By Anna Sekula Posted May 12, 2011, 9:29 AM EDT
The Robin Hood Foundation's benefit has long set the standard for fund-raising events in New York, regularly hauling in eight-figure sums for its community of local programs and consistently looking to shake things up with innovative methods and concepts. This year the gala, held Monday inside the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, put forth a rousing entertainment program that included a full-length concert by Lady Gaga, turned the foundation's namesake into a fully realized superhero that formed a striking decor scheme, and further integrated IML's interactive technology. In addition to raising $47.4 million, Robin Hood awarded a $1 million grant to nonprofit SCO Family of Services, the winner of a contest it hosted in partnership with Lady Gaga.
To handle the design elements of the immense production, foundation managing director of marketing, communications and events Jim Samalis and manager of events Amy Sinclair brought back Peter Crawford of Crawford/Sherman Design.
Much like the projection-covered structures used last year, the look of event was designed to showcase how contributions are used to impact lives of children, families, and individuals, but this year cast the collective of donors as one poverty-fighting, comic book-style superhero. “We really liked the idea of our donors being heroes in the lives of many poor New Yorkers, and while we have Robin Hood as a silhouette in our logo, we'd never actually made Robin Hood a character before,” said Samalis, adding that with help from contacts at DC Comics, the foundation was able to extend the idea into animated graphics and a comic-book-like program. Samalis and his team also created an arrowhead-shaped emblem for the benefit, which was used alongside the tagline, “The forces of good are gathering,” to tease the night's motif in the invitation.
The superhero concept and arrowhead shape played out in a number of ways in the event's decor. The entrance tunnel was triangular this year, leading to a cocktail area where a three-dimensional cutout of the symbol and tagline hung overhead in the center of the space. From this focal point, seven green-colored arrows pointed to different sections of the room, each themed after the seven issues the foundation works within and marked with video screens displaying the corresponding animation. The cartoons not only depicted the Robin Hood superhero character, but also provided facts and figures about the foundation's efforts.
“The important thing was to really empower the individual donor. It may be whimsical, but it's a very poignant thing to tell everyone how important their contribution is,” Crawford explained. Samalis added, “We really like to be on message and not just make it pretty. It's nice when you can merge the visually interesting and the message together.”
The visuals continued in the dining room, where video screens enclosing the space showcased more animated graphics, including superhero versions of the night's presenters. The stage also saw other new components, most notably the addition of a conversation between the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and journalist Tom Brokaw. The discussion, which was live-streamed to the foundation's Facebook page, focused on issues facing veterans and was accompanied by a video appearance from Michelle Obama. For further emphasis, Kid Rock took to the stage to belt out his new song “Care” alongside 300 uniformed military personnel.
Building on the model started in 2009, the event producers once again used IML devices to solicit anonymous donations from the audience during dinner. “It really has increased the participation level of the evening. We've gone from 3 percent participation pre-IML to over 70 percent participation post-IML, which is a huge change,” Samalis said. “What we've also done this year, which we haven't done in prior years, is use IML's technology for check-in.” This year's gala also marked the return of 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.
Following dinner, guests returned to the cocktail area, where the stage was set for Lady Gaga's concert. Robin Hood's partnership with the New York-born singer-songwriter not only included a vote-driven competition that awarded grants to nonprofits providing assistance to disconnected youth, but also a Facebook contest to win tickets to her performance at the gala.
Although the fund-raising total from the evening was lower than last year's haul—a record $87.8 million, bolstered by a gift from billionaire philanthropist George Soros—the sum exceeded the foundation's $30 million goal.