At the end of each year, my husband and I sit down to plan our charitable giving. We choose an amount to spend, then portion it out to organizations and causes we cherish. Many are close to home, meeting needs in our own community. 

But a few years back, our son, then 16, participated in a service program that included discussions and readings about the nature of charity. He came home talking about rational giving—the idea that you should calculate where your money will do the most good. The most effective charity in the world, he said, distributes mosquito netting to families in sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of thousands of children and pregnant women die of malaria each year. The netting cuts their risk dramatically, at a cost of about $3,500 per life saved. What an amazing opportunity to prevent tragedy, he said. How could anyone give to anything else? 

We countered that needs are all around us, and that it’s also important to invest in the arts and education and a healthy home community, but he had a different plan. He’d saved a chunk of the money he received at his bar mitzvah, and he sent a big gift to the Against Malaria Foundation. 

I can’t remember a year when the needs—both within our community and around the world—were more stark. The point of my story is not to deploy all your charitable dollars to fighting malaria, although that’s a rational choice. The point is to find a cause that moves you to action, as this one did my son. Learn about the needs in our community, or across the world, then do something. Write a check. Look within and have hard conversations. Volunteer. It all matters.

Reprinted from Giving: A Guide to Philanthropy 2021.