Three Things to Know About Steve Ballmer's Philanthropic Game Plan

One day very soon, outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will find himself sitting at home without a heck of a lot to do—and a very, very big pile of money ($18 billion, by latest count). No way does a fortune like that just get handed down to the kids—three sons, in Ballmer's case—so it seems inevitable that Ballmer is going to end up as one of the bigger philanthropists of coming decades. And he's probably going to get started soon, unless he has a second career act planned. 

But where's the money going to go? Nobody seems to have a clue. 

Ballmer is a case study of a busy mega-billionaire who has kicked the philanthropy can down the line. He hasn't even signed the Giving Pledge, which is pretty odd considering who he used to work for. And he and his wife Connie Snyder Ballmer haven't yet created any kind of staffed family foundation. All that said, it would be wrong to think that Ballmer is totally starting from scratch. Ballmer does have a philanthropic track record (see IP's profile of Ballmer) and we can say a few things about his likely future giving:

1. Connie Will Play a Huge Role

When billionaires are too busy at the office to think much about giving, it's often their wives who emerge as the philanthropic leaders in the marriage, and this has been the case with the Ballmers. Connie has taken the lead in managing the family giving, and her biggest passion has been children. After reading stories about kids lost in Washington’s foster system, she played an instrumental role in founding a regional nonprofit in 2007, Partners for Our Children. The Ballmers underwrote the group’s creation with a $10 million donation – by far their largest known charitable commitment. Connie serves on the board of the group, which seeks to improve the child welfare system in Washington State through a partnership between government, academics, and the private sector. Connie also sits on the board of the University of Oregon, where she went to school, and previously sat on the board of National Public Radio. So while Steve has been immersed in the tech world, Connie has been developing the nonprofit chops needed to jump into large-scale philanthropy. 

2. The Ballmers Care About Children and Youth

Helping kids has been the unifying theme of the Ballmers' philanthropy so far and major investments in this area seem like a sure thing. It's not just the big donation to Partners for Our Children that offers hints of this direction, but also Microsoft's giving during Ballmer's reign there.

Microsoft has given away a huge amount of money and in-kind services in recent years, a lot of it focused on youth, and while it's hard to say how Ballmer has shaped this giving, he's definitely been involved. For example, Ballmer was on hand in 2012 when Microsoft announced the largest philanthropic initiative its history—a $500 million three-year effort to expand opportunities for global youth called YouthSpark. That initiative came on top of other Microsoft giving focused on young people, including hosting Imagine Cup, one of the world’s most prestigious student technology competitions.

3. Ballmer Will Probably Go All In on Philanthropy

Steve Ballmer has been so often criticized for presiding over Microsoft's decline that it's easy to forget just how smart, driven, and energetic this guy is. He is competitive as hell, and famous for his pure zeal. Never has a major CEO sweated as publicly as Steve Ballmer while doing PowerPoint calisthenics. If philanthropy really becomes his next gig, it won't be a quiet and low-profile operation. Indeed, the fact that Ballmer is leaving Microsoft with such a mixed legacy gives him a big incentive to make the next thing he does an unequivocal success.

In short, get ready for Steve Ballmer 2.0—a big time philanthropist, who together with his seasoned nonprofit wife, is likely to engage in game-changing level giving.