Should I donate locally or globally?

Written by, Gill Tataev founder of Ruthless Giving.

It’s the most common question people ask before donating: should I give money locally or globally?

First, let’s answer this question:

What does a perfect world look like to you?

Your mind might go straight to a utopian image of your city or neighborhood, free of its current problems. You might instead zoom out and look at the world as a whole: well-fed children in Africa, a plastic-free ocean, pollution-free air, or a complete lack of conflict.

The question of where to donate is deeply personal, and deserves deep introspection. It’s a process of defining what you care about most. There’s no wrong answer per se — charitable beliefs are every bit as diverse as political or religious beliefs — but on a personal level, there will be a right answer; the cause that drives your giving behaviour.

Often people confuse causes with passions. Bill Gates began his philanthropic journey by building computer science buildings, because that’s what his passion was. Soon after he realized that there were perhaps more worthy causes, particularly given his resources and skill set, and began focusing his efforts on large-scale problems like global health and climate change. This can happen below the billionaire level too.

Ask yourself: What is it that truly inspires you to give? Do you believe that no human should ever go hungry? Do you feel that no animal should suffer? Do you perhaps feel anxious about the world we’re leaving our children: one of rising sea levels and severe weather events?

Perhaps you’re not inspired by a single issue at all. Perhaps you feel it’s your civic duty to give back in one way or another. You could be blessed with above-average levels of empathy. If you have the will to donate but aren’t sure where, consider finding a cause based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which outline the most pressing issues.

Although picking your preferred issue is a largely subjective exercise, picking the specific charity you wish to support should be far more objective. The question remains: do you tackle these issues at a local level, or on a global scale?

“Take care of your own backyard” argument.

For most people the instinct is to aim local, and the reasons might be hard-coded into our very DNA, as Yuval Noel Harari points out in his book Sapiens:

“Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. ‘Us’ was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was everyone else. In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs. No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail community.”

But as humanity progressed, we’ve collectively extended our meaning of community. Now that we can instantly and intimately communicate with a stranger on the other side of the world, the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’ feels outdated, and in some ways discriminatory.

Nonetheless, there remains a desire to help those whose faces we recognize, and to see, feel and experience the effects of our charitable giving. To put it plainly, there’s often a self-serving element to local giving. It’s not a conscious decision, but rather a consequence of millions of years of evolution.

If you earn enough to be able to donate to charity, chances are you live in an area that offers decent healthcare, access to education, and some form of government-funded welfare. There are obviously other issues, but if your chosen cause is access to basic education or healthcare, perhaps it would make sense to step out of your backyard and help globally.

The triage of effective philanthropy

In emergency rooms and disaster zones there’s the concept of triage, where patients are sorted in a way that is designed to maximize the number of survivors. A triage doctor doesn’t look at the race, religion or gender, his primary concern is to maximize the amount of people he is saving. Unfortunately we still live in a world where this concept is applicable, there are still children that don’t have access to basic vaccinations or education.

While effective humanitarian philanthropy is almost always focused on the developing world, that’s not true for all causes. Animal welfare is a global issue, and factory farming is more prevalent in the developed world than it is in the developing world, so your charity dollars may be better spent locally. The same might be said for climate change, where investments in innovative technology or political lobbying offer better returns in the first world.


Charitable giving is a deeply personal thing. The cause you choose is a reflection of your values, and it takes some soul searching. If the cause you choose demands attention within your community, then spend your money locally. If the issue you deeply care about effects “others” regardless of their race, religion, or gender then geographical location shouldn’t stand in the way either.

This article is sponsored by People’s Foundation.

Ruthless Giving is a non profit organization that explores giving opportunities and promotes effective giving practices.