Credited as a pioneer in venture philanthropy for its technique and approach, the Robin Hood Foundation has long set the standard for fund-raising events in New York. The nonprofit’s yearly gathering, a big draw for Wall Streeters and famous names alike, earned a blockbuster reputation for regularly hauling in eight-figure sums, building large, eye-catching design elements, and seeking new methods to engage guests. Big-name performers and high-profile M.C.s are another hallmark and have included Elton John, James Brown, the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Jon Stewart, and Billy Crystal.
Since its first run at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center—the only local venue capable of hosting a dinner for 3,000 or so people—in 2000 with design duo Avi Adler and David Stark, the benefit has put forth strikingly large installations that not only completely transform the vast exhibition hall, but also manage to create a somewhat intimate atmosphere. And while the team has changed—Adler and Stark parted ways in 2006, leaving Stark to oversee design until 2010, and event director Laurie Fabiano left her position in 2008—the overriding concept has never veered off course.
However, the always-eye-popping design has moved away from the merely impressive toward more message-focused visuals. In 2006 that meant enormous chalk drawings of New York City landmarks, iconic scenes, and the names and likenesses of the foundation’s board members. The theatrical set depicted Robin Hood’s city-centric mission, as well as the night’s efforts to raise funds for a 1,500-student charter school.
Perhaps the best example of the gala’s purpose-driven decor was the 2008 iteration, where Stark created elaborate structures from donated office supplies, clothing, and food. Symbolic of the areas the nonprofit helps, the oversize objects included a giant pencil, a shelter, and the city skyline. Following the event, the sculptures were broken down and the supplies sent to the organization’s community of local programs and charity partners. That year the gala raised $56.5 million, a sum that doesn’t include an estimated $1 million worth of decor items donated to construct Stark’s sculptures.
In addition to consistent messaging, the organization is also known for its fund-raising ability, with an approach that started with celebrity-fueled live auctions and now includes the use of handheld electronic devices. Auction lots that set off bouts of enthusiastic bidding have included chances to go nightclubbing with Gwyneth Paltrow, make sushi with Nobu Matsuhisa, have lunch and take a seaplane ride with Jimmy Buffett, and play golf with then-President Bill Clinton.
In 2009, the foundation made a bold change, swapping out its ostentatious auction lots for a call for anonymous donations—during a brief moment of recession-induced cultural austerity—allowing guests to donate as much or as little as they wanted through IML’s audience-response devices without letting their friends know. The risky move paid off: The event raised a record-setting $72.6 million. And while the anonymous donations have remained, this year the gala brought back the auction, which included a surprise appearance from Fergie and Apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas, who offered a daylong studio session with bandmate Will.i.am.