Every now and then, when I do a small favor for a friend and am thanked, I respond jokingly that "it's the least I can do." That's not quite correct, though. The least I could do would be to do nothing, so at least I've done something!

As a financial writer, I occasionally report on companies doing good in the world. Last year, for example, I discussed the (RED) campaign, whereby companies such as Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), American Express (NYSE: AXP), Motorola (NYSE: MOT), and Gap (NYSE: GPS) were raising millions of dollars to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Since then, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) have joined the campaign. When someone buys a product (such as a (RED) iPod from Apple), the company gives some of its profits to The Global Fund, supporting health and community initiatives in Africa.

I took issue with those who doubted the companies' motivations and complained that they were spending more than they raised. My bottom line was that they still raised awareness of world problems, along with millions of dollars to fight them. But it's true I was focusing only on the corporate side of the transaction.

The consumer side
Recently, I ran across some provocative thoughts about the consumer side of the transaction. Blogger Minnie Davis took issue with this same (RED) campaign:

The Product Red campaign is a good example of this trend. We're made to feel like we're solving world hunger by buying a red iPod. A red iPod nano costs $199. However, the blue one costs $199 also. Why should we feel so great about ourselves? We did nothing charitable; we simply bought something we wanted anyway and perhaps compromised on the color. ... We're being given the sense that every time we buy something, we just did our part to save the world. But if we really look, are we abdicating what is our responsibility -- to truly help others?

What a good point. Let's put aside our assessment of the companies involved and look at ourselves. If much of our giving to the world is through transactions like these, we're not giving very much, and we're not giving very thoughtfully, either.

Give as you invest
A much better way to give is to do so the way you invest, by looking for causes that interest you and whose developments you'd like to follow. Ideally, you'll want to keep up with the organizations' progress, just as you should want to keep up with the progress of companies in which you're invested.

We at The Motley Fool have taken this thinking to heart, and  that's why we've recently decided to focus our fundraising efforts on one crisis facing the world, a crisis that's directly related to our company's mission: financial literacy. I invite you to learn more about our Foolanthropy efforts and how you might participate, if you find yourself so inspired.

Think as you give
Before you give to charity, take a moment to think about how effective the gift will be and how it fits into your overall giving picture. If you're buying a red iPod because a few dollars will find their way to a charity, consider buying whatever color you really want instead and sending a bunch of your own dollars directly to a charity you strongly support. (Or do that and also buy the red iPod -- there's a win-win solution.)

Minnie Davis pointed out another way that we might assess the big picture when engaging in philanthropy: "A Connecticut carwash promotes itself as being 'green' since it installed solar panels on its roof. While this will only meet a small fraction of the car wash's electricity needs, we're told to feel good going there to clean our SUV, even though hundreds of gallons of water mixed with phosphate pollutants from the soap go down the drain."

How true. Just as with (RED) campaign purchases, we'd do well to figure out just how much good a particular action is doing. In the carwash case, we might be better off just washing our car at home, with less water and less soap. (We could save money that way, too.)

Finally, try to focus. I used to give small sums to many, many organizations -- not being too discriminating. I therefore wasn't able to really follow them and, indeed, hadn't even researched them much. (Get tips on researching a charity in this article of mine.) Today my giving is much more focused, mainly on a manageable group of charitable organizations.

Don't do the least you can do -- do more. You'll benefit more lives, including your own.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Microsoft. Dell, Gap, and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Apple, Dell, and Gap are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try our investing services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.