Years ago, a Grand Rapids business owner was greeted by Rich DeVos with an expensive compliment.
“You look like a million dollars,” the Amway co-founder, Orlando Magic owner and Grand Rapids billionaire told Leslie Tassell, founder of autoparts maker Lescoa.
That was Tassell’s cue to donate $1 million to a cause DeVos was supporting.
Among West Michigan’s wealthy, social clout doesn’t come from the clothes you wear or car you drive. Influence comes from how much you give.
And the DeVos name is at the pinnacle of social clout in West Michigan, along with other local wealthy and philanthropy-minded families such as Van Andel and Meijer.
The DeVos family for the first time is shedding light on the totality of its philanthropy: nearly $1.2 billion in lifetime giving.
That’s what the family foundations reported to Forbes, which in October revealed that lifetime total and what the DeVoses gave in 2014, $94 million, ranking the family 20th on its annual Top 50 givers list.
The disclosure followed years of prodding from the magazine. The family said it hopes the list encourages others’ generosity.
“The Forbes magazine list creates an important conversation about giving and supporting others in our community,” said John Truscott, a spokesman for the DeVos family.
The family is widely known for its support of conservative political candidates and issues, although, by design, the Forbes figures do not include those contributions. However, a portion of the philanthropic giving is to conservatively aligned institutions, such as think tanks.
The Forbes ranking counted only money that “reached its recipients,” wrote R.J. Shook, founder of the Philanthropic Research Institute, a unit of Shook Research, which partnered with Forbes to create the list.
What the Forbes ranking doesn’t reveal is how the DeVos family doles out its dollars. MLive and The Grand Rapids Press have compiled the information using 2013 IRS records, the most recent available.
In total, the DeVoses donated $90.9 million in 2013, with 48 percent going to education, 27 percent to health and community services, 13 percent to churches or faith-based organizations, and 12 percent to arts and culture.
Most — $60 million or 66 percent — was given to organizations in Michigan, with the majority staying in the greater Grand Rapids area.
The health and community services category in 2013 included more than $1 million in donations to conservative think tanks American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation, as well as six-figure donations to the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute and Midland-based Mackinac Center.
The 2013 donations were allocated similarly to the family’s giving in 2014 when education garnered 45 percent; health and community services 35 percent; arts and culture 15 percent; and churches or faith-based organizations 5 percent, according to numbers Truscott disclosed to The Press, allowing a year-to-year comparison.
Of the family’s $94 million total giving in 2014, $54 million stayed in West Michigan, he said.
The DeVoses have five family foundations, Rich, 89, and his wife have the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. And each of their four children and spouses have one: the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation, the (Cheri DeVos) CDV5 Foundation, and the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation.
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.
Five foundations work together
The five foundations target their giving primarily to West Michigan where the elder DeVos co-founded the direct selling giant Amway in his Ada basement with best friend Jay Van Andel in 1959.
That privately owned business, with reported 2014 sales of $10.8 billion, has made Rich DeVos the second richest Michigan resident.
Forbes reported Rich DeVos’ 2015 worth at $5.7 billion. That’s behind only brothers Hank and Doug Meijer, who run the eponymous Midwest supercenter chain and have a combined wealth estimated at $7.9 billion.
Each DeVos family foundation takes a lead on certain causes to organize the family’s giving.
For example, over the past five years, Doug and Maria DeVos’ foundation has donated more than $2.6 million to the Grand Rapids Public Schools, according to district Communications Director John Helmholdt.
That funding paid for leadership development, teacher evaluation and teacher training, and is credited with helping cut chronic absenteeism by 30 percent and lift minority graduation rates by 10 percent, Helmholdt said.
Outside of those direct contributions, the Amway president and his wife also funneled money through the nonprofit Believe 2 Become to the district and, along with his sister’s foundation, supported sports program so students in the urban district wouldn’t have pay-to-play fees.
Although DeVos children haven’t attended public schools, Doug DeVos said making the city’s school system the best it can be is important to the overall quality of life in the community.
“We don’t want a single one of those 17,000 students to ever feel like we are not behind them or that they don’t matter. They do matter,” DeVos said during a 2013 GRPS legislative breakfast at the Gerald R. Ford Academic Center.
DeVos family foundations also provide coordinated, mutual support. For example, all five foundations made 2013 gifts to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, totaling $1.232 million; and the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, totaling $1.362 million.
The DeVoses are decades-long supporters of Christian nonprofits that provide services to the city’s poorest residents.
DeVos money has long supported Degage Ministries via the DeVos siblings’ foundations. Likewise, Rich and Helen DeVos, through their foundation, have been longtime supporters of Mel Trotter Ministries. Representatives for both agencies said the gifts helped them reach higher.
“They were instrumental in helping us expand in the early years beyond being simply a coffee house,” said Marge Palmerlee, Degage’s executive director. “When I started out, we were just serving dinner in the evenings and coffee four times a week in the morning.”
Now the South Division Avenue ministry helps people get state IDs, find jobs and access other social services, and offers showers, laundry and hair salons. It served 50,000 meals last year, sees up to 500 people a day and has a 40-bed women’s shelter.
At Mel Trotter, the Grand Rapids homeless shelter has apartments for families and a children’s center, and strives to move families from homelessness to a stable living situation in 40 days.
“Without the DeVos family, I don’t know if that would happen,” said Dennis VanKampen, the nonprofit’s CEO. “They are really interested in capital support that will help organizations move forward, reach more people and get a better outcome than just helping keep the lights on.”
DeVos family members have long served on prominent nonprofit boards around the country.
Pamella DeVos, the force behind Pamella Roland fashion designs, sits on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which resulted in the Manhattan museum loaning Robert Rauschenberg’s “Synapsis Shuffle” to the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2012.
Doug DeVos chairs the board of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia that includes chairmen emeritus Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Hank Meijer now serves on its board of trustees.
Betsy DeVos served a six-year term on the Kennedy Center board in Washington, D.C., after President George W. Bush appointed her in 2004.
“Betsy was the best board member I ever had,” said Michael Kaiser, who stepped down last year as the organization’s president. “She’s smart and she does what she says she is going to do. She is a team player but also has ideas and she’s generous and she’s hardworking. She’s just perfect. She is what you want in a board member.”
Betsy and husband, Dick DeVos, are equally effusive in their praise of Kaiser’s work teaching management practices to professional arts administrators. In 2010, they donated $22.5 million to his nonprofit organization, now called the DeVos Institute for the Arts Management at University of Maryland.
While the organization performs work in 82 countries, the DeVoses specifically asked Kaiser to have a presence in Grand Rapids. His organization mentors local arts organizations, including the Grand Rapids Symphony and Grand Rapids Ballet.
Locally, DeVos family members often provide the organizations they support with strategies for attracting additional gifts.
Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission, had some help from Dan DeVos before Guswiler pitched furniture retailer Art Van for what became his namesake sports complex with a $1.8 million gift.
“He really counseled me through what would be the appropriate approach,” Guswiler said.
Dan DeVos, who is serving his fourth three-year term on the commission, also co-chaired its capital campaign for the Art Van Sports Complex with former GVSU President Don Lubbers. Rich DeVos and Peter Secchia were honorary chairmen.
The DeVos name adorns some of West Michigan’s best known buildings, including the children’s hospital, convention center and GVSU’s downtown campus center. While Rich DeVos is said to prefer funding building projects, the families’ donations go beyond brick and mortar.
“The name on the building tells you about who’s giving, but it doesn’t tell everything about their giving,” said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of GVSU’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy. “Some of their giving will have impacts on several individuals for generations and you’ll never know about it.”
Rich DeVos’ giving often has been influenced by his friends’ passions for helping the Grand Rapids community — that’s how he became involved with Grand Valley State University decades ago.
Bill Seidman, whose family’s accounting firm served Amway in its earliest days, was founding chairman of GVSU’s board of trustees.
Their friendship began when Seidman handled Amway’s books before he served in the administrations of three U.S. presidents, including time as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation under George H.W. Bush.
DeVos paid tribute to that decades-long friendship as the lead donor for a new downtown L. William Seidman Center, which houses the university’s Seidman College of Business named after the famed economist’s father.
Over the years, DeVos — and his family — have not only helped the university by donating tens of millions to expand its campuses, they have rallied other deep pockets to give as well.
A plan to raise nearly $50 million for the university’s 50th anniversary five years ago was nearly doubled with DeVos’ leadership, says Tom Haas, GVSU president.
“We wouldn’t be the university we are today without his and the family’s support,” Haas said. “Not just him, but the other people he was able to engage. It’s the multiplier effect.”
Rich DeVos also has built a legacy by generating support for projects that benefit his hometown.
As a master salesman and public speaker, DeVos has the charisma to pull others into his projects. Among his philanthropic collaborators were the late Fred Meijer and Peter Wege, businessmen also known for their generosity.
Jim Brooks says he has learned a lot from DeVos by watching the way he thinks and gives.
“He has tried to create this culture of ‘we need to do things together,’” said Brooks, philanthropist and founder of the now-defunct West Michigan Strategic Alliance.
Brooks says that those who are in DeVos’ circle often share a love for making West Michigan better.
“It’s the expectation that if you want to have social influence, you have to be a giver,” Brooks said.
Brooks and his wife, Donna, were recently named general chairs of the Grand Valley State University Foundation when Rich DeVos stepped down after nearly 25 years.
DeVos’ son Dan and daughter-in-law Pamella are now the foundation’s vice chairs.
Steve Ford, son of the late President Gerald R. Ford, says Rich DeVos’ commitment for supporting his dad never wavered, even since Ford’s death in 2006. DeVos was the lead supporter of the Ford Museum’s latest expansion, to be completed next year.
DeVos often recalls how Ford, when he was a young Congressman, would make time for a ribbon cutting on an Amway “product launch out of the garage,” as Steve Ford tells it.
The actor and speaker, who now lives in Southern California, says that kind of loyalty is what unites West Michigan’s wealthy families and keeps them in touch with the community they support.
“I haven’t seen another city where people have stayed and helped the city prosper,” Ford said. “Grand Rapids is very unique in that way.”
Photo courtesy of MLive.