The Robin Hood benefit is back

Robin Hood’s 2019 benefit, “Robin Hood to the Power of You.”
Robin Hood’s 2019 benefit, “Robin Hood to the Power of You.”
Mary Power/Robin Hood
Robin Hood’s 2019 benefit, “Robin Hood to the Power of You.”

The Robin Hood benefit is back

Sheila Kelly, the chief advancement officer at Robin Hood, spoke to NYN Media about the return of the in-person gala and what it hopes to achieve.
October 18, 2021

Robin Hood’s annual benefit, which raises money to fight poverty, will take place in person, once again, this Wednesday after going on a COVID-19 pandemic-induced hiatus.

The event, much like the Met Gala, will be star-studded, hosted by Cecily Strong and featuring performances by Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and the Jonas Brothers. This year, the event will also fall on the 20-year anniversary of the foundation’s Concert for New York City that aimed to help New Yorkers following the 9/11 attacks and raised over $35 million.

While the benefit will resemble those that the foundation has thrown in the past, both its set up and goals have been altered due to the past 18 months. The guest list will be downsized from its usual 3,000 to 3,500 people to around 2,400, and the money raised during the event will be used to benefit nonprofits that aim to help rebuild New York City as it slowly bounces back from the worst of the pandemic. In 2017, the Robin Hood benefit raised $54.5 million, which goes to show its fundraising capabilities.

Sheila Kelly, the chief advancement officer at Robin Hood, spoke to NYN Media about how it prepared for the event amid the ongoing public health crisis, its new focus and how it decides on which nonprofits to provide funding to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has preparing for this gala been as New York City continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

We have our in-person benefit at Robin Hood every May and we knew that this past May was not possible and we felt like trying to do another large scale virtual event was just not in the best interest of Robin Hood or in the best interest of our fundraising goals. So we decided to move the benefit to the fall, which is packed with other events, but we thought that that was our best shot at being able to gather in person. So that was our first decision. Then after that, we really decided to look at all the facts around us, knowing that safety and our responsibility to our guests and our donors was paramount. 

So we started (preparing for the gala) by polling our board members and some of our largest donors (to see how they felt about holding an in-person event). We had a really good monitoring process for other large scale events around the city like the Met Gala, and others. In addition, we hired COVID-19 experts that have also advised other large in-person events like the U.S. Open to help us come up with a plan. All of that input is what helped us decide that we would be able to have an in-person benefit, where we could ensure safety for our guests and also try to raise as much money as possible to help the people in New York who are still hurting from the pandemic.

You mentioned Robin Hood not wanting to throw another large-scale virtual event. I’m curious as to how you realized that a virtual event might not be optimal.

We had done a virtual event last May and then we followed it up with another one in December, and we got feedback that there was a significant drop off in terms of engagement and people tuning in. We also looked at our donor base – and I think that’s really what everyone needs to do because it's really about your supporters and what they're comfortable with – and we got the sense that many were comfortable gathering in-person. We also saw how other events and other venues are doing things differently. What we decided to do was lower our capacity, usually we have over 3,000 people at Javits (Center), sometimes as high as 3500. We are going to probably cap out this year at around 2,400. So we lowered our capacity and we also required proof of full vaccination. You have to be at least two weeks out, after your second dose or two weeks after the J&J single dose. We also have a mask mandate, so if you are not actively eating or drinking within the event, you will be required to wear a mask. The combination of those three measures made us feel comfortable about moving forward with an in-person event.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the foundation's goals and agenda?

It has impacted it tremendously. Robin Hood has been fighting poverty in New York City for over 33 years and we know that those living in poverty were the hardest hit by COVID-19. While other facets of New York are starting to come back, the most vulnerable among us are still really suffering. Everything that we've done in the last 18 months has been about making sure that we're taking care of the New Yorkers in the greatest need.

We had a very significant relief effort that went through the beginning of this year and now our entire strategy is focused on the recovery of New York City and New York City's comeback. Some of the tent polls that we're really focused on are our education, health and the workforce. So everything we're doing right now is focused on getting New Yorkers back to work: job training and placing workers in high quality job sectors, getting families back on track, getting them back on their feet, making sure that they have access to basic needs, like food and shelter, if that is still an issue. And also getting kids back on track because that has been a significant loss this year. So we're really focused on investing in targeted education programs and making sure that we're supporting organizations that are focused on students’ social and emotional needs. What Robin Hood does in terms of focusing on poverty has not changed but we're really doubling down to make sure that we are focused on helping New York City recover.

I know that this benefit raises a ton of money and then that money gets distributed to other nonprofits and organizations. How does the foundation assess which organizations and causes are most important to fund?

I think, from our program staff perspective, our approach to how we go about grant making has not changed. If anything, it just has become more reliant on data. Robin Hood leverages the data within our poverty tracker – we've been publishing a poverty tracker since 2012, and we do that in conjunction with Columbia University – and it really helps us understand the ins and outs of poverty and disadvantage in New York City, and provides insight on where we really need to be leaning in. Robin Hood is known for its metrics-based approach to grantmaking and that is exactly what we are still very focused on. So we're able to monitor the investments that we're making, if they are working, we'll continue to invest, if it's not working, then we will shift and pivot to try something else. 

We're lucky in that we are able to move quickly and efficiently within Robin Hood. As soon as those dollars are raised, they are deployed in a very rapid manner, so all of that money that we raise gets put right to work.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is the editor of NYN Media.