Question: I see lots of adverts saying that the optimum way of fulfilling Matanos Laevyonim is by giving to charities in Israel. Should I give to them instead of my local Tzedaka?
Answer: The halachos of matanos laevyonim are similar to those of tzedaka. While you are allowed to give tzedaka to whomever you wish to, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 71a) writes that one should donate locally before sending money out of town. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 251:3) writes that there is a hierarchy of who takes precedence. One must support one’s poor relatives first, followed by one’s neighbours, then poor people in one’s city and lastly poor people in Eretz Yisrael.The Aruch Hashulchan (YD 251:8) writes that even if the poor people from another city are talmidei chachamim, and the local poor aren’t, one should support the locals first. While the poor in Eretz Yisrael take precedence over those in other places, the Shach (YD 251:6) writes that the local poor come before those of Eretz Yisrael.
While there is a halacha on Purim that one should give to anyone who stretches out his hand, this does not necessarily apply to charity organisations. One certainly isn’t obligated to give money to every written appeal.
As some of these tzedaka organisations have large overheads (including advertising costs, and even sending people to daven at various places as a segula) many feel that it is best to give tzedaka to a local charity, especially when all the money goes directly to tzedaka.
R’ Matisyahu Salomon famously decried the practice of tzedaka organisations promising yeshuos to people in need. Tzedaka should be given out of compassion for the other, and not as a segula or promise that others will daven on their behalf.