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The Green Team

Twelve years ago, a trio of Wall Street upstarts founded the anti-establishment Robin Hood Foundation. So how did a guerrilla charity benefit become the hottest ticket in town?

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Sure, there are more exclusive events -- a quiet dinner for six at Brooke Astor's, perhaps, or an evening of restaurant-hopping on the Upper East Side with Rudy and Judi. But by the heightened criteria that tend to matter most to New Yorkers these days -- wall-to-wall glamour, enough boldface names to make "Page Six" kvell, and a wealth index somewhere around the gross national product of Denmark -- this has got to be the most prestigious party you can buy your way into, either by writing a (gulp!) $2,000-a-plate check or, more to the point, by paying $10,000 per couple to guarantee you won't be seated in Siberia.

Eat your heart out, trustees of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute Ball: You've been eclipsed. With a star-studded benefit committee that includes Gwyneth Paltrow and Lachlan Murdoch plus entertainment by the Who, this Tuesday's extravaganza at the Javits Center won't be matched by any other charity evening anytime soon. The event will raise more than $8 million (a city record for a single charity event) to benefit the quaintly named Robin Hood Foundation. As Robin Williams, the evening's emcee, put it: "It's going to be better than a bar mitzvah at Barbra Streisand's."

Started as something of a lark by three rich young Wall Street traders in 1988, the Robin Hood Foundation has become known as New York's most innovative backer of eclectic good works, financing gritty neighborhood programs to aid the defeated and desperately needy. Where other high-octane charities benefit such upmarket causes as the opera, the ballet, and the Met's fashion collection, Robin Hood actually lives up to its namesake's slogan of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. (Or in this case, persuading the rich to invest in the poor.)

"What appealed to me was the guerrilla nature of it," says Jann Wenner. "They were going to find the outlaws, the heroes, the people who made a difference."

Paul Tudor Jones, a Memphis-born commodities trader who now manages $5 billion in assets, launched the charity with the notion of applying a stock-picker's mentality to backing poverty programs. "We thought part of our job should be to provide seed capital to someone with a good idea," says Jones, now 45, who recruited fellow traders Glenn Dubin and Peter Borish to his cause. "We wanted to make sure we didn't just do the safe grants; we wanted to try to find the Microsofts of the philanthropy world."

What Robin Hood has become known for -- whether it's a Harlem soup kitchen, a Sunset Park job-training program, or a Bronx counseling effort to prevent child abuse -- is an activist approach that goes well beyond merely writing large checks. Led by executive director David Saltzman, the foundation's twenty-person staff (Ivy League grads, M.B.A.'s, lawyers, inner-city activists) gets directly involved in the daily operations of the help-the-poor groups it funds. This year, it is providing more than $18 million to 100 programs, and in return for their investment, the foundation demands results, cutting off funding if programs don't deliver on their promises. Christine Letts, executive director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard, says, "I think Robin Hood is one of the best models of venture philanthropy. No one else does the package of things they do."

Over the past decade, venture philanthropy has become the buzz phrase among newly rich guilt-edged entrepreneurs eager to prove their smarts in yet another challenging arena. Elbowing their way into territory long defined by heavyweights like the Ford Foundation, members of this charity-minded younger generation have rejected the idea of long-term studies and blue-ribbon commissions -- they want to make a difference in the blink of a nasdaq trade. Recent convert Bill Gates may now throw hundreds of millions of dollars at poverty and illness, but the Robin Hood gang helped invent this new form of fast-action, quick-results charitable giving.

Of course, it didn't hurt that Robin Hood, in its earliest days, became known as one of the late John Kennedy Jr.'s favorite charities. By joining the Robin Hood board in 1991, he gave this do-good venture fund an aura of glamour that helped turn the annual June gala into the hottest ticket on the charity circuit; when he died last summer, the foundation received an outpouring of sympathy donations.

But the rest of Robin Hood's board members are hardly unknowns; in fact, it would be hard to find a better-connected group in town. "I don't personally have a clue about the social stuff; I don't understand it," says Kenneth Langone, the founder of Home Depot and, at 64, the oldest member of the mostly thirty- and fortysomething Robin Hood board. Yet he admits, sounding slightly amused, that "this has become the board to be on." Indeed, the nineteen-member board resembles a movie-screening A-list, including AOL guru Bob Pittman, John Sykes of VH1, former Soros Fund honcho Stanley Druckenmiller, Marie-Josée Kravis, and this year's new members Diane Sawyer, Harvey Weinstein, Lachlan Murdoch, and Universal Music chairman Doug Morris.

The Wall Street contingent freely admit that they've wooed the latest celebrities to add fund-raising pizzazz. "The truth is, I'm not that interesting, Paul's not that interesting, Stan's not that interesting," says Peter Kiernan III, the board's current chairman and a managing director at Goldman Sachs. "Last year, we had a benefit that raised $6.5 million, more than any other one-night event in the city. John Kennedy packed them in. If we can get that number to $10 million by bringing Harvey and Diane in, I'm game."

One reason the Robin Hood foundation has placed such importance on this week's Javits jamboree is that until recently, the wealthy board members, so used to being hit up for large sums of cash by others, found it socially uncomfortable to do so themselves. "The reason Robin Hood hasn't done better on donations is that we don't like to ask people for money," confesses Stanley Druckenmiller. "I'm terrible about it." Another board member jokes, "We have ask-itis. This stuff you'd think we'd be aces at, it's not our long suit."

Yet as Robin Hood's Q rating ratchets up, the foundation's top players are not unaware of the dangers of drifting deeper into Tom Wolfe territory -- the ironies of Park Avenue's stepping out to aid Bed-Stuy, and swells' donning designer duds to dine on Glorious Food's canapés while thinking uplifting thoughts about the downtrodden. ("I can't wait until the Who sings 'Street Fighting Man' for this crowd," riffs Williams, mangling the authorship of the Rolling Stones classic.) There's something jarring about an event in which Ron Perelman once forked over $100,000 for a hockey lesson from Wayne Gretzky (ice skates not included), with the cash going to programs that aid ex-cons and AIDS babies.


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