Corporate Spotlight

Q&A with Nina Revoyr at Ballmer Group

March 28, 2024
By Andres Magaña

Our new featured section Funder Perspectives highlights insights from leaders in the field of philanthropy and spotlight their work to improve Los Angeles.

In honor of Women’s History Month, today we hear from a formidable leader paving the way for women in philanthropy, Executive Director of Los Angeles & National Public Safety at Ballmer GroupNina Revoyr!

What has inspired your deep dedication to philanthropy? What excites you about this work?

What drives me is the belief that all young people should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. And right now the cards are stacked against too many of our youth: those who are born in particular zip codes, whose families are struggling in conditions of poverty, who bear the brunt of racism. I owe it to the kids I grew up with, and to the people who helped me, to work towards ensuring that our region’s youth have better futures.

My commitment to young people has been a through-line in my career. I’ve worked for Head Start in Watts, for CBOs that serve kids and families impacted by violence, and in education—briefly for LAUSD as well as teaching at the college level. I did that for twenty years before moving into philanthropy. And those prior experiences shaped my understanding of both the opportunity and the obligation of philanthropy. Philanthropy is a mechanism that can jump-start or turbocharge direct service approaches, and also work with—or push on—the flawed systems that interact with families. And frankly, it is a tremendous privilege to sit in this seat. That is something I never take for granted, and never forget.

What excites me the most is engaging with great leaders, seeing incredible work that’s helping people today, and creating greater change for tomorrow. I’m inspired every day by the leaders Ballmer Group supports. I’m inspired by families doing all they can to create better futures for their kids. I’m inspired by great philanthropic leaders in this community, people like Fred Ali and Bob Ross and Antonia Hernandez and Judy Belk, who shifted how philanthropy functions in community and civic life, and from whom I have learned so much. I’m inspired by my colleagues here at Ballmer Group-L.A.—all incredible leaders who constantly push my thinking—as well as colleagues across the organization. I’m inspired by the opportunity to work with Connie and Steve Ballmer, our founders: living donors who are deeply committed to our mission, who approach this work with curiosity and humility, and who give us the space to dream big. I’m inspired by all the things I am constantly learning. Every day I wake up charged up about my work, and it’s pretty cool to feel this way at this stage in my career. I am the opposite of burned out.

What is the mission of Ballmer Group and what vision are you unrelentingly working toward over the long term?

Ballmer Group’s mission is to improve economic mobility for children and families, specifically in the U.S. We support leaders and organizations who have demonstrated the ability to create change, both tangibly in the lives of kids and families, and more broadly, in reducing systemic inequities.

What this means in practice is that we support direct services as well as advocacy focused on systems change. We also support policy implementation—because it’s one thing to get a policy passed, and another to make it real in practice.

It also means that we fund in a variety of subject areas that map up to that larger vision of economic mobility. These include education, from pre-K through post-secondary, as well as career success, child welfare, community safety, criminal justice reform, mental health, benefits access, and affordable housing. One of the things that drew me to working for Connie and Steve was their deep understanding that poverty is not a one issue issue. Focusing on a single thing in isolation is not going to solve the complex challenges faced by children and families in poverty.

We do deep work in three regions that are important to Connie and Steve: L.A. County and California, Washington State, and Southeast Michigan. We also support work nationally, primarily through large nonprofits that work at national scale, and national intermediaries.

Our work has been deeply influenced by the research of Raj Chetty, particularly his findings around the challenges related to economic mobility for Black boys and men—which of course are deeply intertwined with systemic inequities and historical racism. Equity has been a bedrock of our approach since we started here in 2016. Connie and Steve remain unrelenting in their commitment to equity, particularly in relation to Black children and families.

Our vision of success is that more young people will have the opportunities and support they need to become healthy, productive adults. Another marker, to me, would be that some of the huge disparities by zip code and race—in educational outcomes, health outcomes, you name it—would be reduced. It is unspeakable that someone born in Watts has a life expectancy that’s twelve years less than someone born in Santa Monica. That is unjust, untenable, and it has to change.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing LA, and how is Ballmer Group working to address those?

Some of the challenges are very evident: homelessness, affordable housing, basic needs, and how difficult it’s become not only for low-income families but also working-class and middle-class families to afford to live here. That affects not only the children and families we hope to serve, but also the people who serve them: we hear constantly from our grantees how hard it is to attract and retain staff, many of whom have to move to the far reaches of the County, or to other Counties, to afford a place to live.

Beyond that, we still see a large disconnect between the economic opportunity here in L.A.—through tech, entertainment, business, the arts, etc.—and the ability of young people growing up here to have access to it. We want L.A.’s kids—all of L.A.’s kids—to have access to L.A.’s economy—and that requires the bridges of educational, mentoring, and training opportunities, as well as all the supports that go with them, and the removal of barriers.

Also, basic physical safety is not guaranteed in many of our communities. Although thankfully violent crime has gone down from its COVID-era spike—in part because of the efforts of community violence interventionists—there are still parts of the city and County experiencing significant gun violence, which disproportionately affects Black and Latino boys and men. It is hard to overstate how debilitating it is for kids to grow up in neighborhoods where gun violence is so prevalent. Even if they remain physically safe, it affects their learning, their mental health, and their sense of their possible futures. It is heartbreaking when you talk to young people in some parts of our city, and hear that some of them do not expect to reach adulthood.

We are working in all these areas, through the lens of young people and economic mobility. We are also deeply engaged in community safety: including unarmed response to assist people in crisis and reduce unnecessary law enforcement involvement; community violence intervention that leverages people with lived experience to interrupt cycles of violence; and the expansion of a community policing approach that prioritizes building trust and working with community. We’ve used our learnings in L.A. to support safety efforts in other cities across the country.

But I think one of the biggest challenges we face in systems change work is implementation. Folks get charged up about policy change. Campaigns are galvanizing and important and exciting and fun. But after the policy win, what happens next? Often things stall or don’t live up to initial hopes because systems don’t have the capacity—or sometimes the willingness—to pay attention to the boring details of actual implementation. That is a bit of our value-add: We love the boring details of implementation. And we understand that both nonprofits and government are dealing with capacity challenges. We will support government partners, whether it’s the state Department of Education on its rollout of Universal Preschool, or the County on its rollout of 988 and Alternative Crisis Response or Youth Justice Reimagined, or the L.A. County Office of Education in its rollout of Community Schools. We also support the advocates—like Early Edge California, Community Coalition, Inner City Struggle, and Catalyst California—who hold those systems accountable. It may be an outgrowth of my direct service background, but I always want to understand not just what is going to happen, but also the practical details of how. I particularly love working with grantees like the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, A New Way of Life, or the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—because they are engaged in both policy and practice, and each part of their work informs the other.

Our engagement in youth justice reform—where we partner closely with Liberty Hill—is a good example of how we work. We support direct service by funding Centinela Youth Services, whose diversion program is the model for what’s expanding throughout the County; and other direct service providers such as ARC, Homeboy Industries, and the Amity Foundation. We also support advocacy through the Children’s Defense Fund and the LAY-UP Coalition, and individual organizations including Brotherhood Crusade, Khmer Girls in Action, Urban Peace Institute, and others. And we support implementation by funding the W. Haywood Burns Institute, which has served as the facilitator for L.A. County’s Youth Justice Advisory Group, and of course the Liberty Hill Foundation, which leads Ready to Rise, the public-private partnership between Liberty Hill, the California Community Foundation, and L.A. County to expand and support organizations working on youth diversion and youth development.

What is Ballmer Group’s approach to choosing and partnering with grantees?

We start by looking at things that are important to us, anchored in an economic mobility frame: whether that’s increasing post-secondary completion rates for low-income students and students of color; or improving employment rates for Black and hard-to-employ individuals; or bolstering third-grade reading; or decreasing the numbers of youth who enter the criminal justice system. In all cases, we also look at disaggregated data and racial disparities. Then, with input from external partners and stakeholders, we develop an understanding of what’s needed—both from a service perspective and a policy perspective—to get to those goals. Our identification of grantees largely comes through this kind of process, and we focus on leaders and organizations with either a proven track record of success, or very clear and compelling potential.

We tend to be outcomes-oriented; to see data and tech as important tools; to be interested, when possible, in scale. If you look at the grants we’ve made, which are listed on our website, you will see that we like to support innovative leaders and organizations that are already doing great work, that could benefit from philanthropy to help them get to the next level. We don’t do a huge volume of grants, which is a function both of our defined focus areas as well as our lean staff structure. We also tend not to fund super early-stage work or organizations. We’re probably not going to be the seed funders for something new. But once it’s taken root and is starting to grow, that’s when we can come in and provide some water.

When we are exploring a funding relationship, we try to be clear, transparent, and approachable. We believe in relationships and building trust, and you can see that reflected in our L.A. staff: we are all relational people with deep roots in community, and our staff reflects the community. Ballmer Group also tends to provide multi-year grants, mainly general operating support, as well as some project-specific grants. We think it’s important to provide leaders and organizations with both the resources and flexibility to do their work.

Our approach in L.A. has definitely been influenced by the fact that most of us have worked for nonprofits ourselves. I spent most of my career on the other side of the table, having to scramble for resources. I understand the existential threat of struggling to make payroll and fund operations, and how humbling and intimidating it can be to deal with funders. We have no illusions about who’s doing the heavy lifting—it’s the leaders and organizations we support. Our role is to support their work and help make it better, to provide backup when needed, and to stay out of the way as much as possible.

Why does Ballmer Group choose to partner with Liberty Hill?

We partner with Liberty Hill for a number of reasons. First, we are aligned with Liberty Hill’s work around youth justice and housing, particularly tenant education and protection, and environmental justice. We also admire Liberty Hill’s approach in truly engaging and empowering the people who are closest to the problems to help construct the solutions, as well as its longstanding focus on racial equity and social justice. The “how” matters to us too, both in the sense that Liberty Hill is an aggregator and distributor of funding, which is helpful for a funder like Ballmer Group that isn’t really set up to do a ton of individual grants; and in the sense that Liberty Hill, through its public-private partnership, can sit in that sweet spot between government and the community, as it does around youth justice reform. Liberty Hill is one of a kind in the L.A. context and far beyond; we and the entire community are fortunate for its presence and leadership.