Keeping it Local: Philanthropy Must Start at Home

Stories of billionaire mega-donors with ambitious plans to wipe out disease and hunger seem to dominate today’s philanthropic discussions. While we applaud the optimistic international goals of the likes of Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, we firmly believe that these efforts can’t be at the exclusion of what desperately needs attention in our own neighborhood, town or country. We wholeheartedly subscribe to the Talmudic teaching that the first duty concerning charity is ensuring there is no needy among your own. Philanthropic role models like Gates and Bloomberg share this view as they also devote substantial resources and efforts to numerous important local causes they care about. There will always be global issues and disasters to passionately support on a temporary and permanent basis, but they shouldn’t be at the exclusion of local demands.

Charitable giving, regardless of absolute capacity, is precious and therefore should force one to evaluate the merits of different causes including those at home or abroad. Devoting substantial attention to one’s own backyard has a number of advantages and merits. We believe that paramount on that list is setting an example of what can be done–or as Judaism states, “being a light unto the nations.” It is hard to fix the world if someone can’t first fix their own home.

Concentrating on local charities and organizations enables street-level and in-depth understanding, as well as the ability to develop expertise in terms of assessing needs and the organizations attempting to tackle those needs. Doing your homework to decide which causes best optimize your available resources of time and money is considerably easier when they are literally around the corner. Local organizations, whether helping the homeless or providing disaster relief, are typically leaner and hence easier to evaluate than sizeable and complex global groups or those located halfway around the world.

Staying local also makes it far more likely to build relationships with those involved within an organization driving impact and making decisions. Moreover, witnessing and assessing the results of your involvement first-hand enables you to revise your strategies and provide the reassurance necessary to deepen your commitment. It many cases being locally involved enables you to interact with individual beneficiaries to really appreciate the role you are playing. This knowledge combined with personal connections can be the basis for including others, be it local businesses, donors or volunteers, to support your efforts. While not impossible, this proposition becomes much harder for those efforts thousands of miles away.

Local charities generally have much lower overhead than the larger players, meaning a greater percentage of your donation goes to actual help, rather than administrative overhead and marketing costs. It is important to examine these direct and indirect costs as their cumulative implications can be meaningful. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the New York Times editorial board published an advocacy piece which emphatically makes this point.

While we acknowledge that major charities like the Red Cross do perform vitally needed good work, the Times’ board makes a convincing case that any organization of such size possesses unavoidable weaknesses. The twin tasks of helping the needy across an entire country or world necessitates sustaining a sizable infrastructure that must be properly managed. Making sure the organization is efficiently allocating resources to the underlying cause and not hefty executive salaries or massive marketing campaigns is far easier when they are next door. The concerns of diluting your charitable dollars can be alleviated when one is able to see how the work is being done and who it is affecting.

In sum, we believe giving charity is sharing our blessings to make the world a better place. There is no question our impact is maximized when we are personally involved and, for basic logistical reasons, that is substantial easier when the charity is local. In the long term, making our community better will hopefully expand the number of people able to help make the world a better place.