Stripped-Down Robin Hood Benefit Raises a Record $72 Million

Images from the Robin Hood Foundation's new ad campaign served as the focus of the nonprofit's annual benefit, which raised a record $72.6 million for poverty-fighting programs across the city.

By Anna Sekula May 14, 2009, 8:00 AM EDT

Robin Hood's bull's-eye-focused benefit

Photo: Roger Dong for BizBash

Robin Hood Foundation Benefit
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British philosopher Joseph Priestly once said, “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” In that spirit, the Robin Hood Foundation used its annual gala Tuesday night to debut its new ad campaign and convey its mission with clear and unembellished visuals—at least compared to years past. The blockbuster benefit, which has become known for its sizable guest list, bevy of big-name performers and donors, and multimillion-dollar fund-raising ability, returned to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with more than 3,000 guests, host Jon Stewart, and musical entertainment from Aretha Franklin and the Black Eyed Peas.

“We wanted to make sure that nobody lost the message. To strip it down even more to our core values, so that nobody can walk out of here without a clear understanding of what we do,” said Mark Bezos, the nonprofit's senior vice president for development and communications. Charged with that simple premise, Robin Hood's event team worked closely with David Stark Design & Production and Atomic Design to put images from the campaign front and center and accent them with bull's-eyes and arrows.

Jim Samalis, Robin Hood's managing director of events, and Amy Sinclair, manager of events, headed up the internal team for the first iteration of the gala in 10 years without the guidance of Laurie Fabiano, Robin Hood's former director of communications, marketing, and events, who left the organization at the end of last year.

Visual elements from the ad campaign dominated the blue- and yellow-hued entrance and cocktail area. A circular tunnel emblazoned with a target led to a room where enormous billboards hung from the ceiling and a giant yellow arrow-shaped carpet ran down the center. In addition to the overhead posters that revealed slogans from the campaign, including “Robin Hood Feeds,” “Robin Hood Shelters,” and “Robin Hood Heals,” more messages cloaked the façade of the 160-foot-long bar and freestanding signs scattered throughout the space.

For more subtle communication in the dining room, Stark crafted small centerpieces of building-shaped cutouts—a miniature city skyline, if you will—each printed with facts and figures about the foundation and statistics on the homeless and hungry. The small tabletop structures also served as a tidy way to store audience-response equipment from IML.

“This is not the year to be superfluous,” said Stark of the uncluttered aesthetic. He also acknowledged the need to be sensitive to the economic downturn. “There's a lot of power in restraint—just because you can, doesn't mean you need to or should.”

The simplicity of the design also extended into the format for the evening. The layout for the dinner and presentation, which previously included a stage for speakers in the center of the vast space and another at one end of the room for each year's big-name performers, was pared back to one proscenium stage, a formation that Stewart's company, Busboy Productions, helped develop. And the live auction of celebrity- and status-focused experiences (yoga with Madonna was offered one year) was replaced by a call for anonymous donations. In a time when overt displays of wealth are considered gauche, attendees used handheld devices from IML to contribute while escaping scrutiny of how much—or how little—they were able to give.

To round out a night of modest details, the menu from Glorious Food was a suitably traditional, but not lavish spread. Guests including Oprah Winfrey and Governor David Paterson noshed on grilled marinated shrimp with white beans and cabbage, chicken a la Milanese, baby arugula with yellow and red grape tomatoes, and roasted new potatoes.

Whether or not the shift in look and format had a direct impact on donations, the Robin Hood Foundation raised $72.6 million, trumping its previous record $71.2 miilion take in 2007 and bouncing back from last year's dip to $56.5 million.

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