Donating internationally packs more punch than giving money locally.

Advice on how to make the world better.
Dec. 16 2009 12:41 PM

A Little Charity Goes a Long Way

Donating internationally packs more punch than giving money locally.

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Is it better to give locally?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,
My dilemma is this: Where can I have the most impact? Giving to international organizations dedicated to providing clean water and food and eradicating illnesses in impoverished areas of the world or donating locally to help those in my own community? I tend to try and resolve this by volunteering locally and donating internationally, but every year when the office campaigns for local food banks or other worthy causes closer to home pop up, I feel the tug to support my community.

—Nicole

Dear Nicole,
This is the perpetual dilemma in philanthropy, especially this time of year. Your local food bank is a good cause, and it wants you to donate. Heifer International is a good cause, and it wants you to donate. Your best friend is running a marathon to cure breast cancer, and that's a good cause, and she wants you to donate. How do you choose?

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As an individual donor, it is always going to be hard to know exactly where you'll have the most impact. Major philanthropic foundations have hundreds, even thousands, of staff and still struggle to evaluate which grants will give them the most bang for their buck. All you can do is take the time to think about which issues you find most important and what you are trying to achieve with your donation, research the organizations working in that sphere, and regularly evaluate and refine your charitable giving.

That being said, if you subscribe to the belief that all lives are created equally—and your giving is aimed at saving human lives or reducing suffering—your donations will almost always yield greater returns when given (to reputable organizations) internationally. Some philosophers argue that having money to spend on nonessentials and not putting it toward saving a preventable human death, no matter how far away, is morally equivalent to seeing a life you can save in front of you and not intervening.

While I wouldn't go that far, I would say that understanding just how little can save a life might make you reconsider your charitable giving. NYU philosophy professor Peter Unger ends his 1996 book, Living High and Letting Die, with a calculation that a $200 donation could help ensure a child lives through its most vulnerable years, from age 2 to 6, in the developing world. Much more recently, the folks at GiveWell, an independent charity evaluator, estimated that their top-rated international charity averts a child death for every donation of $200 to $600. You would be hard-pressed to find a local charity that could actually save a life with a similarly sized gift. (But if you know of one, tell me about it!)

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, says that 9.2 million children under age 5 died from largely preventable causes in 2007. The causes are things that we treat with a mere doctor's visit in the United States, like diarrhea and pneumonia. Two-thirds of these deaths are preventable with existing low-cost interventions. Recent research has shown that we are more likely to donate, and donate more, when we think our money will make the biggest difference. So if dollars can be stretched to have more impact in the developing world, why don't more people donate internationally?

There are persuasive arguments for donating close to home, too: The well-being of your community affects you directly; the charities you donate to may run programs you or your family members actually use; and (something I hear from many donors) you can better track your funds and ensure that they are going to beneficial programs when they're in your community. But, with our increasingly globalized world, each of these arguments is becoming less important. I'm not advising you to stop all your local giving; I am asking you to think about why you really give and make sure that your current giving aligns with that.

And, Nicole, you may have already found the solution. "Give globally, act locally" is a great slogan—and a great way to stay connected with the less fortunate in your community while putting your money toward aiding those in need farther from home.

—Sandy

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it. Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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