I think one reason people want to help locally, and to do something hands-on rather than just writing a check, is that they want to see the situation first-hand. I can see the appeal of this.
I'm finishing up my visit to Ecuador. I wanted to experience a developing country, and to some extent I have. I've seen kids begging in the streets. I've seen people with deformities that probably would have been corrected in the US. I see how nothing is wasted here. Yesterday my host family curiously asked me if it's true that in America we throw out things that are still good. I confessed that it was.
And yet I'm not sure that this experience has changed my goals or how I think about philanthropy. Yes, it hit me in the gut the first time I saw a child begging on the street at night, when I saw her playing with broken glass for lack of any other toy.
But I pretty already much knew that poverty sucks, and that I want to do something about that. My donations won't go to help that girl, because the best organizations I know of don't work in Ecuador. But they will help other people who had the bad luck to be born with few resources.
Some people are more driven by emotion and first-hand experience than others. If you're one of those people, maybe it would make sense to go see the work you think is important. Charities are very happy to tell you about what they're doing, and if you want to pay your own way, you could probably visit their field sites.
I'm affected by the poverty I see here, and for that matter, by the problems I see at home in Boston. But for every person I see who tugs at my heart, there are millions more I don't see. I feel I owe it to them to give the best help I can. Which means giving based on the best research I can find, not who I happened to see.