Robin Hood Scene: Blankfein, Soros, Neil Young, Rihanna

Robin Hood Foundation
Guests entered the "Robin Hood Subway" to get to the party. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

The Robin Hood Foundation put George Soros, Steve Cohen, Lloyd Blankfein, Stanley Tucci and about 3,800 other guests on a virtual train ride last night at its annual gala.

The subway-themed event at Manhattan’s sprawling Javits Center featured gigantic projection screens showing New Yorkers going through the turnstiles and waiting on benches for trains.

The price of admission was $3,000. The total raised last night was $57.4 million, including $13 million pledged on electronic devices to Robin Hood and $19 million pledged on the same devices to a new initiative with the X Prize Foundation, which will offer prizes to find solutions to poverty in New York City and beyond.

“We chose the subway as our theme because the subway connects New York City and Robin Hood connects New York City,” said the foundation’s executive director, David Saltzman. “It’s a good way to demonstrate the work we do in different neighborhoods.”

“I rode the New Lots Avenue subway as a kid,” said Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The event badge he wore looked like the MetroCard used to enter the subway system.

R Train

Bill Ackman, founder and chief executive of Pershing Square Capital Management, said he took the R train to the gala.

The event, one of the largest single fundraisers in the U.S., raised $47.4 million last year with a big donation from Soros, and $87.8 million in 2010.

Last year the foundation gave $146 million to more than 200 nonprofits providing job training, shelter, meals, education and health care in New York’s five boroughs.

The subway experience was just one device Robin Hood’s in-house event-planning staff used last night to explain why guests were there and who they were helping.

Photographs of clients of the Children’s Health Fund, Women in Need and other Robin Hood grantees were shot for the gala by commercial photographer Jason Knott.

These visuals competed with a parade of business and media stars who came up to the stage during dinner, among them Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks Corp. and a gala chairman, Robin Hood board chairman Lee Ainslie, who runs Maverick Capital Management LP, and NBC late-night comedians Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers.

Governor, Admiral

Among those at some 400 tables, Paul Tudor Jones, founder of Tudor Investment Corp., sat with Soros. Jones started Robin Hood in his bachelor pad over Chinese take-out 24 years ago.

Cohen, of SAC Capital Advisors LP, sat with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, retired U.S. Navy admiral Michael Mullen and art adviser Sandy Heller. Cohen, the father of a Brown University graduate who became a Marine, is co-head of the foundation’s Veterans Advisory Council.

Neil Young, a surprise performer, came on just as guests dug into grilled cheese and gazpacho. His first song was “Heart of Gold.” After chocolate cake and coffee, Rihanna kicked off with “Only Girl” and kept the crowd bobbing along with “Run This Town” and “Live Your Life.”

Robin Hood serves New York City residents living below the poverty line ($22,314 annually for a family of four in 2010). They number 1.8 million according to Robin Hood, representing one in five New Yorkers. The Census Bureau counted their total number in the U.S. at 46.2 million.

It’s the third-largest donor in the U.S. among community foundations, and No. 30 among all U.S. foundations, based on Foundation Center data.

Doing the Math

Grantees are evaluated on the basis of how much their programs increase the income of people served. Drawing on available research and recipient data, Robin Hood develops mathematical equations to determine the amount of each grant’s income lift.

“We look at dissimilar assets and compare their value,” Saltzman said. “It’s what Bloomberg users do every day.”

Some of the factors Robin Hood considers are what income the person would have been able to earn without the help of the nonprofit, and how the nonprofit would fare without Robin Hood’s support.

For example, a job-training program with a high placement rate for people who would probably have found jobs on their own has lower priority than an organization lifting people who would otherwise have had less opportunity.

On the basis of these measures, Robin Hood says that every $1.15 it grants results in $16 in future revenue for a poor New Yorker.

Robin Hood board members pay for the cost of the gala, so that guests’ money goes directly to grantees. In 2010, the event costs exceeded $8 million according to the organization’s tax return in that year, the most recent available.

The gala is one of the dozens of events the organization plans for its supporters. There are also rock concerts and a “Robin Hood Unplugged” series in which program officers use flip charts to give presentations about grantees.

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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