The Amway Billionaire Who Is Backing Faith-Based Outreach to At-Risk Youth

We don't write all that much about religious giving at Inside Philanthropy, but we should: It accounts for a huge slice of overall charitable giving and is also the focus of a number of billionaire mega-donors—some of whom are acutely worried about America's drift toward secularism and want to foster more engagement with religion. 

One of these funders is Amway co-founder Richard DeVos (worth nearly $6 billion), and his wife, Helen Devos, who support religious outreach to at-risk youth across the country through the Richard and Helen Devos Foundation, which they founded in Michigan in 1970.

The millennial generation is much less religious than its predecessors—polls show that more than a third of Americans under 30 now claim no religious affiliation. But religious faith still draws young enthusiasm in many parts of the country, particularly those that are economically underserved. To young people growing up in unstable homes or deteriorating neighborhoods, a youth ministry and the spiritual guidance it provides can be appealing as a crucial lifeline away from destructive influences and toward better lives. DeVos family giving wants to expand opportunities for this type of engagement with at-risk youth. 

Religious faith is fundamental to the DeVos’ philanthropy. They give funds to many manifestations of faith in action: Christian schools, youth groups, faith-based charities, etc. They're also generous supporters of conservative and religious policy and advocacy groups. Focus on the Family, Freedomworks, and the Heritage Foundation have all received DeVos grants in recent years.  

But the DeVos clan shows a particular interest in faith-based efforts that evangelize to youth who are going through tough times. They show great faith that youth living in poverty, rocky home lives, or dangerous neighborhoods can improve their lives if they just have good—that is to say, God-fearing—role models and mentors around to help them on their way.  

The foundation accordingly gives out numerous grants to urban ministry efforts every year. Most of the awards go to grant seekers in Michigan and Florida. The Inner City Christian Federation, for instance, got $300,000 over a four-year period (2009-2012) for its provision of emergency shelter and counseling to homeless youth and families in Kent County, Michigan.

This geographic rule is not an absolute, though. The Urban Youth Workers Institute, a California-based Christian nonprofit that trains youth ministers to be mentors and role models to at-risk young people in poor neighborhoods across the country, has received more than $100,000 in DeVos grants. And the Zuni Christian Mission School, a religious elementary school of the Zuni Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, has received nearly $5.4 million in DeVos money in recent years.

There are other DeVos youth-focused grantees who work with all youth, not just the ostensibly at-risk ones, though they often benefit many at-risk young people in life-changing ways. These groups include local chapters of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the YMCA, as well as Young Life, a nondenominational outreach ministry for young people that runs summer camps and after-school clubs. A young person with a difficult home life can potentially find positive outlets and life skills training in any of these groups, and each group’s founding principles all profess faith in God. As such, they all fit well with the Devos’ mission of faith-based urban renewal.

The DeVoses also run their own leadership-development program, the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative, which trains young-adult Christian volunteers to evangelize to youth in urban neighborhoods where crime and unemployment are high. Around 900 youth ministers have completed the program since its start in 1998.

So that’s what we know about DeVos grantees. Now, what can we tell you about applying for Devos grants? Unfortunately, that information is harder to find. The foundation keeps a low profile. It doesn’t maintain a website of its own (although the Urban Leadership Initiative does), nor does it publish where or how to apply for grants. If you’re curious, though, you could give it a call or email. The contact information is here