Last Tuesday marked the annual Robin Hood Foundation Gala. And I, by some mysterious twist of fate, got invited. If you're not familiar, Robin Hood is a New York-based charity of which 100% of their proceeds go to their causes. A star-studded Board of Directors, which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, covers all overhead - including the salaries of those employed by the foundation.
The foundation's annual dinner is the gold standard of fund-raising. Last year's event raised $72 million in one night. Oh, and Aerosmith (have you heard of them?) performed. Needless to say, and rightly so, I was excited. 3700 of Manhattan's fiscal elite filled an absolutely mind-bogglingly designed space at the Javitts Center. Arriving alone (my inviters canceled, but graciously left me a seat at their table), I was utterly overwhelmed. Besides the veritable sea of suits (males outnumbered females at least 2:1), there was an entrance tunnel covered with the smiling faces of those helped by Robin Hood's cause, which opened into a tornado-shaped tower of 3000 Nike-donated sneakers.
A waiter quickly handed me a flute-shaped glass of vodka and elderflower that was clearly poured with a banker's tolerance in mind, and off I went to mingle. Miraculously, I managed to find several faces in the crowd that I knew - and before I knew it, servers were circling the space with large, old-fashioned alarm clocks on trays. It was time for dinner.
Dinner was a rushed and relatively mediocre affair because, well, dinner is not the point. The point here is money and how they can possibly raise the most of it. Conan O'Brien took the stage and did remarkably well with an admittedly tough crowd. When an Eliot Spitzer / Time Warner Cable joke panned, he pointed out that the punchline hinged on the frustration of waiting on a cable appointment, something that clearly the majority of those in the room never had to do.
With five luxury auction packages - including a walk-on roll in NBC's The Office and a private concert by the Jonas Brothers - going for $400,000 and up, the bar was set high, so when Tom Brokaw took the stage (after a short and painfully poignant video imploring the need for donations - which, unfortunately, was interrupted by American Idol winner David Cook getting accosted by guests for photographs) and explained that donations of $1 million entitled the donor to a gold brick in every building built, it was awe-inspiring to see thirteen glowstick auction-paddles shoot in the air. That's $13 million dollars in under two minutes. I have never in my life seen anything like it (though I'm not sure when I would have expected to). Those thirteen glowsticks were followed by another 24 when the bid was lowered to $250,000 and a silver brick in every building.
It's a strange event to witness and the working-class cynic in me wanted to find something wrong with this. I wanted, perhaps, to find it a self-congratulatory, testosterone-fueled, "We. Are. The. American. Dream."-speech-filled evening (of which, to be fair, there was one), but I couldn't. To witness such astounding amounts of money pledged within minutes, nay, seconds, is without any doubt in my mind, absolutely, utterly, and undeniably inspiring.
Over the course of the 4-hour evening, $56.5 million was raised. Sheryl Crow stopped by for a suprise rendition of "Lean On Me" with a fantastically talented middle-school orchestra from the Bronx. Shakira closed the night with an hour-long concert that included John Legend, Wyclef Jean, and more hip wiggles than high-school hula hoop contest.
And while 56.5 million is a laudable amount, the best and most important thing that the Robin Hood Foundation raised that night was my spirits. There's a lot of good in this world - in us, in our actions, and in the bank accounts of billionaires.