The concept of charity, and of giving charity regularly, is ever present in Islam, with charity encompassing meeting a fellow human being with a smile on one’s face and removing a rock from the road, to donating large amounts of money towards various causes.
In this regard, if you have a certain amount of money that you want to give as charity, is it better to donate it regularly towards one cause, through one or two select organizations you trust? Or is it better to divide and spread your money amongst different causes, different needs that you come across, depending on the need of the hour?
Some may argue that the latter allows for a true capturing of “giving with your right hand without the left hand knowing” - for who tallies the small amounts given here and there? Others may argue that in providing for others in a non-systematic way, Muslims as a community aren’t being effective - for how can small amounts given sporadically to random individuals, causes and organizations help as much as one large donation to an effective charitable organization can?
How should one ideally disburse money they want to give towards charity?
This is a very important question, but I think the premise of the question should be more thoroughly examined. The premise seems to imply that “giving with your right hand without the left hand knowing” can only be done, or is primarily done, in a non-systematic fashion and only done according to "the need of the hour." Is this premise sound? Have the scholars of the Islamic tradition defined liberality and spur-of-the-moment giving as only done on the street somewhere to a passing person in need? Or can it be done at 2 a.m. by someone who at the spur-of-the-moment logs onto a Muslim charity's Web site to give or writes a check for the local youth center or makes time for the next day to drive someone without transportation to the store?
Beyond questioning the premise, however, I think the heart of the question revolves around something Henry David Thoreau said: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” In other words, as it pertains to the question, is it a mistake to do things "for others in a non-systematic way" making Muslims "(ineffective) - for how can small amounts given sporadically to random individuals, causes and organizations help as much as one large donation to an effective charitable organization?"
Although I have no real qualification to speak authoritatively and am only a lay seeker of understanding of our contemporary situation, I think it's important to look at charity beyond paper currency. Many times, individuals and social units, be they students or one-parent households, need not a $1000 check or a sea change in fiscal policy per se, but a good word for them at a potential employer, an extra coat for a child, or some extra cash for the electricity bill. These things could be handed out rather liberally, as they don't require a large amount of resources, be they paper or otherwise. A phone call to a friend hiring could take 20 minutes at most, but be a great act of charity perhaps because of the person giving up 20 minutes of his time to help one in need.
As the hadith of the Prophet, may God bless him and give him peace, states, “Doing justice between two people is sadaqah; assisting a man, or lifting up his belongings is sadaqah; a good word is sadaqah; every step you take towards prayer is sadaqah; and removing harmful things from the path is sadaqah.”
The Islamic tradition, by what I have been taught emphasizes, and as Thoreau touched upon, treating a malady by getting at its root. This, however, should be balanced with the imperative to spend of what we love in a liberal manner and in a non-systematic way perhaps. With regard to the former, as a nascent community, we should have multiple strategies with regard to resources that are elucidated in clear short-term and long-term strategies that reflect local needs and individual resource allocation concerns.
The long-term plan should take into account the educational, social, cultural and spiritual institutions we need to erect and maintain to ensure a viable foundation for our children, their children and so on to build upon. This institution building shouldn't just be understood in terms of brick buildings housing a prayer space, but in creating foundational pillars that include: reading materials for English and Spanish readers that facilitate Islamic literacy, think-tanks, social policy institutes, political advocacy organizations, synthesized curricula for Muslims of different ages and learning capabilities that bring together the very best from all applicable traditions and address our contemporary situation, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, clinics, art schools, concert halls, madrassas, Sufi lodges, hotels, grocery stores, businesses, banks, parks, graffiti walls, basketball courts that cater to and are accessible to Muslims and people of other faiths. And I don't think we should build or create these to establish a parallel society or Muslim ghettos, but to allow Muslims greater opportunities of meeting the shared needs of Muslims and people of other faiths in a way that is guided by the high ethical standards established in the Islamic tradition and help capital to constantly flow throughout the community to address root issues such as racism, elitism, wealth monopolization to name a few that exclude so many capabile individuals from establishing financial and cultural security for themselves and their families.
Simply, we need strong roots to produce the sweet fruits of a functional community that understands itself because it is defined from within and therefore is able to contribute positively to the greater society. We should look at how the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) facilitated resource distribution at different times — be it in Mecca or Medina, be it as a leader with a small following or as a statesman at the helm of a thriving society. For example, what are the implications of the Ahl As-Suffah, or "People of the Bench" who were poor, but provided for under the auspices of the Prophet (may God bless him and give him peace). Did this "Bench" act as a social institution allowing for adequate services to be provided at one level and then a liberality of giving in a non-systematic way on another in the greater society?
And what about Muslim communities who came before us, but faced similar predicaments? How did Chinese Muslims allocate resources and find ways of properly channeling charity. Being a new polity, this Muslim community had to have addressed similar questions with regard to establishing themself as a viable community. We should definitely not be orphaned by modernity and feel cut-off from our noble predecessors. History does not begin or end with us.
The issue of creating appropriate means for a collectively defined end (healthy and indigenous Muslim-American community), requires that end building mosques in an autonomous fashion — for this group or that — but for the whole community that complement and supplement each other. The same goes for education and cultural institutions that architecturally and facility-wise accommodate and reflect the real needs of the whole community in terms of spiritual growth and the need for the creation of a true Muslim-American identity and culture. They shouldn't just reflect the whims of wealthy community members who have a monopoly on resources - paper and otherwise who can dominate the community with their own understanding of the Islamic tradition that may be either totally incorrect or unaware of the unique challenges Muslims in the US face.
Rather than looking at institutional vs. non-institutional giving, I think we should be looking at big-picture giving vs. small-picture giving.
With Zakat, which is not an institution in the sense as a school for example, wealthy immigrants who were able to become part of "white America" as opposed to "Black America" and begin true wealth creation when they got here and still do should find a medium to channel Zakat funds into predominately inner-city neighborhoods populated usually by poor African-Americans who have been the victims of "accumulated disadvantage" and thus unable to build true wealth unlike their fellow white citizens who have enjoyed relative ease in the US marketplace since the founding of this country. And we must remember that wealth and income are two different things as the gap between African-American income and white income has shrunk, while the wealth gap continues to enlarge. This is because US blacks have faced systematic injustice manifest in slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, discriminatory housing practices and loan redlining that have kept and still keep African-Americans out of the running for wealth acquisition because of higher mortgage rate loans and less home equity and inadequate education made worse by lower property tax revenues and poorly funded social programs.
These programs are important because they give Muslims with the resources a viable and continuous outlet for larger and better defined resource allocation. The limits created by effective and clearly explained strategies manifest in the short run by organizations or institutions that produce tangible results of community empowerment will allow Muslims to factor in how much is needed on the proactive level (institution building) and the reactive level — flash fundraising (crisis in some place needing immediate attention) and the helping of those around oneself at any hour of the day.