School Choice, But Much More: Making Sense of DeVos Family Philanthropy

The more we write about the new philanthropy of recent years, the more we're struck by the role of wealthy family dynasties. Sometimes, as with the sprawling Walton clan, family members channel all their grantmaking through a single powerful foundation. Other times, as with the Buffett, Koch, or Simons families, multiple foundations emerge that may or may not closely coordinate their activities. 

One of the top families in philanthropy to watch these days is the conservative DeVos family. Its giving is extensive, with several moving parts that are worth understanding. 

The DeVoses' wealth sprouts from direct marketing. Richard DeVos Sr. cofounded Amway in 1959. The company has drawn widespread criticism over the years from those who say that it is a ponzi scheme and only sells the promise of wealth. And to be fair, its sales methods don't pan out for everybody who attempts them. But it worked out well for Richard DeVos, whose present-day net worth of $5 billion makes him one of the wealthiest people in the United States.

With this much wealth on hand, it's not surprising that the DeVoses are also heavy contributors to charity. Richard and his wife, Helen, run the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation from their home state of Michigan. Giving by this couple and their kids has touched many areas, but the DeVoses are probably best known as key pioneers in education reform philanthropy.

School choice supporters were practically a fringe movement circa 2000: Over the two preceding decades, 25 state ballots proposing new school voucher programs had ended with 25 majorities of voters saying "nay." Yet here we are in 2016, with active voucher programs in 13 states plus the District of Columbia, and many more states sponsoring other alternatives to public education, such as charter schools and home schooling. Why did school choice-ers make all these gains post-2000? We could very likely chalk up some of it—or maybe more than some—to the DeVos family, which operates three philanthropic foundations and has a remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes to shift voters' and lawmakers' mindsets in a rightward direction.

Religious charities are their foundations' favorite kind of grantee. The family gives to Christian schools, youth groups, faith-based charities, and lots of parochial schools. Focus on the Family is one of the more well-known grantees. The Zuni Christian School is one of the lesser known. The family has also issued grants to the Inner City Christian Federation, which used the money to provide emergency shelter and counseling to homeless youth and families in Kent County, Michigan; and the Young Life, which spent the money on faith-focused summer camps and after-school clubs.

The foundation has long been a stalwart funder of conservative policy groups. These include grantees such as Freedomworks, AEI, and the Heritage Foundation.

Richard DeVos additionally puts up much of his own money into conservative and Republican political campaigns. He donates large sums to the Republican Party, has supported Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich's presidential campaigns.

He and his wife give to many non-partisan causes, too. The couple jointly paid $50 million to jumpstart a new children's hospital in Grand Rapids. The facility carries Helen's name to this day: the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. They've also given a blizzard of other grants over many years to support nonprofits in Grand Rapids. The DeVos name looms large in that city. 

Richard and Helen have three sons, one of whom is Richard "Dick" DeVos Jr., who took up the family business and served in various executive positions in Amway, including CEO, from the 1970s until 2002. And like his parents, he's quite active in conservative politics. The Bush administration reportedly offered him the post of ambassador to Netherlands for his role in Bush's 2000 presidential campaign (he didn't accept). Dick also ran for Michigan governor in 2006, but was bested by the Democratic incumbent.

Dick's married to Betsy Prince DeVos, and the two run a charitable operation of their own, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which they started in 1989 with the intention to "serve as faithful stewards" of greater society through "projects that build a strong community." School choice is one of its areas of interest, along with community health, the arts, and neighborhood revitalizations. It's awarded grants to such endeavors as Potter's House, a Michigan Christian organization that runs two faith-based schools (an elementary school and a high school) within the state; and West Michigan Aviation Academy, an aviation-focused charter school in Grand Rapids. And for several years in a row, its biggest share of grant money went to the Education Freedom Fund, which gives needy children scholarships to private schools.

The foundation has given grants to many politically conservative organizations both inside and outside Michigan, as well. The American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society are among these. So are the Heritage Foundation, Council for National Policy, and several Michigan-based outfits: the Acton Institute, Traditional Values Coalition, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Like their parents' foundation, Dick and Betsy Devos' foundation also gives widely in other areas, too. It sponsors ArtPrize, an international art competition that takes place annually in Grand Rapids. The general public votes to decide each year's winners. The notion of the letting the general public vote on artworks is a controversial one in some art circles, as we've reported. Not as controversial, though, as the DeVos' well-known conservative political persuasions: Steve Lambert, one recent ArtPrize winner, pledged to return his winnings because the DeVos family is on the "wrong side of the fight for civil rights for LGBT people" (You can read more about all of these criticisms of ArtPrize here).

Betsy DeVos is quite the political ringleader in her own right. She formerly chaired the Michigan Republican Party. And she's been called "the four-star general of the voucher movement," for her activism on this issue, which includes her present-day gigs as a board member of Advocates for School Choice and as head of All Children Matter, a group that has pumped contributions into state elections since its inception in 2003. Conservative education reforms—school vouchers, in particular—are its rallying cause, and the organization claims a "win/loss record" of 121 to 60, including the defeat of 17 incumbents who were against school vouchers, as well as the successful election of four pro-voucher governors: Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Matt Blunt in Missouri, Jon Huntsman Jr. In Utah, and Mitch Daniels in Indiana.

As a side note, Betsy's also the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the military contractor Xe. You might know that company by its former name: Blackwater. Like the rest of the family, Prince is a steady contributor to the right. The American Enterprise Institute, Acton Institute, and Council for National Policy are all beneficiaries of his grants.

Lastly, there are Dick DeVos' two brothers, Dan and Doug. Dan is CEO of a local Grand Rapids, Michigan, diversified-management business called DP Fox Ventures and a career sport enthusiast: In addition to his day job, he's also served as chairman of the Orlando Magic and is majority owner of the Grand Rapids Griffins, an American Hockey League team. And, of course, he's a conservative funder. Dan and his wife, Pamella DeVos, have donated to Acton, the Heritage Foundation, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Doug DeVos is Amway's current president—he took over from Dick in 2002. And with his wife, Maria DeVos, he runs the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation. It helps out Grand Rapids area youth and families, with beneficiaries including the school-outreach program Student Advancement Foundation; Safe Haven Ministries, which shelters women and children who are fleeing domestic abuse; and the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, which promotes civic pride and community values rather than any particular policy agenda. But Doug and Maria DeVos are cut from the same cloth as the rest of the family. They've contributed to the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes marriage equality. Additionally, they've given money to Acton, the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, and Mackinac.

At this point, you may be thinking that this family sounds a lot like the Kochs. You're definitely not alone. More than one columnist has made a Koch analogy while writing about the DeVoses. Understandably so: Both are ultra-wealthy and move a lot of money and influence around in conservative circles. And both do run together socially and professionally—Richard and Helen DeVos regularly attend the Kochs' biannual donor meetings.

But the DeVoses are a different breed of funder from the Kochs. For one thing, they tend to keep a lower profile. You'll find very few interviews of any DeVoses. And even their foundations go very light on social media and online activity in general. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, for instance, still doesn't even have its own website.

They are also active in different policy arenas. The Kochs hew libertarian—their money goes toward fighting environmental and climate change regulation, promoting economic laissez-faire, and advancing business-friendly endeavors such as Citizens United; but they're also pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality, and they've even worked with the Obama administration on some criminal-justice reforms aimed at decreasing incarceration rates. The DeVoses, on the other hand, are squarely in the social-conservative camp. Religious-based institutions are the most consistent beneficiaries of their philanthropy—in particular, religious schools. That's where their strong backing of school choice fits into the equation.

That's not to say that the DeVoses stay out of the economic arena. To be clear, they hew as far right as the Kochs on these matters, if not more so. DeVos' influence helped turn Michigan into a "right-to-work" state (in which no company can obligate its employees to pay dues for union representation), for example. And they strongly back opponents of affirmative action: The Center for Individual Rights received funding from Dick and Betsy DeVos in 2001 after it challenged the University of Michigan's race-based admissions process in court, a lengthy legal fight that resulted in new court-imposed restrictions on the use of race as an admissions factor.

The DeVoses don't always get their way. Jeb Bush's recent presidential bid got a significant share of its funding from Richard DeVos; clearly that wasn't enough to keep him afloat. Overall, though, the DeVoses' record is top-heavy on wins, not on losses. The family has been a major shaper of policymaking at the state and national levels and will surely remain so for years to come.