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Over the years, I have friends explain different formulas for how they tackle charity. I don’t have one. I operate on instinct, a relatively good heart and a smidge of disbelief.

Sunday night, late, as I was going over some of my kids’ school paperwork and getting ready to call it a day, my phone rang with a plea for a monetary donation by someone who said she helps homeless veterans.

That’s a cause dear to my heart, but I am notably skeptical of phone pleas, especially if the person on the other end of the line balks when I say I’d like the name of the charity, the website and some time to consider whether I might like to donate.

It is possible that she was calling from the very best charity on the face of the earth. But I still believe the need will be there in two days when I have done a little research and feel more comfortable that this is a charity to which I’d like to give some of my limited resources. I also want to know how much of my money goes to the actual cause and not a professional fundraising organization. It’s OK to check things out.

There’s a lot of need out there and, as the holidays approach, the requests are likely to grow. One of my colleagues and I had an interesting discussion about how we pick who we want to support in a world where disasters and needs halfway around the globe are sometimes more visible to us than the neighborhood kid who is hungry and poorly clothed, but gets overlooked because he doesn’t tweet or phone in requests. We simply don’t see him though he stands mere yards from us.

Over the years, I have friends explain different formulas for how they tackle charity. I don’t have one. I operate on instinct, a relatively good heart and a smidge of disbelief.

I try to check out charities with which I am not familiar, if they seem to benefit something I’d like to be a part of helping. Like most people, I also have causes that are particularly dear to my heart. That was part of my conversation with my friend: He supports charities that have no appeal to me and I support some about which he couldn't care less. That’s a good thing, because there are diverse needs out there, from medical care for kids to helping the elderly to preserving various arts groups.

I am sporadically more generous with time, partly for selfish reasons — I get more of a personal lift from service than I do from writing a check or donating online. Some people feel the opposite. I think we’re both right.

Sadly, I have to see the need or it’s not quite real to me. Right now, I am working on a project on loneliness and how it impacts different types of people, from the elderly to refugees to children with illnesses that tend to isolate whole families. Because I am searching for examples of loneliness and social isolation, I am more aware than I was in the past of how many people it challenges.

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I have found no answer, though, to the big question that my coworker posed: Whose need is greater? When disasters strike places like the Philippines and Haiti, leaving people who already had little simply devastated, or when children are starving in parts of South America and Africa, it seems like there’s a moral imperative to pay attention and help out. Or should I be focusing on the needs I see nearby?

My dad taught me to give what I can just because I can. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s time. I have at various points in life been shorter on one than the other and then seen the ratio reverse. Occasionally, I feel depleted. The point is to do the best we can for each other.

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