In their “Four Traditions of Philanthropy,” writers Elizabeth Lynn and Susan Wisely give us four lenses to consider as we focus our efforts.

Charity. Relief, or charity, is mainly concerned with alleviating human suffering. Invoking the phrase, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day,” the authors note that, “Even our accumulated wealth is God’s gift, not our own achievement, and therefore is to be shared freely with God’s other creatures.” However, if we concentrate all of our giving resources on relief, we may miss the opportunity to address the causes of suffering.

Improvement. “Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Tutoring, teaching, and coaching aim in this direction. Andrew Carnegie’s work to build libraries was about improvement. The authors note that this kind of giving “… allows us to express gratitude for special opportunities we have received by extending the same opportunities to others.” But pathways for improvement only work if roadblocks to achievement are removed.

Reform. This tradition emerged from the understanding that societal circumstances often shape human destiny more than the actions of individuals themselves. If our schools are separate and unequal, for example, reform efforts might focus on changing laws so good schools are available to everyone.

Engagement. This lens asks who should propose the reform or solutions? The spotlight is on building community so that people get to know each other well and propose their own solutions. The authors use the example of Jane Addams’ Hull House, which offered its neighbors help that sometimes relieved pain, sometimes improved individual opportunity, and sometimes advocated for social change. But, they note, its first and final value “lay in building relationships among citizens so they could better understand and assist one another.”

Interfaith Action offers opportunities in all of these traditions. As a volunteer, you can help provide shelter, support emergency food distribution, tutor, be a job coach, join our team for Hunger Day on the Hill, build community through Opportunity Saint Paul, and more. Come join us.

—Randi Ilyse Roth, Executive Director, Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul