As U.S. Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos' contributions to Republican candidates and school choice causes are being scrutinized ahead of confirmation hearings on Wednesday, the West Michigan couple is lifting the veil on the millions in philanthropic giving that's being funneled through their foundation.
In 2015 alone, the DeVoses doled out $11.6 million in charitable contributions, according to a new report on the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation website. It's double the $5.3 million in campaign donations over the last five years that Betsy DeVos reported to the federal government as part of her vetting process for the Cabinet post.
The couple are a high-profile part of a family dynasty that has been a player in Republican politics for decades, led by Dick's dad, Amway co-founder Rich DeVos. The elder DeVos and his four grown children handed out $104 million in charity donations in 2015, landing the family in 24th place on Forbes' most recent "America's Top Givers" list.
Using data supplied by the family, Forbes put the extended DeVos family's lifetime giving at $1.33 billion -- or about a quarter of its estimated $5.2 billion fortune. Betsy DeVos, daughter of the late Holland industrialist Edgar Prince, also comes from a family known for its political and charitable giving.
Among West Michigan's wealthy, it's not about the clothes you wear or the car you drive, but how much you give. And the DeVos family's $1.2 billion in lifetime giving has led the way.
For Dick and Betsy, their philanthropy shows education is a priority. In 2015, they allotted just over $3 million to educational causes, accounting for 26 percent of their charitable donations that year. Aside from that, their foundation awarded $357,000, or 3 percent, to groups that support education reform.
Dick DeVos says the couple's spending reflects the priority they have given to improving education. "I think it just became clear to us over time that the current system was not fulfilling the American dream. In other words, this was increasingly a civil rights problem," DeVos said in an interview with MLive and The Grand Rapids Press. "Kids growing up in the wrong ZIP codes were not able to access the American dream and achieve the education necessary to have a shot at the American dream."
Their critics argue that vouchers and charters schools which the DeVoses champion siphon tax dollars from traditional public schools.
Dick DeVos says the goal of choice is to address the failings of the the one-size-fits-all public education platform, but it shouldn't be taken as a criticism of employees.
"There are so many great teachers and administrators, who have been working hard and doing wonderful work ... (but) we can do a better job finding a better system to help these talented educators to be even more effective in reaching hopefully every child," DeVos said.
The report doesn't give a breakdown of the beneficiaries of the couple's 2015 charity recipients. Two years earlier, the couple's educational giving benefited primarily Michigan schools, according to the foundation's tax records.
Major beneficiaries in 2013 were Compass College of Cinematic Arts in Grand Rapids ($50,000), Ferris State University in Big Rapids ($100,000), Detroit Charter School Company New Urban Learning ($25,000), Dick DeVos' alma mater Northwood University in Midland ($200,000), Potter's House in Wyoming ($301,000), West Michigan Aviation Academy ($315,000), and Rehoboth Christian School, described as "parent controlled" school in New Mexico ($50,000.)
The foundation's 2014 tax returns, the most recent publicly available, don't offer a similar breakdown of donations.
Critics call report a 'smokescreen'
Critics says the DeVoses deploy both political and charitable contributions to pursue their ideological agenda in education by promoting vouchers and charter schools, many of which are run by for-profit companies.
"I think if people look through the expenditures they will see through it for what it really is," said Mark Brewer, attorney and former longtime chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. "I think the release of these charitable contributions is nothing more than a smokescreen to divert attention away from the disclosures of the political contributions."
John Truscott, a spokesman for the couple, says the report reflects the DeVos family's efforts to be more transparent about their giving - and it likely would have been made public regardless of Betsy's nomination that put their finances in the national spotlight.
DeVos maintains the foundation's donations meet the criteria of charitable organizations. They include funding for the foundation of the Lansing-based Great Lakes Education Foundation, the Michigan-based charter school advocacy group started by the couple.
DeVos insists the bulk of the donations are aimed at helping people directly. "These are not political organizations that are advocating or advancing any political agenda. They are trying to serve people," DeVos said.
Betsy DeVos declined to be interviewed for this article.
'Soft numbers' are important
DeVos says the schools he and his wife choose to support financially are environments of academic rigor, adult support and supervision, and accountability.
The couple are longtime benefactors of Grand Rapids Christian Schools and Potter's House, an urban Christian school.
Five years ago, they launched the country's first aviation-themed charter school on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. As the patrons of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, the DeVoses do more than write annual checks – which was $315,000 in 2013 – or donate the school's first plane. Their connections turn the school's annual fundraiser into a gala that draws A-list speakers like former President George W. Bush and Apollo astronauts.
DeVos talks with pride about last year's graduating class that counted 15 licensed pilots among its ranks. The high school's focus on STEM, aeronautical engineering and robotics pull in kids from seven surrounding counties, with many commuting more than an hour to attend the school. More than one-third of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged. Nearly 40 percent are minorities. The graduation rate is 86 percent, according to the state.
"Our kids are doing terrifically well by testing, but I think when you peel back the next layer of the onion to see the impacts in their lives, their attitudes, their views of the world, the satisfaction and comfort of their parents, all of those soft things are really, really important to us." DeVos said.
After education, the next biggest focus for the couple is Arts & Culture. In 2015, they donated over $2.4 million, or 21 percent of their total charitable giving.
Their previous $22 million donation to launch the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, began by supporting Michael Kaiser's efforts to strengthen the business side of arts organizations. It was an initiative he started as the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts President in Washington, D.C. before spinning off to its separate identity.
"We felt having high-quality arts management was critical to the future of our diverse arts community globally."
The rest of the pie is split into the following: civic, community and other ($1.8 million, or 16 percent); leadership and development ($1.5 million, or 13 percent); Public Policy ($1.3 million, or 12 percent), Health & Human Services ($618,000, or 5 percent) and churches ($488,250, or 4 percent).
The DeVoses are known for donating without having strings attached to how the money is spent. When they do earmark, they like to hone in on something they feel will make a difference.
An example of that was a gift to Spectrum Health Foundation to underwrite recruiting one of the country's top physicians and a researcher in childhood cancers, including neuroblastoma. DeVos notes that philanthropic investment returned "remarkable results" in the survival rate of those treated for the deadly childhood brain cancer at the Helen DeVos' Children's Hospital.
The couple's longtime financial support of the popular Chicago-area mega church Willow Creek is part of their commitment to fostering leadership development. In 2013, they donated $1 million to support the church's global leadership summit that professional, government, business church leaders from around the world. The past annual conference brought in philanthropist Melinda Gates as a speaker.
DeVos says he and his wife are intentional about including their children in where they decide to donate their money. A few years ago, their foundation added "family" to reflect that approach.
"Our kids know where our heart has been historically," DeVos said. "We gain their fresh perspective on places where we should be investing further."
DeVos tells the story about the family discussing funding a new cause, when his kids thought his proposed contribution fell short.
"My kids looked at me and said, 'C'mon dad, that's not nearly enough to make a difference. We can do better than that.' That was good and they are right. We could do more and we did more."