Dick and Betsy DeVos Funding the Far Right through Foundation Grants

Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, are funding the far right according to a review of grant data performed by Media Mouse. The couple has funded a variety of organizations of the religious and economic right as they have used philanthropy to advocate their political agenda.

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.

Dick DeVos Connected to Religious Right Boycott of Ford Motor Company

The Triangle Foundation—a statewide civil rights advocacy organization for GBLT people—has found a connection between the philanthropy of Dick DeVos’ family and a right-wing boycott of Ford Motor Company for its support of the “homosexual agenda” even as DeVos campaigns on a platform of improving Michigan’s economy. It is the second such link to far-right organizations reported by Media Mouse in the past month, with Media Mouse previously reporting on DeVos’ support of Watergate felon Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship.

The Triangle Foundation of Michigan, a statewide civil rights advocacy organization for gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, has found a link between Republican Gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos and a right-wing boycott of Ford Motor Company by the American Family Association (AFA) over the company’s perceived support of the “homosexual agenda.” The AFA—supported through prominent right-wing foundations—has waged a campaign to boycott Ford due it the perception that it has done “the most to promote the homosexual lifestyle” of any large corporation. Through Betsy DeVos, Dick DeVos is linked to a campaign to economically harm Ford even as he campaigns on a platform of creating jobs and sustaining Michigan’s economy. The Triangle Foundation place his family’s support of the AFA boycott within the context of a statement by DeVos that he is not sympathetic to the trouble faced by the automobile industry. According to the Triangle Foundation, DeVos told the Grand Rapids Press in 1993 that the auto industry should “should stop crying and do something about (their lack of market share). I’m not very sympathetic with the auto industry because some of their problems are self-inflicted.”

The link to the right-wing boycott of Ford comes through DeVos’ wife—Betsy—who is the daughter of Edgar and Elsa Prince of Holland—a wealthy conservative family that has given millions of dollars to religious right causes through the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. Through a $10,000 grant given to the American Family Association for “continuing support,” the family of Betsy DeVos is using its wealth to target one of the state’s largest companies, according to the Triangle Foundation. The American Family Association has organized a boycott of Ford for its funding of groups that “promote homosexual marriage” and running advertisements in the gay press. The group’s Boycott Ford website for the campaign also cites Ford’s 100% rating in Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, Ford’s placement on DiversityInc’s annual “Top 50 Companies for Diversity,” Ford’s recruitment of gay employees by posting on gay job websites, and Ford’s marketing towards gays and lesbians as further reasons to boycott the company. Additional research by Media Mouse found that the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation gave the American Family Association a $5,000 dollar grant in 2005, while another local religious right foundation—the Jack and Mary DeWitt Foundation—gave the group $1,000 in 2004. The Triangle Foundation further pointed out that this is not the only time that the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation funded anti-LGBT efforts and organizations. In 1997, the Prince family contributed money for a new Washington DC headquarters for the Family Research Council and the Promise Keepers both of whom are strongly against homosexuality. The Prince and DeVos family also contributed a combined total of $125,000 to the successful Proposal 2 campaign in Michigan to ban same-sex marriage.

Sean Kosofsky, Director of Policy for the Triangle Foundation, described the AFA as “a radical religious extremist organization that boycotts anyone that doesn’t fit their narrow fundamentalist agenda.” The aforementioned description is reasonably accurate, with AFA describing itself as “front-line troops in the culture wars” while actively “promoting the centrality of God in American life” and “promoting the Christian ethic of decency” as part of its campaigns to protect “traditional family values.” The group has organized around a variety of issues since its founding in 1977 including television, the separation of church and state, pornography, “the homosexual agenda,” premarital sex, legal abortion, the National Endowment for the Arts, gambling, unfiltered internet access in libraries, and the removal of school-sponsored religious worship from public schools. The group has made extensive use of boycotts against television shows (Ellen, Cheers, NYPD Blue, and more) and businesses that promote and profit from what it deems “indecency.” Some of the more notable targets have included Ford Motor Company and American Airlines for their policy of providing domestic partner benefits, K-Mart for selling music with parental advisory stickers, Disney for its “attack on American families” through its annual “Gay Day” celebration and domestic partner benefits, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In recent years, the group has boycotted Movie Gallery for renting pornography (charging that the chain is putting its employees at risk for STDs and assaults from gay people), removing “glossy garbage” magazines from supermarket shelves that are packed with “lascivious cover photos and salacious headlines,” and placing the official motto of the United States “In God We Trust” on the wall of every classroom in the United States. The group’s boycotts and organizing efforts are aggressively promoted through its “AFA Report” radio show that airs on some 1,200 radio stations across the United States, its broadcast ministry American Family Radio (AFR) that owns 200 stations in 27 states, videos, websites, and media appearances.

The Director of the Michigan affiliate of the American Family Association, Gary Glenn, has received considerable attention in recent years for his attacks on gays and lesbians. Glenn has opposed anti-discrimination policies of several Michigan cities by asserting that if passed, public bathrooms and showers would become co-ed. After the legislation passed in several towns, Glenn organized petitions to overturn the legislation, asserting that gays and lesbians pose a “public health hazard.” He has further criticized homosexuality stating in a 2001 press release that “Under homosexual activists’ political agenda, our children would face a future in which traditional marriage and families have been legally devalued, while state government — despite the severe threat it poses to personal and public health — not only legally endorses but uses our tax dollars to subsidize deadly homosexual behavior.” Glenn also has expressed satisfaction when gay men are arrested having sex in public and further stated that according to his “files,” “in almost every case… public school employees” are involved in such acts. As recently as 2004, Glenn argued that “homosexual activity among men remains the single biggest cause of AIDS infection” despite numerous studies to the contrary. Glenn organized in favor of filters in libraries, arguing that with pornography on the Internet, libraries are “the most dangerous place for a child today.”