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West Michigan Philanthropy is simply generosity, according to the GR Press

December 12, 2011

The fifth principle of journalism, according to the Committee of Concerned Journalists, says, “Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as a watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens.”

There is nothing in the basic principles of journalism, which suggests that journalist should give those in power a free pass or act as their lapdogs. However, once again, this is exactly what the Grand Rapids Press did with its feature story on Sunday, December 11. The article offers nothing but praise for the wealthiest families, no critical voices and no critical perspective on the function and role of philanthropy in a capitalist-driven society.

Praise for Hometown Wealth

The article’s headline reads, “Grandchildren of prominent West Michigan donors are shaping the future of local philanthropy.” As is implied in the headline, the article presents what three generations of the wealthiest families in West Michigan have done with their money as fundamentally a benefit to the community as a whole.

The end of the first section of the Press article states, “The generosity of families like Meijer, Loeks, DeVos and Van Andel is a major reason the Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland metro area was ranked second most generous in the nation, behind Salt Lake City, by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Another statement by the Press, which demonstrates their unquestioning function of wealthy families in West Michigan, was the text that accompanied a graph, which tracked 2 families and two generations of “giving.” The text reads, “Generosity instilled in children and grandchildren of business giants could result in the West Michigan community reaping rewards long into the future.”

Such comments reflect the Press writer’ acceptance that philanthropy, and in this case the philanthropy of a few wealthy families, is a huge benefit for West Michigan residents as a whole. The families cited are DeVos, Van Andel, Meijer, Frey, Wege and Loeks. Funny thing is, the Press writer never really demonstrates how the community is reaping rewards from these families.

The only sources cited in the article are a Grand Rapids Community Foundation spokesperson, David Van Andel (Van Andel Foundation), philanthropy “expert” with the Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy, the CEO of the Wege Foundation and Ellie Frey (Frey Foundation).

Each of these sources sites of few non-profits that have received funding from one or more of the family foundations cited in the area, non-profits such as UICA, Mel Trotter Ministries and Gilda’s Club to name a few.

The main source cited in the article, Michael Moody, is referred to as a philanthropy expert. Moody is employed by the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, which is funded by one of the family foundations in the article – The Frey Foundation. Moody speaks highly of Amway, the DeVos family and Rick DeVos’ venture known as ArtPrize. The philanthropy expert also makes comments about generational family philanthropy and what the current generation is likely to do in West Michigan.

Normalizing Systemic Inequity

There is been a great deal of writing and research that takes a very critical and systemic view of the function of foundations and philanthropy in the US. Researchers such as Michael Barker, Adrienne Pine, Joan Roelofs, Daniel Faber and the women of color collective known as INCITE!

Each of these writers has provided us with important analysis on the historical function of foundations, particularly those of the wealthiest families in the country and in each community.

Michael Barker’s 2008 research on how the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations funding influenced the major environmental organizations to abandon grassroots advocacy to become beltway players is a crucial investigation for anyone looking at what has happen to environmental politics in the past 30 years. Barker has also done important work to track the real outcome of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, particularly their foundation’s impact on a global scale. Barker observes that much of what the large foundations do is fund social engineering.

Foundation funding as social engineering is not generally part of the public discourse on philanthropic giving, but within a critical analysis of neoliberal capitalism one can see how the vast amounts of money given by wealthy families is not merely an act of charity.

There are several reasons why wealthy families and individuals create foundations. First, foundations provide a means to protect some of their money from being taxed. This has a double effect, in that foundation money is in itself sort of a tax shelter and the money these foundations give to non-profit sectors is an additional tax write-off.

Second, foundations created by the wealthy have always served as both a public relations tool and a buffer from social movements that have sought to create systemic change. Philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie gave a small portion of their wealth to create libraries in some communities. This effort by Carnegie both won him praise for funding public access to information, but more importantly it diverted public attention away from the tremendously exploitative wealth he generated off of the backs of steel workers.

The third reason for philanthropic giving, particularly through foundations, is to engage in the social engineering that Barker identifies. This has been the case for the past 100 years in the US, but the biggest growth of foundation funding has developed since the explosion of social movements in the 1960s and 70s. Large foundations realized that the social movements of the 1960s and 70s were a genuine threat to the established order of US society and that using only force was not the best approach to undermining the impact of such movements.

Instead, foundations approached many social movements and offered to fund their work. This funding has resulted in two major outcomes. First, foundation funding has required that the grassroots movements professionalize leadership. People who organically were seen as leaders in social movements were there because of their lived experience of oppression, which gave them insight and passion to organize for change. Secondly, what foundations did was to get movements to create more formal organizations and hire people with specialized educational degrees that would direct the efforts of such groups to call for reformist approaches to change rather than systemic.

Here Dylan Rodriguez notes:

The structural and political limitation of current grassroots and progressive organizing in the US has become stunningly evident in light of the veritable explosion of private foundations as primary institutions through which to harness and restrict the potentials of US-based progressive activism.”

Stifling political dissent locally

To bring it back to West Michigan, one need only look at how dependent local non-profits are on foundation money in order to survive. It’s not just the social service oriented groups like Mel Trotter Mission that relies on the philanthropy of the areas wealthy families, many of the progressive organizations locally also are dependent on funds from the same families that often have agendas that are contrary to the mission of those non-profits.

In the case of Mel Trotter Mission, it makes complete sense that the Frey family would donate to a homeless shelter, since that organizations doesn’t question any systemic reasons why people are homeless. The same is the case with organization Kids Food Basket, which provides free meals to children in the Grand Rapids area and has received a fair amount of funding from Amway. Not surprising, the director of Kids Food Basket recently said she was not interested in the causes of hunger, just feeding kids.

But local wealthy families are not just funding the obvious entities that in no way will disrupt business as usual politics in West Michigan. Some of the families mentioned in the Grand Rapids Press article even fund groups like Local First. Ellie Frey is listed as donating to Local First, an organization, which encourages people to buy from businesses based in West Michigan. While it might be preferable to drink coffee at a locally owned café instead of a Starbucks, Local First still accepts the basic principles of a free market capitalist system. They don’t question the fundamental principle within free market capitalism of perpetual growth, which is not only unsustainable it undermines localism abroad when Grand Rapids companies sell their products out of state or around the world.

Another entity that seems quite progressive is the Community Media Center (CMC), an entity that got its start as part of the public access TV movement in the 1970s. The original goal of that movement, which was an outgrowth of the social movements of the 1970s, was to provide people whose voices were absent or marginalized in corporate media an opportunity to share their stories and perspectives. The CMC became involved in citizen journalism a few years ago to address some of these media inequities. However, in June of this year the Community Media Center accepted $28,000 from the Amway Corporation to underwrite a segment on their citizen journalism site known as Marketplace. Marketplace features local entrepreneurs, which is the kind of reporting that Amway can support, since it does not address any wealth disparities in West Michigan or question the role of philanthropists like the DeVos family.

The larger benefits for local wealthy families to donate to progressive groups is that it takes attention away from how they acquired their wealth and why we have such inequalities in our society that necessitate philanthropy in the first place. In addition, by funding progressive and charitable causes it makes it hard for people, especially in those organizations, to question the kinds of policies that families like DeVos support.

If your organization is the beneficiary of money from the families listed in the Press article it will be difficult for you to question their funding on anti-LGBT campaigns, anti-Choice campaigns, anti-union campaigns and anti-democracy efforts like the One Kent Coalition and the West Michigan Policy Forum.

Lastly, it makes it difficult for the public as a whole to have a critical discussion about the function of local foundations and philanthropists if the only daily newspaper in town acts as a public relations agent for the wealthy families who use their money to solidify the status quo in Grand Rapids.

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