Dear Rabbi and Susan,
I have a question for you and I hope you can guide me through with ancient wisdom.
Let’s say that I have decided to donate a certain portion of my income to charitable causes… So one day while standing in the pharmacy I see a person in need to get medicines for $50. Would I be a better human being if I decide to use my 50 dollars helping one individual that I come across in person or by sending my 50 dollars to an overseas region where I could potentially help 50 people to get something like sandals or penicillin?
What is your insight into this?
Juan Manuel M.
Dear Juan Manuel,
We love this question for so many reasons. First of all, we think highly of our readers/listeners and your question provides a wonderful example of why we are correct to do so. Not only do you want to be charitable, which is a good thing in and of itself, but you want to do so in the smartest way. Rather than simply trusting your emotions or giving just in order to feel virtuous, you want to ensure that you are actually helping the most you can.
Let’s make a case for each of your choices. There is something wonderful about a person-to-person connection. Seeing someone in need and helping them directly and immediately is tremendous. The individual feels the concern of another human being and the knowledge that you made an impact on someone’s life has a positive effect on you, most likely making you more prone to give again. In the example you gave, you even know that the money is not going to support a drug habit or to buy liquor. You are providing someone with needed medicine. Furthermore, you are not burdening your gift with the administrative overhead which is an inevitable part of organizational charity.
On the other hand, perhaps there is an organization that works towards eradicating the disease from which this person suffers. Your money might help to save thousands from needing the medicine in the first place. Alternatively, perhaps a ministry not only helps to provide medicine but also provides emotional and spiritual support so that the person in front of you will manage his life better. A healthier lifestyle could mean that he won’t even need as much medicine as before.
There is, of course, another side. It is possible that the person in front of you needing medicine cannot afford to pay for it because he gambles his earnings away or spends it on alcohol or drugs. Organized charities can be badly or fraudulently run so that your money does not help those in need. In other words, both opportunities for giving can be wonderful or wasteful.
What would we do? In general, we try to follow the Biblically-based rule that those closest to us have the first claim on our discretionary charity dollars. Family before strangers, our community before remote communities, etc. However, we don’t like turning anyone down entirely so we make small gifts in many circumstances to personal pleas of those we do not know. If it’s a personal case where we do know the details or are assured by someone we trust that the money is truly needed, we respond as generously as we can. We also take the time to vet organizations. (Two organizations that can be helpful are https://www.charitywatch.org/, https://www.charitynavigator.org/)
Another step is to choose some organizations whose missions resonate with you and support them on a regular basis. You still need to keep your eyes open. It hurts us terribly when we hear that people donate to anti-Biblical, Leftist groups because they see the word Jewish or Christian or Liberty in the name and assume it is a good group or because 25 years ago it was doing good work.
In the specific circumstance you describe, if you felt reasonably certain that the person in need was someone who was doing his best to help himself, you should help him, though not necessarily with all your available resources or to the full extent of his need. Helping doesn’t necessarily mean providing a complete solution. This approach allows you to help the needy person God placed in your path, while also retaining larger reserves to help organizations with whose mission you resonate.
Finally, it is worth always thinking of the possible unintended consequences of giving money in the wrong way or in the wrong place. For instance, it is possible to give money to someone in a way that destroys his dignity. What he loses is probably worth more than what he got. Or one might send clothing to a village in Africa and inadvertently destroy the local clothing manufacturing economy, as has indeed happened. You are right to give much thought to your charitable activities. Being a wise person, including in the area of giving, takes active and continuous effort.
With your loving care, you help to make the world a better place and we’re proud to have you as a reader.
Thanks for caring,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin