12 tips on how to donate; 12 tips on how to fundraise

I run a nonprofit called Big Sunday. The idea behind Big Sunday is that absolutely everyone has some way to help somebody else.
November 21, 2014

I run a nonprofit called Big Sunday. The idea behind Big Sunday is that absolutely everyone has some way to help somebody else. As we like to say, “There are no haves-and-have-nots, just haves-and-have-mores. Everyone has something.” And we can get so much more done when we all work together. So, we connect people and nonprofits in all kinds of ways. I think this is a nice mission, and I believe in it, and it has worked well for us. But as a result, not a day goes by that I don’t ask somebody for something — time, talent, stuff, money or some combination of those. Truly, there is not a soul that I know who I have not asked for something. That includes my wife, my kids, my mother, my friends, my acquaintances, my lawyer, the woman who cuts my hair, the guy who cuts my lawn, my son’s guitar teacher, some guy who was sitting at our table at a wedding last year, another guy who we found sleeping on the sidewalk outside my office, and even an enemy or two.

At the same time, I am an alumnus of various places, I have three kids who have gone to a bunch of different schools, I support numerous charities, I have donated to various political candidates; I am on the board of three different organizations; I worry about everything from climate change to Ebola, I know lots of people who know that they’ve helped my cause, and I’m a soft touch for an underdog story. So, I am often asked to give, too. 

And now, here we are again, in the season of giving. So, it seemed like a good time to share my tales from the trenches, with my rules for better giving — and getting.

If you’re a donor:

Donate from your heart. At the end of the day, we’re just people giving our money to other people. To make it worthwhile — to you — find a cause you care about, be it literacy, hunger, cancer, the environment, or even pot-bellied pigs. Yes, there are organizations for all of them. And, while fighting hunger may seem … loftier … than fighting for pot-bellied pigs, the pigs need someone on their side, too. Pigs may speak to you for some reason, whether for their intelligence, their girth, their sloth, their resemblance to a beloved friend. For all I know, for their very treyfness. The truth is, there are abandoned pot-bellied pigs out there — really, we’ve sent volunteers to help them — and they need to be sheltered and fed (Hey! You’re fighting hunger, after all!), and your donation helps make that happen. It, too, is all good, and nothing to be ashamed of.

Use your head. So, you want to donate to pot-bellied pigs. Great! But first find an agency that you can feel you can trust. There are websites like charitynavigator.org and guidestar.org that can do your vetting for you. If the nonprofit you want to help is local, stop by wherever they do their work or go to one of their events. Also, most nonprofits have websites you can check out. Of course, these days anyone can have a slick website, but there are certain things to look for, such as the agency’s Internal Revenue Service identification number, which allows you to verify their legitimacy. Many nonprofits also post the names of their board of directors; check those out to see if you know anyone on the board. If it’s someone you like and respect, that’s a good sign. 

What’s the mission? Every nonprofit has a mission. It is usually a sentence or two that states clearly what the nonprofit is trying to do. Usually it is posted on the organization’s website. It’s good to read it because a) it shows whether the nonprofit is clear about its goal, and b) it lets you know if that’s something you want to support. I know this sounds pretty basic, but sometimes people can be disappointed by a nonprofit not delivering, even though the expectation was for something it never intended to do in the first place. An example: At one of our volunteer events, we were packing bags full of toiletries for homeless people. One well-intentioned yet slightly overeager volunteer started barking at the other volunteers: “You’ve got to move faster! We’re not here to have a good time!” Actually, we were there to have a good time. Sure, packing the toiletry kits was important, but if someone checked our mission statement, they’d see that bringing people together in the name of helping is a huge part of what we do, too.

Vetting. If you really want to get into it, many nonprofits post their budget online, too. And, if it’s not on their website, it’s still public information. A couple of years ago, I was sending our proposed budget to my board of directors for them to look over to approve. I sent the email late at night and accidentally sent it to the wrong group: Instead of sending it to our board, I accidentally sent it to the executive directors of about 100 of our nonprofit partners. Oops. But I learned a whole bunch of things from this experience. a) If you send an email you didn’t mean to send, and follow it up quickly with an email that says, “Oops! I sent that by mistake. Don’t read” that only encourages people to read it faster. b) Most of my fellow executive directors are nice and hard-working people who are still answering their emails late at night and felt my pain — and are able to read budgets quickly. c) If someone doesn’t want you to see their budget, that’s a problem. One executive director responded to my mistake with an email that read like a condolence note. I told him that it was no big deal. Sure, it was a mistake, but, after all, our budget is public information and, more to the point, I had nothing to hide. We never communicated again, and about a year later, I heard he’d left the agency he was running. (Just sayin’.)

Take the Ice Bucket Challenge. One day last summer, I woke up and innocently checked my Facebook page and was curious to find my friend Gary pouring a bucket of ice water over his head. On the same page, a fellow named Trip, who I hadn’t seen since high school (class of ’77) was pouring a bucket of water on his head. This led me to a video with no less than Ethel Kennedy, standing at the end of a long line of Kennedys, pouring a bucket over her head. This was  amazing for all kinds of reasons, starting with the fact that I didn’t realize that Ethel Kennedy was still alive. But clearly this was something that had touched people’s imaginations — quickly. Soon, everyone from Oprah to Bill Gates was pouring buckets of water on his or her head. And it was wonderful and raised great awareness and more than $100 million to fight ALS, a terrible disease. For many people, it was fun to be part of this phenomenon, and more power to them. And now, I’m sure that half the nonprofits in America are coming up with their own ideas in the hopes they’ll go viral — “The Jell-O Challenge,” “The Pogo Stick Challenge.” For my part, I figured that if Oprah and Bill were onboard, ALS didn’t need me, so I hoped against hope that no one would challenge me to pour ice water on my head (an embarrassing secret, please don’t tell anyone), and I’d give my money elsewhere. But that’s me. The fact is, there was a great lesson in it: Be open to learning about and supporting a new cause. 

Know what you’re giving to. I know, I know, that also sounds pretty basic, but you’d be surprised. There are a lot of organizations whose names sound alike. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “You guys are great! I just love Super Sunday!” I would have as much money as … Super Sunday — which is a terrific event run by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and which has absolutely nothing to do with us. (Note to our friends at Super Sunday: No, we haven’t gotten any of your donations. But if you’ve gotten any of ours, please give me a call! Thanks.)

If you don’t know what you’re giving to, at least follow the lead of someone you trust. Earlier this year, I went to a fundraiser. It was an amazing event, beautifully planned, with hundreds of people, all having a great time. Even better, it netted six figures for an excellent charity. And I will bet you six figures that at least half the people there had no idea what charity they were supporting. The event was put together by a large group of well-connected people who each got all of their friends to come. And the friends clearly took it on faith that if the friend who invited them was behind it enough to do all this hard work, it must be a good cause. And FYI: I am neither complaining about this, nor looking down my nose at these folks. They gave a lot of money for this “good cause,” whatever it may be. And, in truth, they learned a thing or two about that good cause during the evening. Perhaps they’ll get more involved in the years to come. Who knows? Maybe they’re writing another big, fat check right now. Mainly, I am just jealous that it was for that organization and not mine.

If you’re a numbers person, read the fine print. Metrics can be helpful. Yes, absolutely. But, when money gets tight, such as during the recession, people start looking for numbers as proof of something. Anything. And although numbers can be helpful, most numbers can be tweaked, massaged or, for that matter, invented to tell any story. Test scores rise when teachers teach to the test. Recidivism rates fall when the time frame being measured isn’t clear. Sometimes the definition of what is being measured is so complicated that no one really knows exactly what is being talked about. And some important things like happiness or self-esteem are much harder, despite our best efforts, to measure.

If you’re a people person, read the fine print. A tear-jerking story — or video — can be persuasive, too. But make sure there’s some sizzle with the steak. Being a raconteur is a gift, as is making an effective video. Take a few minutes to see what the nonprofit is really doing. How many people are in their programs each year? Is the heartwarming story the exception or the rule? Does the nonprofit have any kind of measurable goals, and have they been met? 

If 100 percent of a charity’s donations are going directly to programming, that is not a good thing. Sure, we all like to think that a charity is maximizing our donation. And the best ones do. But if an organization is run only through volunteers and donations, how is that sustainable? (It’s not.) People who work at nonprofits bring a wide variety of skills and talents and are performing all kinds of necessary jobs, just like those working in the for-profit world, except they do it for a cause. Sometimes, however, donors seem to expect people in the nonprofit world to be saints or nuns. (We’re definitely not, except, of course, for the actual nuns, who are great, but they can speak for themselves.) Aside from the necessary evils of overhead — like rent and insurance — a nonprofit needs to pay its employees to do the hard work that you are supporting. And if you’re supporting it, you should want good employees to do the work so that the job is done well. The first person we ever paid was our Web guy. He was a sweet and sincere guy, and when I offered him a (lousy) stipend, he was insulted; he said he’d helped us out of love. I told him that I wasn’t paying him for his sake, but for mine. We’d been an all-volunteer organization, and it wasn’t working anymore. We were growing fast and were dependent upon our website. Since he was a volunteer, juggling it with a real job, every time I needed something, I was asking him for a favor. It had gotten so that I had to steel myself every time I talked with him. If he became a paid employee, I didn’t have to feel bad telling him I need it Tuesday. And, while people in the nonprofit world know they will not be making nearly as much money as their peers in the for-profit world, they do like to eat and, in fact, deserve halfway decent compensation. That makes for happier people, doing better and more sustainable jobs, and, ultimately, making the most of your generous donations!

Emergencies. When something happens — a tsunami, a hurricane, some devastating event — we all want to help. Usually the newspaper or a search engine has suggestions on where you can donate. Find an organization you’ve heard of. If it’s important to you to directly help the victims of the disaster, make sure your donation is going to that, and not the agency’s general fundraising. Often, new organizations spring up to help local victims. These are almost always started with the best of intentions; however, I’d recommend against them. Starting a nonprofit is challenging under the best of circumstances. Better, I’d say, to not start sending money to a nonprofit that’s trying to get up and running and making a difference all while fighting some kind of disaster.

Feel good. There is no shame in feeling good about the money you are giving away. You’ve worked hard for it, and it’s awfully nice of you to give it away. And that’s true whether it’s $1 or $1 million. You know what makes you feel good about your donation. It could be knowing that one child fewer is going to bed hungry. It could be seeing your name on a plaque on a wall. Maybe it’s a combination. Or maybe it’s something else. Think hard — and honestly — about why you want to give money away. You don’t have to share the reasoning with anyone else. But you should know that any of the reasons are OK because, at the end of the day, it’s your money and you’re using it in a way that is meaningful to you to help someone else and to make the world a better place. And if you get some pleasure out of that, so much the better. After all, if you enjoy giving your money away this time, you’re that much more likely to give it away again — and you’ll help that many more people.

If you’re a fundraiser:

It’s not a donation, it’s an opportunity! I know, it sounds like a line — and yeah, I’ve used it — but  it’s true. When someone makes a donation, they are fighting for a cause. Causes need money, whether to raise awareness, build a building, or create or sustain programs. People can give their money to all kinds of places, whether it’s the American Cancer Society or Bloomingdale’s. When someone gives away their money to a charitable endeavor, in whatever amount, they are doing their part to do what they can to make the world a better place. They can do this in addition to donating their time and their talent, or instead of it. Many donors, large and small, are looking for a way to help. Your job as a fundraiser is not to take their money, but to show them where they can make a difference. 

It’s not an adventure, it’s a job! As I said at the outset, there is no one I’ve met whom I haven’t asked for something. I sometimes worry that I’m the biggest nuisance this side of the Mississippi. I once said to someone, “Sometimes, I worry that when people see me coming, they’re going to cross the street,” to which someone in the room replied — “Too late, David. They already do.” Ah, yes. In any case, when I ask someone for a donation, I do sometimes remind them — between apologies for asking them for yet one more thing — that I am simply doing my job as the executive director of a nonprofit. And I urge development directors to do the same. In fact, even if you’re a volunteer raising money for your house of worship or your child’s school, you’re doing your job. Feel free to remind the person you’re asking that that is what you’re doing, that you take your job seriously, and that you’d be neglecting your responsibilities if you didn’t. They will understand. (And then they have to do their job: Say yes or no.)

Know when to fold ’em. So, you’ve asked someone for a donation. And it went well. They seemed enthusiastic. Excited even. And they needed to think about it. Fine. You followed up with an email. Then another. Then a call. No answer, no response, you got their voicemail. Weeks go by. Now what? Here’s my rule: If it’s someone you have a personal relationship with — a friend, neighbor, person you just know, parent at your child’s school — drop it. They don’t want to give or maybe they can’t swing it now. Whatever. It happens, and it’s probably nothing personal. And they’re probably uncomfortable or embarrassed to just tell you, or they keep meaning to let you know but never quite want to. Just let it go. (And a note to that donor: Just say no. Please. It’s fine. Really! I never — ever! — get upset or annoyed when someone says no. I so get it. But I do get a tad frustrated if you leave me hanging and wasting my time calling and emailing and trying to track you down so I can know where I stand and make a plan.) However, if it’s a corporate ask, and you have made your request to the corporate gatekeeper, keep sending those emails and making those calls. A few years back, I met with a fellow who handles donations for a large corporation. He’s a nice guy. We had a friendly meeting. I gave him my rap. He seemed interested. And I never heard from him again. Not for lack of trying. He just stopped answering my emails. Or taking or returning my calls. Clearly, he doesn’t want to give me money, and that is certainly his prerogative. But at what point was I supposed to figure that out? Besides, isn’t that, um, his job? My job is to ask him for money. I did my job; the least he can do is his. Postscript: I keep emailing the guy. Still. Of course, he’s not going to give me money. I just do it out of spite. (I told you that people who run nonprofits aren’t saints!)

Art, science, common sense and the truth. A few years back, we were hosting a big event at a low-income school. We were cleaning classrooms, painting murals, giving away clothes, bringing in an endangered-animal show, having a picnic and even hosting carnival games. It was a way to fill some needs at the school and, more than that, to get the whole community involved — kids, teachers, parents, neighbors — with a school that was really struggling. It became basically a school fair. If we didn’t do it, no one would. I asked a nice, intelligent, well-to-do woman if she’d underwrite it. She asked me, “Will it raise test scores?” Um, probably not. I was sorry to have to break this news to her. (Heck, I wanted the donation!) But I did. Yet, I said, it would fill some important needs (in addition to things like the clothes being given away, the school would look much better when we were done; among other things, it had virtually no custodial service) while building community. For many parents, it was the first time they’d have the opportunity to help out at their kids’ school while being welcomed in a friendly and non-threatening way. There is, I believe, great value in this. My donor agreed and wrote me a generous check. She’d been, I think, so nervous about asking the “right question” that she asked the wrong one. Then again, she gave me an opportunity. I was able to tell her what was unique about our program and what we were trying to do. She’d go for it or not. The fact is, I think asking for money — and donating — is an art, not a science. And your best bet is to present the big picture, answer any and all questions, and always tell the truth.

Naming opportunities, giving anonymously and everything in between. I know, I know — some people consider anonymous giving the highest form of charity. And I applaud people who do. Plus, I understand that there are all sorts of reasons for it — whether it’s a religious ideal or just the hope that they can buy themselves a few more minutes of peace and quiet from people like me who will see how much they’ve given some other organization and come around asking for some for mine. (Apologies, belatedly and in advance.) Some people might worry that they or their children will be preyed upon. All good reasons. On the other hand, when a nonprofit is able to publicize someone’s support — whether on the side of a building or on a list of donors — it tells the world that that person (whether an individual, a corporation or a foundation) believes in this nonprofit and is supporting it. They have become a seal of approval. Not too shabby. Actually, quite flattering. And if you are on your toes, you can leverage that donation and turn it into more money to help support the important cause you are working hard to help. Tell the donor. They will be pleased not only that their gift will be paid forward, but that they are donating to an organization that is thinking ahead. However, if they choose to remain anonymous, absolutely, positively honor that. 

Tchotchkes. Ah, yes. The tchotchke question. Some donors like an acknowledgement of their gift, whether it’s a Plexiglas knick-knack or a canvas tote bag. Others take umbrage at the idea that their donation could in any way go to pay for a tchotchke, rather than fulfilling the mission of the organization. It’s a dilemma for the nonprofit, which is trying to please all its donors. (Trust me.) My suggestion: Compromise with what my grandmother would call “a little something” — a plaque, a certificate, a mug, a T-shirt. (No one gets out of my office without a T-shirt. Aside from everything else, it’s great advertising for us, plus the year’s major sponsors’ names are on the back.) Further, let people know how little you spent on these things, and remind them, like I just did, that it’s a great way to get your name out there. For that matter, let them in on the trade secret of this dilemma. Ask them what they think you should do. They’ll feel your pain. Finally, use it as an opportunity to once again sincerely tell your donor how much you appreciate their support, how you couldn’t do what you’re doing without their help, and fill them in on what’s really important: your organization’s latest accomplishments and the fulfillment of your goals. Full disclosure: I don’t like tchotchkes and usually give them out only because I sometimes feel I have to. Fuller disclosure: Last year I went to a fundraiser and grumbled irritably about the gift bag they handed me as I left and what a waste it was. Until I opened the gift bag and discovered all this great stuff inside. Delicious chocolates, a nice book, a bottle of wine. All in a reusable tote bag! It was fantastic! Plus, the stuff was probably all donated! Next time that nonprofit has a fundraiser, I’m in!

Celebrities. Yeah, yeah. I like celebrities as much as the next guy. And for sure, many celebrities have done wonderful things for all kinds of causes — Elizabeth Taylor and AIDS, Princess Diana fighting landmines, Brad Pitt building houses in New Orleans. Celebrities can bring attention to a cause, and, of course, money, too. But don’t be blinded by a celebrity just because they’re a celebrity. Or worse, someone in the role of a “celebrity.” I was once at a fundraiser that honored a “celebrity.” I know from celebrities, and honest to God, I don’t know who this woman was or how many other celebrities the group had approached before they got to her. Anyway, one thing I do know is that she was — how can I say this nicely? — an idiot. It was for a group that helped runaway teens, and when this “celebrity” got up to accept her award — she had no trouble with tchotchkes — she admitted that she knew almost nothing about the organization (two points for honesty, I guess) and told some story about how she was once supposed to go to a party to help these teens but got called out of town for a photo shoot and felt really, really bad. That’s it. Oy. In truth, her presence was belittling to the nonprofit, its clients and the people there to support it. Everyone’s time would have been better spent learning more about the nonprofit and what we can do to help. Sure, every group wants Angelina Jolie or George Clooney. But they’re not always available. So, rather than go way down the food chain, have faith in your organization, your cause and your supporters, and let your story and your hard work speak for itself. 

The touch and the table. You’ve gotta know who you are and what you’re comfortable with. For instance, someone once told me that there’s a rule that you’re supposed to have a certain number of “touches” — meaning the number of times you see a potential donor — before you ask him or her for a donation. You take ’em out to lunch, or give ’em call, or show ’em what a great guy you are. Then you hit ’em up. Hmm. To me, in that world, everyone is a mark, and your relationship to the world becomes one of manipulating someone to get something out of them. It might be a good way to raise money, but I think it’s a rotten way to live, so I don’t do it. Similarly, I’m willing to “leave money on the table.” I know I shouldn’t, and please don’t tell anyone. And yes, some people don’t leave anything behind, and more power to them. Truly, I admire them. Envy them, even. But it’s just not my style. Anytime I try, I fail miserably. Besides, the way I figure, presumably that table’s still going to be there next year, and if I leave the donor feeling good, he or she will be more likely to have me back to it. Here’s the thing: Know the methods that work for you — and the ones that don’t. 

A special word about big donors. A while back, I was introduced to a potential big donor. I suspected she was a potential big donor, and then I pulled up to her house. Then I knew she was a potential big donor. She’s a lovely person, and after she heard my shpiel, she said, “So, what are you going to ask me for?” To which I replied, “I don’t know. I just met you. What are you interested in?” You see, I didn’t want to just ask her for money. I wanted to ask her to support something she was invested in. This wasn’t just to get as much money as I could out of her. It was because I liked her. She’d invited me into her house and spent time with me; the least I could do is take the time to figure out what she’d like in return. So, she told me what she cared about, and a week or two later, I proposed a program to address that interest. She said yes, and that program has gone on to be one of the most popular and successful things we do. It was a terrific situation, because it was a program we’d wanted to do for a while, but the funding hadn’t been available. These days, many people say they want to “start a nonprofit” when what they really want to do is start a program at a nonprofit. I, like many nonprofit executives, am always open to new ideas and suggestions. Most nonprofits are. And, if you meet someone who has the means, you should take the opportunity to try to bring a big idea to life. For sure, we would never take on a project that does not fit our mission, and we would recommend against any nonprofit that would. But a good  nonprofit can use its know-how to take a donor’s good idea, come up with a plan, maximize it and do the heavy lifting to help make the donor’s vision a reality. Working with big donors in this way, you can give each other a big bang for their buck. 

A special word about small donors. We all know that small donors can make a huge difference. The Obama presidential campaigns were certainly game-changers in this regard, but now there are all kinds of crowdfunding resources (just Google “crowdfunding”) that can help you raise a lot of money for many good causes. (Note: Some of these are nonprofits; some are for-profit.) These can be especially beneficial for organizations that target a younger demographic and/or have a quick, compelling story to tell (everything from victims of a natural disaster to Karen the bullied bus driver, just check YouTube — you’ll give, trust me). Always remember that some person’s $5 is someone else’s $5,000. Money may be a significant factor in these people’s lives — after all, they may not have a ton of it whether because they’re starting out, don’t have much to spare or are on a fixed income — and their decision to support you is quite meaningful and flattering. Plus, of course, you never know who is taking your nonprofit for a test drive, who knows who, and which of today’s small donors will be tomorrow’s internet billionaire. Besides, many small donors can help your nonprofit in all kinds of other ways, too.

Urge people to see your work in action. I’m always trying to get our donors to see their donation in action. Oh, I don’t care if they’re out there painting or cleaning or breaking a sweat. I’m proud of what we do, and I just think that their donation will resonate more for them if they can see the payoff. I think most nonprofit leaders feel the same. I’ve even told donors, “Don’t come. Just do a drive-by and see what you’ve helped create. No one even has to see you!” The fact is, for many people, writing the check is enough. And if it’s enough for them, it’s enough for me. Then again, if I have pictures, or a video, or some testimonials, I’ll take the liberty of sending them along with an extra word of thanks.

What’s the dream? Earlier, we talked about mission. That is the goal of the nonprofit. But what’s the dream? Where does the nonprofit want to be in a year, or two years, or 10 years? This is a big-picture question. A nonprofit is on a path, and any donation, large or small, is going to help it get there. (OK, a large donation may help it get there faster.) And, for sure, the dream should be in service to the mission. But if anything were possible, what would you want? To provide permanent housing for 50,000 people? To replicate your nonprofit’s model in 10 different cities? To cure an awful disease? It’s exciting for people to buy into a dream and to help make it come true. Make sure, though, that the dream — no matter how extravagant — has some way to get there. For instance, if you’re running an afterschool program and the dream is to create a college scholarship program for five kids in five years, after you ask someone to write a check, they might ask you: How will you make this happen? A good answer: “It will cost about a quarter of a million dollars. I think I can get the first $100,000 from three different donors. I have a list of 20 more people, where I’m hoping to get $5,000 to $10,000 apiece, and here are six foundations that support this. We’ll need to start that process now. If we start a small annual fundraiser, that should help make up the difference. I’d love to do it in four years, but realistically we’re looking at five.” Great. You know what you need, and what it’ll take to get there. A bad answer: “This is so important to me, and the kids need it so badly. Yesterday, this boy was in my office crying because he wanted so badly to go to college. And I am not going to rest until he does!” Impressive and moving, for sure. And it would be great to sit near you at a dinner party. But you’re not necessarily someone I’d want to write a big check to.

One last thing: Whether you’re donating or fundraising, keep your eyes on the prize. Remember, this isn’t about money; it’s about fighting for a cause. Curing cancer. Fighting hunger. Finding a home for a pot-bellied pig. Whoever you are, whatever you do, however much money you have or don’t have, there is some way that you can help somebody else.

Thank you for reading this far. And thank you for being someone looking to share their wealth to make the world that much better.

David T. Levinson is the founder and executive director of Big Sunday (bigsunday.org) and the author of “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins: How Absolutely Anyone Can Pitch in, Help Out, Give Back and Make the World a Better Place.” He is also a philanthropy adviser.

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