Robin Hood Foundation Embraces the Web to Feed NYC's Hungry

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Rachel Sterne, GroundReport CEO

Want to give back this Thanksgiving, but can't make it to a soup kitchen?

A fascinating experiment in digital philanthropy is brewing in the headquarters of the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York City charity that has raised more than $1 billion for poverty-focused nonprofits.

Over the past two months, a skunkworks team of young internet influencers has met, brainstormed, emailed and twittered -- all in the pursuit of feeding more than 100,000 of the city's hungry.

The challenge? Convince 15,000 people to donate $50 online, providing a holiday meal to 8 people. Contributions are processed by delivery grocer FreshDirect, and the campaign spans Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.

Why would Robin Hood, which historically brings in gargantuan donations from the city's financial elite, try such a grassroots approach?

The Robin Hood Foundation is not your typical New York City charity. First, it's relatively young for its size, founded in 1988. Its board is comprised not of descendants of the country's oil and railroad magnates, but of self-made hedge fund managers and media moguls. Above all, it breaks tradition with an approach that's closer to an investment firm than a homeless shelter.

A pioneer in 'venture philanthropy,' a charity model that embraces free-market forces, the foundation looks at the nonprofits it funds as investments, emphasizes accountability, and regularly measures ROI. To those in the internet industry, it might resemble Y Combinator, a successful venture firm that incubates promising startups by providing advice and network connections.

What's more, it's working, with a record fundraising bounty of $72.7 million in one night at the 2009 spring gala. 100 percent of that will go directly to charities, because Robin Hood's board members cover all administrative costs.

So why rock the boat? It's their free-market approach to evolving charity that has led to Robin Hood's success, and they're looking to evolve further. [Disclosure: I am part of the digital outreach team].

Mark Bezos, Robin Hood's SVP of Development and Communications, said that now the organization is asking, "How does a model like ours, that is very labor-intensive and customized, exist in a world?"

He admitted that the "brave new world" of web-based philanthropy is "all very new to us." By looking to the group, which includes Rachel Sklar of Mediaite, Soraya Darabi of The New York Times, and Serena Torrey from New York Magazine, Bezos said, "we're trying to crowdsource an answer."

The bottom line, according to Bezos? The Robin Hood Foundation is "trying recruit more foot soldiers in the fight against poverty." So far, efforts have raised over $360,000, providing almost 58,000 meals--not bad for a web foray, but still a long way off from the 120,000-meal goal.

Want to help? $50 can feed 8 New Yorkers in need this winter through a donation to the Robin Hood Foundation via FreshDirect.

Learn more about the campaign here. 100% of all donations will go directly to local charitable organizations.