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A critical look at the DeVos Family Foundation $1 Million contribution for hurricane relief: What the MLive story doesn’t tell you

October 3, 2022

On Friday, MLive posted a story with the headline, DeVos Family Foundation donates $1 million to Florida hurricane relief.

The article is based solely on a Press Release from the DeVos Family Foundation, with talking points about the amount of money being donated and how it will be spent. According to the MLive article/DeVos Family Foundation Press Release, $500,00 will be donated to the United Way Hurricane Relief Fund, another $250,000 will go to the statewide Florida Disaster Fund touted by Casey DeSantis, wife of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the remaining $250,000 will be reserved for future rebuilding efforts as needs come to light.

It is rather unfortunate, although completely expected, that MLive (and most commercial media sources) do not provide additional information, sources or a critical examination when the most powerful family in West Michigan makes a charitable contribution. There are several angels to this story, beyond acting as a stenographer for the DeVos family, where any serious journalist might take this story. First, there could have been a more serious look at the Florida connection for the DeVos family. Second, MLive, or any other news source that relied on the DeVos Family Foundation Press Release, could have provided a link to the entire Press Release, then look at how other news sources used the talking points provided in the Press Release. Third, there could have been a more critical look at how the $1 million contribution was being spent. Lastly, why are journalists not asking the question, why is this even a news story?

The DeVos/Florida connection

The DeVos family doesn’t make philanthropic contributions for no good reason. The most powerful family in West Michigan always uses their money in very calculated ways, even strategic. It is no surprise that the family would contribute $1 million to the Florida for post-hurricane needs. The DeVos family owns numerous homes in Florida and spends a great deal of time there. They fly to Florida on a regular basis in their private planes when staying at their Florida homes. In addition, the DeVos family has owned the Orlando Magic for several decades now, which means they also have a major financial interest in Florida, particularly in Orlando. Then there is the issue of influencing political outcomes in Florida. For example, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation donated $100,000 to the Florida4Marriage campaign in 2008, to defeat a campaign to get marriage equality in Florida. A more recent example has to do with the fact that the DeVos family has collectively contributed nearly a half a million to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, beginning in the 2018 campaign and in the current election cycle.

DeVos Family Foundation Press Release talking points

There are no online links to the Press Release that the DeVos family sent out to generate the hoped for positive news coverage they expected, but in looking at other news sources, we can find additional talking points.

The online site for the National Basketball Association, nba.com, also posted a story about the DeVos Family Foundation’s $1 million contribution. Some of the same talking points are used in their story as compared to the MLive article. However, there were some additional talking points worth including here from the NBA’s website:

The DeVos family has a long history of helping out in times of need in Central Florida.

  • In 2004, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Charley, Richard and Helen DeVos donated $1 million to relief efforts in Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Volusia and Polk Counties.
  • In 2020, they backed a $2 million compensation fund for hourly employees of the Magic, Amway Center, Lakeland Magic and Solar Bears while their seasons were suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak, assisting approximately 1,800 part-time employees.
  • In 2016, they contributed $400,000 to the One Orlando Fund following the tragedy at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

Naturally, the DeVos family wants to demonstrate their generosity with such Press Releases, as is evidenced in the information included in the NBA.com article. Again, there is no critical assessment of these charitable contributions. For instance, there is another way of looking at the $400,000 contribution in the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse Night Club shooting. GRIID wrote a piece after that anti-LGBTQ shooting took place, making the point that the DeVos family had fostered an anti-LGBTQ climate in Florida for decades, working with groups like Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Dr. James Kennedy.

How the $1 million DeVos donation will be spent?

A third direction the reporting could have gone, would have been to look more critically at where the $1 million from the DeVos Family Foundation was being used. As was already mentioned, $500,000 was going to the United Way, but the other funds are less clear. $250,000 will go to the Florida Disaster Fund touted by Casey DeSantis, wife of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It is less clear how that $250,000 will be spent, plus it should be noted that the organizational chart for this fund is under the control of Governor DeSantis.

The other $250,000 will be reserved for future rebuilding efforts as needs come to light. Also, a rather vague statement. However, it is possible to think about how those funds might be used, based on the actions of various DeVos family members have used disaster relief funds over the years, in what Naomi Klein refers to as Disaster Capitalism.

Disaster Capitalism is a way for members of the Capitalist Class to use disasters to re-direct funding, often public funding, to support projects that ultimately benefit the bottom line of families like the DeVos family. In a 2017 article for The Guardian Naomi Klein wrote about Disaster Capitalism and Hurricane Katrina:

What I saw during the flooding shocked me. But what I saw in the aftermath of Katrina shocked me even more. With the city reeling, and with its residents dispersed across the country and unable to protect their own interests, a plan emerged to ram through a pro-corporate wishlist with maximum velocity. The famed free-market economist Milton Friedman, then 93 years old, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal stating, “Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.”

We know that the DeVos family, particularly Betsy DeVos, has made it a mission to undermine the Public Education system in the US. Using disasters is an effective way to push this agenda. Betsy DeVos did the same thing while she was Secretary of Education, during the 2017 Hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico. GRIID wrote about the role that Betsy DeVos played in that catastrophe and how she used it to push her privatized education agenda.

Why is the DeVos Family Foundation contribution even news?

We know that there are lots of people who have donated to the Florida hurricane relief, even some from West Michigan who have traveled there to assist those most impacted. So, why does $1 million from the DeVos Family Foundation merit news coverage? $1 million is no small amount, at least to most of us, but it is a drop in the bucket for the DeVos family. The DeVos family is collectively worth billions, so making a $1 million dollar donation is like most people contributing $20, especially when we consider what percent $20 is to the total income of say someone who makes $40,000 a year. In addition, while a $20 contribution is also tax deductible, it is different than the $1 million contribution from the DeVos Family Foundation. Wealthy people who have created foundations, create them in order to avoid paying taxes on large sums of money that are put into the foundation’s coffers.

Lastly, it is news precisely because the DeVos Family Foundation and all of their other foundations are a well oiled public relations machine, which makes it a point to tell the rest of the world how “generous” they are. As we mentioned earlier, these donations or contributions from the DeVos family are strategic and calculated, specifically to make them look good, but also because if they control the narrative through their Press Releases, then they can avoid or minimize public scrutiny.

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