A review of grant data for the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, compiled as part of the Media Mouse’s Far Right in West Michigan database, reveals that the couple are major funders of far right organizations. The grant data, covering the years 2002 to 2004, shows that the couple has supported a variety of organizations of the religious and economic right, as well as conservative churches. The Grand Rapids-based couple, both of whom are children of prominent funders of the religious right in West Michigan and nationally (Dick DeVos is the child of Richard and Helen DeVos; Betsy DeVos is the child of Edgar and Elsa Prince), have given millions of dollars to organizations that are working to promote rightwing policy through a network of organizations doing advocacy, educational, and legal work.
In addition to simply funding the far right, Dick and Betsy DeVos are personally involved with several organizations of the far right, most often through board appointments. While serving on the boards of several organizations, the couple has often generously funded these organizations through their Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. An example is the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute, a rightwing think-tank that seeks to blend free-market ideology with religion. As such, the organization has opposed environmentalists using religion as an organizing tool, has supported biotechnology, opposed the Kyoto Protocol, and taken several other positions designed to promote the supremacy of the free-market system. The organization, in addition to being funded by prominent rightwing families in the area, has also received a money from corporate sources, most notably receiving $160,000 from Exxon-Mobil since 1998. Betsy DeVos was a member of the Institute’s board for several years and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation has contributed $107,000 in the years surveyed. The couple also operates the Education Freedom Fund, an organization designed to give scholarships to low-income students in order to help them attend private schools. Their foundation has given the organization $978,000. Similar organizations across the United States have been used by the right to generate support for voucher programs and other means of privatizing public schools. In continuing their work against public schools, the Foundation gave $101,000 to the American Education Reform Council, Choices for Children, and Children First America all of which Betsy DeVos was involved with, as well as $25,000 to the Children’s Scholarship Fund on whose board Dick DeVos serves. The couple has also given over $60,000 to the James Madison Center for Free Speech, an organization fighting campaign finance laws for religious conservatives and on whose board Betsy DeVos serves.
As shown through the organizations that the couple is involved, they place a particular emphasis on funding organizations working to either privatize the public school system through charter schools or to render it obsolete via voucher systems. Aside from the aforementioned organizations, the couple has given substantially to Christian schools, with $125,000 going to Ada Christian School, $88,000 to the Grand Rapids Christian School Association, and $36,000 to Holland Christian Schools. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation has funded the charter school movement as well, providing $25,000 to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a group supporting the charter schools movement, and $179,000 to New Urban Learning, a charter school management nonprofit in Detroit. They have also given $50,000 to Grove City College, a college that has received national attention for its refusal to abide by Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and now refuses students who receive federal tuition assistance. In addition to funding nonprofits through their foundation, the couple has funded and taken active roles in political advocacy groups around the country as well as organizing the failed Kids First! Yes! ballot proposal in 2000 that would have provided partial tuition vouchers to all parents sending their children to private or religious schools, regardless of income.
The couple’s funding of efforts to privatize schools must also be seen within the context of their funding of the economic right. In addition to funding the Acton Institute, the couple has funded a variety think-tanks promoting free-market economics and the privatization of public services. Here in Michigan, the couple has provided $30,000 to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an organization that has aggressively attacked national health insurance, welfare, unions, and the minimum wage, while promoting unrestricted free-market economics. It is also worth noting that Dick DeVos served on the Mackinac Center’s board in the 1990s. The couple has given several thousand dollars to nationally recognized think-tanks promoting similar positions, with the couple giving $30,000 to the Heritage Foundation and $5,000 to the American Enterprise Institute. The Heritage Foundation is an influential new right think-tank that aggressively promotes conservative public policy based on the principles of “free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense” while the American Enterprise Institute is an influential pro-business think-tank that promotes the advancement of free enterprise capitalism. Dick and Betsy DeVos have also funded the Hudson Institute, a think-tank heavily subsidized by corporate money that has attacked critics of biotechnology and issued reports expressing confusion over the health effects of using tobacco.
The couple’s funding of the economic right—specifically through the Acton Institute’s work promoting a union of free-market economics and religion and their funding of organizations working to bring children into religious schools through vouchers and private scholarship programs—ties in with their funding of the religious right. The group has given $150,000 to the Institute for Marriage Policy, an organization taking up the popular religious right cause of attacking same-sex marriage. The Michigan Family Forum, connected to the national Focus on the Family organization, received $6,000 from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, while also organizing against same-sex marriage and making other anti-gay attacks. The DeVoses have also funded the local Dove Foundation that has organized to promote “family-friendly” (from a conservative religious perspective) entertainment and the National Day of Prayer Task Force, an organization that has organized to use the National Day of Prayer as a tool for mobilizing evangelical Christians. Similarly, they have given the Michigan-based Foundation for Traditional Values $70,000. The Foundation for Traditional Values works to promote the idea that the United States is a Christian nation and that it is the responsibility of Christians to return the country to this Christian foundation via political action. Dick and Betsy DeVos have funded other organizations promoting the need for Christian civic participation—long a tactic of the religious right—including the Student Statesmanship Institute and the Family Resource Network. The couple has also funded a variety of anti-abortion organizations, including Baptists for Life, the Pregnancy Resource Center, Right to Life, and the Justice Foundation who has been fighting to overturn Roe vs. Wade in the courts. They also have provided $194,000 to Compass Arts, on whose board Betsy DeVos serves (Compass Arts offers internships to students to make promotional materials for anti-abortion groups such as Right to Life).
The couple has also funded a variety of other far right organizations including those that use the courts to advance the far right’s agenda and evangelical missionary organizations that engage in activities both in the United States and around the world. The couple has funded the Federalist Society ($10,000), a conservative legal organization that has organized to promote individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law through the courts. The organization counts several prominent conservatives, including Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and former Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft as past members. They have also provided funding to Ann Arbor’s Thomas More Law Center, which offers legal support to the religious right by challenging laws restricting what the religious right has termed as attacks on Christians such as “banning Christmas,” in addition to funding the previously discussed Justice Foundation and the James Madison Center for Free Speech. The Foundation has also funded missionary organizations such as InterDev out of Seattle, International Aid in Spring Lake, the Haggai Institute, and Kids Hope USA, a program that essentially inserts pastors in the public schools as means of providing religious recruitment. A compelling argument could be made that funding such organizations, some of whom, like International Aid, have had relationships with the United States government to advocate a particular foreign policy goal or Rehoboth Christian School, founded in the early 1900s and operating out of the context of the effort to assimilate the indigenous population of North America through forced removal into boarding schools in an act of cultural genocide), serve a function of cultural imperialism, which like Manifest Destiny in the 1800s, promotes the notion that Christianity is a superior form of religious expression and evangelizes for it by undertaking aggressive missionary activities.
Even as Dick DeVos has undertaken a campaign to become the next governor of Michigan, his financial ties to the far right have received scant attention. Aside from a few articles mentioning his funding of efforts designed to privatize public schools, there has been little attention given to his foundation. Due to this lack of attention, people are much more likely to view DeVos as a “philanthropist” who funds civic institutions such as museums and cultural organizations, rather than as a financer of the far right who uses “philanthropy” as a tool to advance a political agenda.