This Shabbat we had a guest, Ruth Messinger from American World Jewish Service. She spoke Friday night about global communities and led a study session Shabbat morning on the theme of "to whom am I responsible?". We talked about communities and how they overlap and how this can influence our degrees of connection, and we talked in passing about how we make decisions about tzedakah (charitable contributions, though that's not a precise translation).
The talmud lays out some basic ideas, but they're all dichotomies that don't work so well in the real world. In lending money (it does specify lending, not giving), prefer the poor to the less-poor and your local community to other communities and Jews to gentiles (and other spectra). Sounds fine in principle, but people are not so two-dimensional, so this does not give good guidance on ranking the local poor gentile versus the less-poor eastern-European Jew. Of course, in talmudic times you were less likely to even know about the distant need, but in a global community, things change. Even 30 years ago it would have been pretty freakishly unlikely for me to have contact with people in Singapore, Australia, France, and Myanmar. Today? I didn't make up any of those examples. (This discussion was designed to raise questions, not give answers.)
One of the many factors I take into account is the "dividend" that my donation will pay -- if I can make a donation that will teach someone better farming techniques or medicine, or buy a family's first dairy cow, for example, I see that donation as more effective than one that will just provide sustenance today, all other factors being equal. (Of course, all other factors are rarely equal.) I'm a big fan of "enabling to fish" versus "giving a fish", when that's possible. (I said something about this in the discussion and she said "ding ding ding -- microlending!". Hmm, maybe; I hadn't thought about that, but I can see a connection, maybe. Someone else said "ding ding ding -- Rambam", which I was aware of but hadn't been conscious of.)
Another factor that I find myself taking into account is proportional impact. There are the "big causes" that lots of people donate to (and that includes me to some level); I find myself looking for the smaller ones that are doing work that's just as important but who haven't attracted a lot of attention yet. Of course, by definition, this is hard to do, so I'm always open to suggestions here. I only heard of the heifer project in the last few years, for instance, even though those guys have been around for a while. This is the sort of work the United Way ought to be doing, but I've seen too many problems with that so they don't get my money. Specifically within the Jewish world, I guess UJF is kind of analogous -- but I do not restrict myself to Jewish causes. And anyway, I prefer to have more of a hand in directing my contributions than they will give me -- so they get a token from me, but the real dollars go elsewhere. (The only significant "ok, you decide" money I give is to my rabbi's discretionary fund, because I know he will be a good agent.)
I support local organizations instead of or in addition to national or world ones. I support an organization working in world hunger, but I also support my local food banks (the general one and the kosher one). I support a national animal-welfare organization, but I also make donations to local animal shelters. Stuff like that.
This is all stuff I should think more about, as sometimes, right now, it's kind of haphazard.
Ruth told us about an interesting family tradition she'd heard somewhere: when each kid in the extended family reaches a certain age (I think she said 9 in this case), a family member with the means sits that kid down for a talk that goes something like this: "Here is a check for $100. It's made out to your parents 'cause they have the checking account, but at any time during the coming year, you can direct them to write a check to any charity you like until this money is gone. If you come back in a year and tell me how you spent it, you'll get more to distribute next year." There is no request up front to justify the decisions but, she said, it comes out in the followup conversation. I think this is a neat idea; think of it as a teeny tiny foundation that gets people thinking about decisions and decision-making from an early age.