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MLive’s Managed Reporting on DeVos Family “Giving”

January 5, 2016

Yesterday, MLive published a series of articles that claimed to illuminate the philanthropic donations made by the DeVos Family.

There were a total of three articles from January 4 and a slide show with highlights of recipients of DeVos Family donations. One article focused on how much money the DeVos Family has contributed to GVSU, a second article provided a brief overview of how MLive conducted their research,  with the third article entitled How and why Amway’s DeVos family gives away billions

The articles are pretty straight forward and mostly data driven, yet the headline (How and why Amway’s DeVos family gives away billions) of the featured article suggests that there is some big reveal.Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 2.30.45 AM

The featured story does what has come to be expected from commercial media. The story reads as a form of stenography, where the reporter reprints what people in power have to say without verifying or questioning said comments. Several sources are cited in the article:

  • DeVos Family spokesperson John Truscott
  • R.J. Shook, founder of the Philanthropic Research Institute
  • Communications Director for Grand Rapids Public Schools, John Helmholdt
  • Doug DeVos
  • Marge Palmerlee, Degage’s Executive Director
  • Dennis VanKampen, CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries
  • Michael Kaiser, former Kennedy Center President
  • Mike Guswiler, President, West Michigan Sports Commission
  • Kyle Caldwell, Executive Director of GVSU’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy
  • Tom Haas, GVSU President
  • Jim Brooks, philanthropist and founder of the now-defunct West Michigan Strategic Alliance
  • Steve Ford, son of the late President Gerald R. Ford

All of the sources speak glowingly of the DeVos family, which should raise red flags for any discerning reader. How is it that an article can be written about the most powerful family in West Michigan and not include some critical commentary or analysis?

Giving strategies

The “big reveal” from the MLive article is as follows:

The family has in the past instructed philanthropic organizations not to discuss the gifts. That restriction was lifted for this series, and three hallmarks emerged for the DeVos family foundations’ giving strategies:

  • leveraging additional donations through peer pressure or organized giving among the family foundations.
  • providing strategic advice to institutions receiving money.
  • extending influence through board service and other connections.

The three strategies are interesting, but hardly a big reveal. People who have followed the DeVos Family over the years would have been aware of these “three hallmarks” for giving. However, even though the rest of the MLive article is an elaboration on the three strategies, there is really no new information provided about the real effects of the DeVos Family contributions. Sure, there is some commentary about how it has impacted various local and national organizations, but the commentary is superficial and highly managed.

gvsu-center-health-sciences

For instance, GVSU President Tom Haas is quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t be the university we are today without his and the family’s support.” While such a statement is true, it fails to convey how DeVos money has impacted Grand Valley State University. One example is based upon our own research with the Grand Rapids LGBT People’s History Project, where the DeVos Family made it clear to GVSU in the mid 90s that, if the university were to allow domestic partner benefits, they would withhold funding for the new health sciences building on Michigan Avenue in Grand Rapids. 

This kind of influence is exactly what the DeVos Family means by strategy number two – providing strategic advice to institutions receiving money. This is probably the most important strategy, since this is often the primary reason that wealthy families contribute to institutions and organizations…….to influence what those entities do.

This influence can take on various forms. First, the influence can be straight forward, where the funding is to simply affirm the ideological mission of the institution receiving the money. For instance, one of the entities mentioned in the MLive article is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is referred to in the article as a conservative think tank. However, to not explore how DeVos money assists groups like the Mackinac Center is another way of not serving the public interest. For instance, in 2012 we wrote about how DeVos money supported the efforts of the Mackinac Center to get Right to Work Legislation passed in MichiganScreen Shot 2016-01-05 at 2.35.23 AM

It is this kind of journalism that is needed, where reporters take the information provided about those in power and then flesh out the details of how this impacts the public. This could have been done with any number of the organizations and institutions that received DeVos Family money that appear in the donation recipient slideshow on MLive. One of the recipients listed in the slideshow is the Grand Rapids Public School system, which has received a total of $2.6 million from the DeVos Family. The featured story also mentions that GRPS has been a recipient of DeVos money, where “funding paid for leadership development, teacher evaluation and teacher training,” along with funding for the Believe 2 Become project. The Believe 2 Become project is really a wedding of faith-based entities with the public schools system, something that again the DeVos Family ideologically supports. 

The DeVos Family funding of the Grand Rapids Public Schools should also raise interesting questions for competent journalists. Why would a family that has been a national leader in private education, faith based education and the school voucher movement be contributing to public education? Unfortunately, these are not the kinds of questions or angles that are pursued in the MLive story.

A second major reason that families like the DeVos’s contribute money to institutions and organizations is to redirect or manage populations that have the potential to be involved in revolutionary and insurgent politics. For instance, as the MLive recipient slide show reveals, one of the local organizations that benefits from DeVos Family money is LINC Community Revitalization. The slide show information says the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation contributed $905,000 to LINC in 2013. DeVos money does not mean that LINC doesn’t do good work in the community, rather the point is that instead of organizing people to engage in radical grassroots organizing for systemic change, LINC puts most of its energy into directing people into participating in acceptable political tactics that do not question systems of power, along with an emphasis on developing entrepreneurs.   

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 2.37.26 AM

A third reason for foundation and philanthropic contributions, in addition to ideological support of social management, is to buy silence and complicity. This consequence of funding from the wealthiest sectors of society is the least evident, but it is as equally impactful as the other reasons. The DeVos Family knows that if they give money to an organization or an institution that those groups receiving the money will not take a public stance that is either critical of the DeVos Family practices or critical of issues that the DeVos Family is attempting to influence.

For instance, in the summer of 2015, DeVos Family political contributions helped the Michigan legislature pass HB 4052, which allows organizations to discriminate against families wanting to adopt on religious grounds. This connection is made clear when one considers that the largest adoption agency in the state, Bethany Christian Services, is also a major recipient of DeVos Family money. This is not to suggest that Bethany would challenge DeVos’s political influence, but it does have a silencing effect on staff who may not agree with such discriminatory policies.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 2.39.10 AM

The last major issue that the MLive articles on the DeVos Family giving fail to address is what connections their major political contributions have with their philanthropic giving? This seems like an important question that journalism that serves the public interest would want to explore. We already raised the question about the DeVos Family funding of the Grand Rapids Public Schools, while at the same time being involved in funding and politically leading national groups that promote redirecting public funds away from public schools and into the hands of private and charter schools

A larger and maybe more obvious question is how does their political funding for economic policies that benefit the rich then connect to their charitable funding for urban-based social services agencies? For instance, the state policies that the DeVos-influenced West Michigan Policy Forum have worked on in recent years – ending state business taxes, Right to Work and other anti-union/anti-worker policies – such policies contribute to creating poverty and widening the gap between the rich and the working class poor.  So, the DeVos Family funds public policy that makes them and their friends richer by stealing public money, then they turn around and fund projects that provide some assistance to those experiencing poverty, but such programs redirect working class anger into pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps practices. Sounds like a wonderful way to get richer while simultaneously convincing the public you are generous beyond compare. Seems to work.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Evan Stowers permalink
    January 5, 2016 10:11 pm

    Did they donate anything to feed the hungry, sick, thirsty, naked, and enslaved?

  2. Marge permalink
    January 7, 2016 1:24 am

    I would presume that most rich folk use their money as leverage to do any number of things.This would be an interesting article if there were some comparisons made with other rich folk, family foundations, that also use their positions for leverage, and even more believable if some of those families represented a less Republican, Conservative side. In fact, the basic fabric of our nation is exactly that, and this nation has been the recipient of who-knows how much money over time from rich folk parlaying their way in the world. Just look at other countries whose rich folk don’t contribute to their community and we can start with the one just South of us – Mexico. So called journalists today tend to be part of the problem by not revealing truth in perspective. Does this make what rich folk do right? Well, that is in the eye of the beholder. One can also receive from the rich without being persuaded by them if one is wise and knowledgeable…two words I would not necessarily apply to many of our citizens today – some whom do not even know who their local leaders are, let alone their national ones. It is the rich who do, can and have helped our nation grow stronger and better. And yes, they could do a better job. But so could we all!

    And by the way, although I can’t say they are personally involved in doing acts of kindness by responding to Christ’ plea to “do unto others…..for when you do, you do that to Me”, but I know for a fact that their money goes to countless programs that do just that. Maybe this journalist should have done some better research!

    And for transparency: I am a Democrat, not wealthy, a minority and not Protestant, and a recipient of many gifts from the DeVos vis a vis their programs. And no, I don’t agree with their politics all the time, but I also don’t agree with the Democrats either!

Trackbacks

  1. It is impossible to have justice and equity as long as the DeVos family has power | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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