Philanthropy vs. Charity

Philanthropy, Charity, & the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Editors’ NoteThis post launches a new HistPhil forum on the history of the split between charity and philanthropy, and on its contemporary relevance. (And don’t worry, we haven’t wrapped up our philanthropy and education forum entirely yet either). To open the forum, Jeremy Beer, author of The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, offers his thoughts on the charity-philanthropy dichotomy and suggests why a traditional charitable ethic still has much to teach us in the 21st century.

What is the difference between philanthropy and charity? If we consider that question from a historical point of view, we find that in the Western world, at least, the concept, practices, and institutions of charity arise out of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Historically, charity has been justified as a way of witnessing to or making certain theological truth claims (see, especially, Gary Anderson’s Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition).

Modern philanthropy, on the other hand, is just that: modern. First coming to conceptual prominence in the late eighteenth century, its advocates were driven by a desire to reform or transcend biblical charity. It is not quite right to call philanthropy “secular”—it has always come and could only come with its own theological presuppositions, although these are often implicit—but it would be right to say that philanthropy’s goal is to use voluntary giving as a tool for asserting mastery over the social world, not to witness to any kind of theological or metaphysical “truth.”

In short, charity seeks to witness; philanthropy seeks to fix.

In American history this conceptual tension has played out in a variety of fascinating ways. For example, the mostly Protestant proponents of “scientific charity” or “the new philanthropy” in the late nineteenth century saw Catholicism as a major obstacle to reform. The Catholic Church was a tenacious defender of traditional charity in the midst of the philanthropic revolution that was sweeping the country. And one of its central charitable institutions was the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The Society contributed most of the trustees of America’s Catholic child-caring institutions in the mid to late 1800s, especially in the east. As Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown write in The Poor Belong to Us

Vincentians accepted the traditional Catholic understanding that the practice of charity was a form of meritorious service necessary to the salvation of their own souls. They believed that the “help” of charity was always mutual. Persons who were better-off supplied material necessities and words of advice and encouragement to the poor. In return the poor were expected to pray for their benefactors, thereby helping to redeem the souls of the prosperous along with their own.

Similarly, in a 1902 Homiletic Monthly article, a Catholic pastor wrote that even if “indiscriminate giving” really does lead to “social degradation,” as the new philanthropists charged, Christians are still called to help those in need as “wisely and well” as they can. He encouraged his parishioners to therefore join the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “In the field opened through such an organization there is found an outlet for that spirit of charity which is not simply philanthropic and humanitarian,” but which calls for personal engagement with the needy and suffering.

The progressive critics of the Society and similar Catholic welfare institutions were unmoved by such appeals. In New York, they promoted exposés of Catholic welfare institutions which dramatically illustrated their deplorably inadequate conditions. And on a theoretical level, they criticized Catholic welfare institutions for their unscientific approach—that is, for failing to regard charity as principally a technology that could be used either to hinder or advance social progress. Catholic charities like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul tended to accept applicants “without inquiring too deeply into their circumstances.” They resisted means-testing their clients. They refused to acknowledge that impoverished parents were ill-suited to raise their own children and should therefore be relieved of that duty by the state. And they resisted the professionalization and centralization of assistance that reformers insisted, not incorrectly, would lead to a more efficient delivery of services.

In 1910, the Catholic Church finally seemed to embrace scientific philanthropy with the founding of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. Even so, the practices of many Catholic institutions have never become fully aligned with a purely technological conception of philanthropy. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is now active in 147 nations around the world and has been particularly successful in integrating new-philanthropy practices within a traditional-charity framework.


Last month, I spoke with Steve Zabilski, executive director of the Society’s Phoenix council, about the questions raised by the philanthropy–charity debate. What do they look like today from his grassroots perspective? (Zabilski, let it be noted, spoke only for himself, and not on behalf of the Society as a whole.)

Not surprisingly, Zabilski has frequently encountered the You-aren’t-really-fixing-the-problem charge so often levelled against those who engage in more traditional forms of charity. “Our answer is this,” he says. “On the one hand, I can see where someone might say that. But please understand, while people figure out how to solve these complicated problems”—like homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, etc.—“we’re helping people who are suffering today” by feeding them, clothing them, treating their medical needs, and engaging them in a personal way.

“Now, we will participate in a conference, say, to figure out homelessness. We want to be part of that conversation. But in the meantime,” says Zabilski, “we will serve.”

This doesn’t mean the Society is indifferent to the attitudes of those they serve. To the extent that someone who applies for help is clearly trying to game the system, “we aren’t that interested in helping,” says Zabilski. But how does the Society gather this information? Through home visits, a staple of Vincentian charity since the Society was founded by Frédéric Ozanam in Paris in 1833. Every member of the Society—called Vincentians—up to and including the president of the National Council, engages in home visits. Through these visits, Vincentians get to know families and assess their needs. In a sense, this is not so different from what the proponents of philanthropy reform and the new social work profession called for more than a century ago.

This is one way in which the Society integrates what would be considered a best practice by philanthropy advocates. Another lies in the fact that the Society does care about and tries to measure outcomes and return-on-investment. (The Phoenix council’s website provides abundant information about the Society’s impact.) The national council even has its motto “End poverty through systemic change,” a prototypically philanthropic goal if there ever was one.

But there are crucial differences.

First, the Society’s home visits are carried out by volunteers working at the parish level. The opportunity to gain and flexibly integrate personal knowledge and communal supervision into the way assistance is offered is therefore much greater than it would be under a more typically professionalized and centralized system.

Second, the Phoenix council will always feed people—“anyone can come into our dining room and eat,” says Zabilski—and they will always provide showers, shoes, and clothes to the homeless. “If that’s the worst that they can say about us,” says Zabilski, he’s quite happy to live with the charge.

A third difference is the patience which the society’s implicitly traditional framework makes possible. Malingering or laziness is one thing; but breaking free from the grip of addiction, bad habits, and despair is another. “Sometimes it takes people a while to figure it out,” Zabilski states. “I wish that just saying ‘Get your act together!’ would work, but it’s not that simple. People have to be ready.”

Fourth, the Society goes to remarkable lengths not just to preserve the dignity of those it helps, but to actively ennoble them. At Phoenix’s massive dining room—not “soup kitchen,” Zabilski emphasizes—guests are met at the door and then seated by volunteers. “Guests,” mind you—not “clients,” a word not used at the Phoenix council. At their tables, these guests find tablecloths, real glassware, real utensils, and a paper menu that gives them a choice of entrees, at least, and lists what is being served that day. Their orders are taken and their meals brought to them by volunteers acting as servers.

In short, says Zabilski, “It’s like a restaurant without a bill.”

Of course, these practices cost more than they would if the Society weren’t so concerned with their guests’ dignity. But, Zabilski says, he wants to use resources not just efficiently but “wisely.” And so the dining room is about “love, hope, joy, learning—much more than simply food.”

Which leads us to a fifth and final difference: in line with the traditional conception of charity as redounding to the benefit of both giver and receiver, binding them in a mutually enriching relationship of love, the Society emphasizes in its mission statement that it “provides meaningful opportunities for volunteers to serve their neighbors in need with love and compassion.”

In other words, the Society decidedly does not see itself as a service provider positioned within a one-way relationship with those it helps.

“Every person has an inner desire to be useful to others, to be needed, and to be of service,” says Zabilski.

The advocates of charity through the centuries have agreed. Indeed, they thought it a transcendent truth worthy of witness.

-Jeremy Beer

Jeremy Beer is a founding partner at American Philanthropic, LLC. He is the president of the American Ideas Institute (publisher of The American Conservative) and a contributing editor at Front Porch Republic. He was formerly editor-in-chief at ISI Books.

3 thoughts on “Philanthropy, Charity, & the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

  1. Thank you, Jeremy, for this piece. As president of SVDP in the Diocese of Providence, I can affirm that you really “get” what we’re all about!


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