s working, and what’s not – all so that kids can have a better chance to succeed from cradle to career.”
Kylee Mitchell Wells, the executive director of the Ballmer Group’s philanthropic efforts in southeast Michigan (Wayne-Oakland-Macomb counties) and a Detroit native too, said their mission is both professional and personal for her.
“The Ballmer Group focuses on the concept that everybody should have an opportunity to achieve what they want to achieve economically,” she said. “And that is certainly not the case today.”
Collaborating With Regional Leaders Across All Ranks
To ensure the Ballmer Group’s focus was aligned with the region’s needs and complemented the efforts of existing nonprofits and stakeholders, Wells said it was vital to collaborate with regional leaders of all ranks.
“We did focus groups with different nonprofits and government leaders to understand the missing pieces here from a philanthropic standpoint because Detroit is robust with philanthropy,” she said. “So rather than simply relying on data and reports, we went on a listening tour around the region to get a better understanding from the ground up of the needs of the region and where they could hopefully fill in the gaps.”
Such cooperation resulted in the millions in grants to nonprofits throughout southeast Michigan that focus on education, job training, neighborhood, youth and community development, family services, and racial equity.
“The Ballmer Group operates by the notion of collective impact, which is the methodology of working across sectors to achieve either education outcomes or workforce outcomes,” Wells said. “We can give money; that’s the easy party, but it’s (all about) the alignment of all the resources that are there.”
“The Ballmer Group operates by the notion of collective impact, which is the methodology of working across sectors to achieve either education outcomes or workforce outcomes. We can give money; that’s the easy party, but it’s (all about) the alignment of all the resources that are there.” -Kylee Mitchell Wells Executive Director, SE Michigan, Ballmer Group
Trevor W. Coleman is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Detroit Free Press