02/07/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

Charity's Pleasure of Participation

It's happened to all of us. You're stuck waiting at a light in the left lane and a bedraggled woman standing on the median looks you right in the eyes with a worn cardboard sign that reads, "HOMELESS. PLEASE HELP". Many of us quickly grab a few dollars and hold them out through the cracked window before the light turns green and think, "Well, at least I did something."

According to the Charities Aid Foundation, the United States came in first in overall giving in CAF's World Giving Index for 2013. "Due mainly to the fact that helping a stranger is more commonplace here than in any other country in the world -- when asked, 77 percent of Americans said they helped somebody they didn't know, up from 71 percent in 2011." In this same survey, Americans ranked 3rd in volunteering but came in 13th in terms of donating money.

Did Americans show in 13th place for donating money because of bad economic times, or is it that we have a greater desire to do tangible acts of charity?

The Islamic concept of charity has specific definitions of the various forms of giving. There are two major categories of charity: Zakat is the mandatory almsgiving, and Sadaqa, charity beyond the obligatory. On Sadaqa, prophet Muhammad, peace be on him, said, "Every day the sun rises, charity is due on every joint of a person: Administering justice between two men is a charity; and assisting a man to mount his beast, or helping him load his luggage on it is a charity; and a good word is a charity; and every step that you take towards the mosque for prayer is a charity and removing harmful things from the road is a charity".

This tradition of the prophet illustrates our natural proclivity for action in giving. When we shovel our elderly neighbor's driveway, give money to the homeless man on the street, or drop donations at the food bank, our joints do the work, and we feel the reward of it.

But how can our hands reach out to offer aid and comfort to people suffering from humanitarian catastrophes and natural disasters overseas? Many of us are compelled to gather up coats and shoes from our closets for little cold hands and feet in Syria, or fold and ship our extra blankets to the Philippines. We're helping when we send our gently used things to folks in need, right? Not always, because the greater the distance between the crisis and us, the less effective these tangible gifts become.

For example, when Pakistan-administered Kashmir experienced a devastating earthquake in 2005, a local mosque was collecting winter clothes to send to the victims. I saw this as a great opportunity to take my kids out shopping and let them choose warm hats and gloves for a child their own age. I was feeling happy and satisfied until I later came across a news photo showing a massive mountain of donated clothing dumped off a cargo plane in Pakistan and left to rot in the sun. I realized then that the likelihood of our gift reaching any children in the mountains of Kashmir wasn't good despite everyone's best intentions.

What I didn't understand then was that for our non-monetary donations to reach the intended recipients, volunteers or paid staff are needed on the ground to receive the shipment and catalog it for distribution; the goods then need to be transported to the point of the crisis, and more volunteers or staff are needed to manage the site of distribution. These actions often take place in conflict zones where it's highly dangerous to distribute aid of any kind, and the less efficiently the goods are distributed, the more risk a volunteer or field staffer encounters.

The organization I work for, Mercy-USA for Aid and Development, has implemented a winter clothing and outerwear distribution for children in Aleppo, Syria. When the weather turned cold our field staff saw bare feet, and inadequate clothing on many children, so we quickly sourced a nearby clothing manufacturer who has put together a brand-new set of clothes and outerwear for only $45 per child including a parka, boots, warm socks, sweater, pants, hat and scarf -- in short order.

I did a little online shopping and priced the equivalent items on clearance at two major retailers and realized I'd have to spend $118 per child to duplicate this set, and with the cost to ship it all overseas, I'd need to donate almost $250 to help one child.

Instead of sorting through my children's outgrown clothing with my own hands or shopping the clearance racks for coats, I can go online and make a donation for the same $250 for one child and give pre-packaged, correctly sized, brand-new sets of winter clothes to four children plus five blankets to keep an entire family warm, right now.

Many people are concerned, (and rightly so), that their donations will get swallowed up in unscrupulous administrative practices, but with a simple click here you can check into any charity's rating on Charity Navigator, so you know your money is going where you intend it to go.

If you want to help children and families in Syria, find a charity like Mercy-USA or others who have operations on the ground inside the country. Local field staff are risking their lives in this dangerous war zone to distribute monthly food aid and winter gear clothing for children right now where the need is greatest, and your contribution can go straight to the source of suffering.

When donating to a reputable organization, make sure to join their email list, or "like" their Facebook page so you can stay emotionally connected to your gift through regular updates and newsletters about their projects.