Two dozen high school and college students sat in a circle in an office building off Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles, drawing what they saw as obstacles to their dreams with magic markers on balsa wood boards — part of a leadership program offered by Brotherhood Crusade, a grassroots organization that has been serving low-income kids from the neighborhood since 1968. Students participate in activities like this designed to bolster cooperation, leadership, emotional stability and character. They also meet at school, take field trips and get matched with valuable internships in various departments of L.A.-based professional sports teams.
Brotherhood Crusade offers 20-some programs for young people aged 10 to 24, and is a grantee of Ballmer Group through its L.A. office. I’m always interested in seeing how nonprofits operate — what a philanthropy’s lofty-sounding goals look like from the perspective of a group on the ground — so I’d cajoled my 15-year-old son to drive deep into South L.A. with me to participate in that afternoon’s meeting. When we arrived, every single kid I met looked me in the eye, shook my hand, said his or her name, and asked mine. They were polite, respectful and poised, displaying a professional demeanor, curiosity and confidence that Brotherhood Crusade has helped them refine.
Now, my son and I sat on black ergonomic office chairs alongside the regular participants, drawing obstacles to our dreams. I was so excited by the chance to color with magic markers during the workday that I missed the second part of the exercise — drawing a vision of life, barriers removed. (Clearly, over-focusing on short-term fun is an obstacle to my dreams.) Then we broke into groups of eight and took turns placing our boards over two concrete blocks and stomping them in two, while our teammates shouted, “Break that board!”
This was so fun. Also, energizing and enlightening. My first thought: “What an amazing feeling of support and practical knowledge is being shared here.”
My second thought: “Can I — a 50-something professional living in Santa Monica — join an after-school club for disadvantaged kids in South L.A.?”
At the close of the day’s session, a student at El Camino College named Sigli Amadu summed up his time with the nonprofit: “Brotherhood Crusade is a family. Some people look at it like a program. But it’s a family.”
What economic empowerment looks like in action
If Brotherhood Crusade is a family, it’s one with some pretty good connections. As Joseph Devall, Ballmer Group’s portfolio manager in charge of career success and other grantmaking, said, nurturing connections is an important part of that. “As a young man growing up without all the resources of the West Side, this provides access they wouldn’t have. There is documented evidence that mentoring programs like this help young men, especially young Black men, better pursue college and career opportunities.”
Good manners, good connections, a positive sense of self: All of these play a part in overcoming poverty by achieving economic mobility, the main focus of Ballmer Group’s grantmaking.
Ballmer Group funds a half-dozen major impact areas as part of its comprehensive approach to building economic mobility. These run from birth through college and include criminal justice and community safety as well as housing and homelessness. Ballmer Group has also recently leaned into significant climate giving at the urging of the Ballmers’ son, Sam, who has joined the organization and is leading that work.
Big money, big vision
Ballmer Group, founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, burst onto the philanthrosphere in 2015 with big money and even bigger plans. It quickly asserted itself as one of the top anti-poverty funders in L.A. County, while also making place-based grants in Detroit and Washington state, and funding national antipoverty efforts, as we wrote when we covered its initial L.A. work in 2019.
This spring, we checked back in to see what Ballmer Group has done in L.A. lately. As it turns out, it’s a huge amount. After spending some time with staff and grantees, I identified four main reasons for Ballmer Group’s rapid growth and influence in the region. Massive cash is clearly one factor. Second, Ballmer Group hires locals deeply embedded in the communities they serve, and with nonprofit backgrounds, as grantmakers. Third, it takes a comprehensive, multilever approach, funding service providers like Brotherhood Crusade as well as those fighting for system-level change at the city, state and federal level. Finally, it pairs its funding with a nervy willingness to face off with complex, deeply embedded structures of inequality.
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
In its first three years of existence, Ballmer Group gave about $110 million in the Southern California region, making it one of the largest L.A.-area funders. That number has since grown. In 2022 alone, the L.A. office gave out $55 million in Los Angeles County, and is about to surpass that amount for 2023. Ballmer Group’s L.A. team also manages national public safety grants as part of its portfolio and it gave out more than $18 million in this category in the past couple years.
In 2022, Ballmer Group gave out more than $850 million in grants across all its regions and impact areas. Ballmer Group does not have a pot of money to give, but rather looks at what should happen, then funds that, tapping a Microsoft fortune currently estimated at $96 billion. In that sense, it’s not dissimilar to the foundations of other living megadonors who take a “pay-as-you-go” approach to their philanthropy — although Ballmer Group is not a private foundation, but rather a more expansive corporate entity in the same vein as an Arnold Ventures or Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Individual grants are huge by the standards of the nonprofit world — though probably not so mindboggling to a tech billionaire like Steve Ballmer. Take, for instance, a three-year, $10 million grant to Alliance for Early Success, a nonprofit that works with state-level early childhood policy advocates across the country. Current three-year grants in L.A. also include $15 million to Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, $3 million to City Year LA, $2.5 million to Greater Los Angeles Education Foundation, and $1,050,000 to A New Way Of Life Reentry Project, which was started by Susan Burton, a former multiple incarcerate (and the coauthor, with writer Cari Lynn, of “Becoming Ms. Burton”).
Local leaders know the problems and the players
The Ballmer Group L.A. office is a great example of a philanthropy tapping local experts with knowledge of service providers and the systems that bind them. I recently visited the L.A. team at their offices on the top floor of the historic, LEED Platinum-certified PacMutual building in Downtown L.A. Huge, glossy photos featuring Los Angeles’s diverse communities hang on the walls, taken by East L.A. photojournalist Monica Almeida. This choice of décor aligns with the staff’s efforts to stay connected to the neighborhoods they serve — and with their own backgrounds. As Ballmer Group L.A.’s executive director, Nina Revoyr, put it, “Many of the issues we work on are personal to us, not theoretical and academic. That helps drive a sense of urgency in our team.”
Revoyr previously spent a couple decades in leadership roles at L.A. nonprofits, teaching literature and creative writing at local colleges, and publishing six novels that chronicle the incredible diversity of the sprawling megapolis. (Her 2003 literary novel “Southland” was recently chosen by the L.A. Times as one of 110 essential books about L.A.)
The half-Japanese daughter of working-class, divorced parents, Revoyr grew up largely in Culver City, a currently hip neighborhood that was then a low- and middle-income area with “something like 40 languages being spoken,” she said. “Growing up, hearing gunshots, watching my friends get into trouble with the law, or drugs, I would think, you know: ‘There but for the grace of God.’ I had a solid parent. I had things to be passionate and excited about that kept me engaged: reading, writing and basketball. I got recruited by a number of colleges to play basketball, which is how I got it in my head to go to college. I also had a number of caring adults and tremendous teachers. I saw what happened to the kids who were smarter or more talented than me, but didn’t have those supports, or something they were really excited about. That absolutely shaped me.”
Like Revoyr herself, the six staff members she has hired so far also reflect the local community. Joseph Devall, who brought Brotherhood Crusade on board, knew about it because he’d spent a couple decades working for a nonprofit organization in South L.A. Kim Pattillo Brownson, who focuses on early childhood, K-12 and behavioral health, previously worked at First 5 LA, the Advancement Project, and as an education attorney at the ACLU. Nadia Funn, a portfolio manager focused on K-12 education, was executive director of Alliance for Better Community and held positions within the Los Angeles Unified School District. “They are deeply steeped in these bodies of work,” Revoyr said. “They know the players and the systems. They go to meetings, they engage with folks, and learn that way. They know more than I do.”
During my visit, we sat in the conference room eating sandwiches brought in from Mendocino Farms. Everyone around the table agreed that the practice of hiring and actually listening to local experts, often from nonprofits, starts at the top, with the Ballmers themselves and with Ballmer Group President Terri Ludwig. “We’ll be talking about an issue and Steve and Connie will be like, ‘I don’t know. What do you think we should do?’ They’re very interested in the perspective of the staff they hire,” Revoyr said, noting that they also take suggestions for potential grantees from current grantee partners.
Taking a comprehensive, multisystems approach to change
Ballmer Group funds organizations working to improve conditions for young people from birth to early employment because economic mobility depends on success at each of these stages. Adverse childhood experiences at an early age have been shown to negatively impact people’s health and wellbeing into adulthood. From the Ballmer perspective, this makes safeguarding early childhood an important piece in the puzzle of breaking generational poverty. “The overarching focus is always on economic mobility,” Pattillo Brownson said. “Child wellbeing is the start of that — education and wellness.”
But a happy toddler could get derailed in school. Another impact area is K-12 education, which includes funding nonprofits working to help schools graduate college and career-ready kids. There are a lot of ways that schools can fail kids, I learned, such as by not offering the courses needed for acceptance into the UC or Cal State university systems, as was the case in L.A. in the recent past. Ballmer funds nonprofits focused on literacy, on access to quality classes and effective learning, and on removing barriers to BA completion.
Devall, who oversees Ballmer’s support for Brotherhood Crusade, was hired to address the next rung up the ladder: career success. At Ballmer, that means a lot of things. Brotherhood Crusade, for example, offers the group support that I saw as well as other programs including education in financial literacy and etiquette, and valuable internships. It currently has 51 full-time and 15 part-time employees and an annual budget of $10.5 million. The resource center I visited is just one of four locations in South L.A.
Now, Ballmer Group’s unrestricted funding is helping Brother Crusade continue to flourish. Ballmer has so far given $900,000 to Brotherhood Crusade in two grants of $450,000 each, as well an additional $1,412,675 in pass-through funding as part of a grant to California Community Foundation’s BLOOM initiative (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men), launched in 2012 to help young Black men at risk of becoming ensnared in the juvenile justice system.
“Our work with boys and men of color was lifted up by Ballmer Group, at a time when a lot of folks weren’t investing in equity and social justice and really looking at how to change the trajectory,” said Charisse Bremond-Weaver, president and CEO of the Brotherhood Crusade, and daughter of founder Walter Bremond. “Ballmer really helped us grow our capacity and has trusted us to build out the work.”
But kids need to get to school safely and be able to pay attention while there. Devall also focuses on juvenile justice and public safety – huge, complex issues in Los Angeles County, rife with inequities that hit Black communities the hardest. Ballmer funds violence intervention programs and alternatives to armed response, such as sending out mental health responders rather than relying on police officers in every situation.
“Our population is individuals who have historically been left out of economic opportunity,” Devall said. “I think of career success as opportunity. We encourage people to finish high school and/or go to college so they are in a better position for careers that can sustain their lives. But over-policing, incarceration and lack of neighborhood safety can become barriers to that future. That’s why I’m involved in grantmaking around these issues.”
Both in L.A. and elsewhere, Ballmer Group has been ramping up its commitments to work at the intersection of economic mobility and racial equity. One recent piece of news: Over $40 million in new funding will flow from Ballmer to 110 Black-led nonprofits over five years. Undertaken in partnership with New Profit and Echoing Green, the new initiative is an attempt to address the chronic funding gap Black nonprofits and leaders face.
Good can be scaled
Does being founded by a tech titan somehow make it less daunting to try tackling the multilayered, seemingly intractable problem of poverty, complicated by racism, underfunded schools, endless traffic, sprawl and special interest groups? Every single staff member I spoke to at Ballmer Group said yes.
From a practical standpoint, the organization is data-informed. Its tech and data team focuses on data-backed solutions and on improving the technology capability of grantees. Ballmer Group invests in tech solutions as part of its philanthropy, and as I was told over lunch, Steve Ballmer has been known to “get in with a nonprofit and be their ‘tech support,’” or at least offer advice.
Equally notable is what I see as a “comfort with scale.” We’ve certainly seen plenty of instances where tech billionaire philanthropy loses its footing in the face of systemic challenges — or never steps up to confront them at all. And evidence of tech billionaire success from recent philanthropic history is mixed at best. But I was impressed with the sheer scope of attempted solutions at Ballmer Group and the nerviness of taking it all on. Ballmer Group operates with a seemingly no-holds-barred notion that nothing is too complex or expensive to solve. Good, in other words, can be scaled.
That’s a powerful motto that other philanthropies (and individuals) should probably write on their own balsa wood dream boards.