Four Traditions of Philanthropy


Lynn, Elizabeth M.




​Elizabeth M. Lynn, founder and director of the Center for Civic Reflection, and D. Susan Wisely, former Director of Evaluation for Lilly Endowment, examine "three distinctive philanthropic traditions" in the United States: philanthropy as relief, as improvement, and as social reform. They then propose a fourth philanthropic tradition, that of "civic engagement," which aims to build up connections among ordinary citizens and promote discovery of new ways of understanding common concerns. This essay offers readers the opportunity to think about their own activities of giving and serving in the larger landscape of American philanthropy.  See the Giving Autobiography for one example of how this essay could be used in discussion.

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The Civically Engaged Reader, ed. Adam Davis and Elizabeth Lynn (Great Books Foundation, 2006), pages 210-217.




Giving and ReceivingHeritage and TraditionImpact and OutcomesLove and CompassionSocial and Political Change

Big Questions

What makes a good gift?Who should we give to and why?How do we balance the value of tradition with the need for change?How do we identify desired outcomes? Who decides?How do we know the impact of our actions?How do we define love? How do we show love?Should we love the people we serve?Must action, to be meaningful, always lead to social change?What kind of change am I making? What kind of change does the world need?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Think of a good gift you have given or received. What made it good? Which of the four traditions would you place it in?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of the four traditions of philanthropy?
  3. Is there a fifth--or sixth, or seventh--tradition of philanthropy missing from this essay?
  4. Which of these traditions dominates your own philanthropy and service? Which is weakest? Is it better to dwell in one tradition or to work across traditions?
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