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.
This incongruity has not gone unnoticed by board members, who are thrilled by the financial windfall but sheepish about giving a party regularly anointed by the New York Times’ “Evening Hours” column as one of the city’s most memorable galas. “I have mixed feelings,” says board member Peter Borish, one of Robin Hood’s founders, who runs his own money-management firm, the Computer Trading Corporation. “The prices are high, which keeps people out that you want to go. Here we are, giving the most lavish benefit to help people who have a lot going against them. It’s ironic – and it’s New York. And Robin Hood is New York.” Another board member described the bidding frenzy at last year’s gala as Bob Pittman and Gwyneth Paltrow auctioned off weekends in Hollywood and walk-on movie roles. “To me, it’s a big disconnect. But we can’t not do it. It raises an enormous amount of money, and we think of all the good we can do with this money.”
You can see what he’s talking about the moment you walk into the forbidding concrete building that houses the Harlem Middle School, a private academy for low-income kids on a not-yet-gentrified block of 103rd Street. It’s filled with high-spirited, hard-studying kids, who virtually all qualify for free government-lunch subsidies because their family income is below the poverty line. Seventh-grader Erika Perez, 11, chatters excitedly about the small class size (13, versus 40 in her previous public school) and the fellow students who’ve won scholarships to elite high schools like Miss Porter’s. “The teachers are really hard on us, because they want us to get into good schools,” says Perez, who gets up at 5:45 a.m. to commute from her Bronx home, and whose single mother works nights.
Founders Hans Hageman, a Princeton-educated lawyer, and his brother Ivan, a Harvard-educated teacher, were turned down all over town for grant money when they decided seven years ago to start the school in a former drug-rehab clinic that had been run by their parents. As scholarship students who had attended the Collegiate School, they finally reached out to fellow Collegiate alumnus John Kennedy Jr., who steered them to Robin Hood. Suffice it to say that a good word from Kennedy proved pivotal; the foundation handed over $25,000 and provided extensive behind-the-scenes aid, and still provides a yearly $50,000 grant. “A lot of foundations have guidelines, and if you don’t fit in, they don’t want you,” says Hans Hageman, who has several hundred kids on a waiting list for the coveted 63 slots. “Robin Hood is not a faceless entity you’re dealing with.”
“It’s better if you’re more concerned with the outcome,” says George Soros, “than with the personal gratification of people sucking up to you.”
Just as investors swoop in when word gets out that George Soros is buying a stock, other foundations often reach for their checkbooks upon hearing that Robin Hood has “invested” in a fledgling charity. “Robin Hood is known for doing aggressive due diligence and legwork,” adds Hageman. “When other foundations learn that Robin Hood is involved, it helps us.”
The great truism of New York is that you can get anything you want if you move in the right circles and know whom to ask. “What we do is all about leverage,” says Peter Borish. As with any prestigious board, useful contacts are a prerequisite for being invited to join Robin Hood – say, for example, the ability to get free entertainment and other goodies for the gala. “Why else would they want the head of a record company?” says Universal Music’s Doug Morris, a new board member who used his clout to get friend Pete Townshend and the other surviving members of the Who to perform for free. The Robin Hood benefit is a classic example of upper-echelon Manhattan favor-swapping. For the auction, Harvey Weinstein put together a “Hollywood Heaven” package that includes flying to Rome for a walk-on in the upcoming Martin Scorsese movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, a bit part in the next Miramax- Gwyneth Paltrow movie, and prime Oscar seats. Lachlan Murdoch is offering up an Olympics package, including opening-ceremony tickets and a cruise with the Murdoch clan around Sydney’s harbor.
Board member David Puth, a Chase Manhattan managing director, did his share by contacting venture capitalist Jeffrey Walker, who persuaded an airline to kick in free plane tickets. Liquor wasn’t a problem, since half a dozen board members are friendly with Seagram’s Edgar Bronfman Jr. Stan Druckenmiller called on his pal Mike Ovitz for a headliner, landing the gratis services of Robin Williams.
Robin Hood’s board is more than willing to make these kinds of help-us calls. It’s not a coincidence that the white-shoe law firms and accounting giants that “voluntarily” donate their services to the foundation’s grantees do a lot of well-paid business with board members. Indeed, the Robin Hood Foundation is a quintessential example of how to use friendships, business connections, and media savvy to pull the levers of power in this city. In little more than a decade, it has evolved from three guys sitting around Paul Jones’s Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment eating Chinese takeout and wondering how to save the world to a powerhouse operation that has doled out more than $100 million.
These nouveau riche Wall Streeters built their own organization from scratch so they could deliberately break traditional foundation rules. They had prospered enough to spend deadly evenings at black-tie balls with Social Register snobs, but they were tired of writing checks and never knowing how their money was spent. They thought most charities were not aggressive enough, either in making grants or in investing assets. And they decided it was better to waste money on wrongheaded ideas than never to try anything daring at all.
The three originally planned to just give away just their own money, establishing a foundation for its tax advantages, but decided to get more ambitious after being deluged with grant requests. “We got 600 applications the first year, and they were heartbreaking,” recalls Jones, a University of Virginia graduate who made his first few million in his twenties by trading gold and cotton futures. “As we saw the scope of need, and how big an enemy poverty was, we decided to gear up.” Eager to counter the greed-is-good ethos of the movie Wall Street, Peter Borish, who back then worked as the research director for Jones, proposed the folk-hero moniker for the foundation. “Every kid loves Robin Hood,” says Borish, now 40, who got the idea from his wife. He acknowledges that while Manhattan may not exactly be Sherwood Forest, “if you live in New York City, you can’t ignore the extreme differences between the rich and the poor.”
The first grants were relatively small, in the $25,000 range. A couple of guys in Bed-Stuy trying to start a local ambulance company. A traveling van to bring medical services to poor neighborhoods. An activist who wanted to renovate an East Harlem building to house the homeless. “People were being put up in these horrible places, with the smell of piss and drug dealers selling crack in the hallways,” says Saltzman, the foundation’s first employee, who had previously worked for the city on its approach to homeless problems. Recalling the scene as homeless families moved into the newly fixed-up apartments, Saltzman says, “People were weeping with joy.”
After that emotionally gratifying experience, small wonder that Robin Hood’s founders encouraged Gretchen Buchenholz, who renovated that first building, to think even bigger, with the promise of more funding. “It’s scary to go out and try to create programs,” says Buchenholz, executive director of the Association to Benefit Children, which has expanded to offer preschool programs for homeless children, a nursery for HIV-infected toddlers, and a job-creating bakery, receiving $200,000 last year from the foundation. “Robin Hood had faith that what we pictured could actually be done.”
Similarly, Robin Hood first began to back the South Bronx-based La Peninsula Head Start in 1993. With help from the foundation’s yearly $100,000 grant, the program, which provides extended-hours day care and preschool classes to 3-to-5-year-olds so their parents can work, has now expanded to serve more than 700 kids in five locations.
Beyond changing people’s lives, Robin Hood’s financier-founders also wanted to show they could establish a charity with a new kind of fiscal footing. Jones was appalled that foundations are required by law to give away just 5 percent of assets a year, and insisted that Robin Hood hand out 40 to 50 percent. “We’re not in the wealth-building business. That dog ain’t going to hunt,” drawls Jones, sitting in the sprawling Greenwich offices of his investment firm. (In addition to his Greenwich home, Jones owns a private island in the Bahamas and a Maryland-shore retreat.) Given that Jones and his friends had made their fortunes as high-flying traders, they didn’t see any point in establishing the typical safe foundation portfolio, investing instead in hedge funds that have brought returns of more than 20 percent a year (they earned $7 million last year on $22 million in assets, and in this volatile year the portfolio is still “comfortably positive,” they say, meaning up 4 percent).
As a way of demonstrating their personal commitment, the board members decided to take care of all of the foundation’s expenses themselves, rather than use outside donations to pay the daily operating bills. “We’re all aware of concerns about charitable organizations which raise a lot of money and it all goes to overhead,” says Glenn Dubin, the third member of the troika, a Washington Heights native who runs his own hedge fund, Highbridge Capital Management. “This way, we can tell donors that every dollar they give goes to support programs.” Last year, the board kicked in $7.6 million, which includes staff salaries, rent, research, and the benefit’s million-dollar cost (catering, décor, Javits Center rental).
That kind of commitment was exactly what attracted billionaire George Soros, who, despite the hundreds of millions he’s given abroad, had never backed a New York do-good institution to the tune of $4.5 million, which is what he pledged to Robin Hood three years ago – and he plans to give more. Soros was impressed by the foundation’s results-oriented approach: “It’s entrepreneurial. They find people with a sense of mission and help them build viable organizations.” Drawing a stark contrast between Robin Hood and many other New York charities, Soros adds, “People generally want to feel good rather than do good. It’s better if you’re more concerned with the outcome than with the personal gratification of people sucking up to you.”
“There’s something in this for you,” says Stan Druckenmiller, “whether you’re a bleeding-heart liberal like Paul Jones or a coldhearted conservative like myself.”
One of the joys of starting your own club is that you get to pick the members. The original founders went through their Rolodexes to recruit flush and famous friends to the board. Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone and chairman of Wenner Media, was drafted early on by Dubin. “The guerrilla nature of it was what appealed to me,” says Wenner, who left the board several years ago. “They were young guys, and instead of funding Establishment things such as museums, they were going to find people having a hard time getting money, the outlaws, the heroes, the people who made a difference.”
David Saltzman, who grew up in a prominent Upper East Side family, was also wooed by Dubin (who was briefly married to Saltzman’s sister Elizabeth, Vanity Fair’s fashion director). Yes, it’s definitely small-world time: Saltzman later helped recruit two school friends to the board, his Trinity classmate Dirk Ziff, heir to the Ziff-Davis publishing fortune, and Brown University pal Kennedy.
Robert Pittman, who invented MTV and is now the president of America Online, said Paul Jones didn’t have to do much arm-twisting to get him to sign on. “I grew up in the civil-rights movement. Life’s been good to me, and I felt somewhat disconnected,” says Pittman, the son of a Mississippi Methodist minister. “I feel so darn lucky that I don’t want to be a greedy pig.”
Eager for real-world poverty expertise, the moneymen also made a point of including Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Maurice Chessa, director of the Bed-Stuy I Have a Dream Program; and later grantee Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem’s Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. As Peter Kiernan puts it, “We didn’t want to be a bunch of white guys from Wall Street telling people how things were going to be. Our board meetings are a riot. You have flaming liberals, ultraconservatives, every point of the religious and political spectrum.”
Four times a year, the board schleps out to see programs, a hands-on way to emotionally connect to the people benefiting from its largesse. When you’re as connected as these boldface board members, there’s a macho pleasure in showing your stuff, in making things happen – a one-upmanship much on display at Robin Hood’s April meeting, held at the offices of Binding Together, a printing company near the Lincoln Tunnel that counsels, trains, and employs former drug addicts and the homeless.
In a conference room at Binding Together, Harvey Weinstein and Diane Sawyer, new board members, both leaned forward intently as account representative Zina Battle, a 37-year-old former prostitute who spent five years in prison for selling drugs, nervously described the physical agony of kicking heroin. “I was vomiting, I had diarrhea, I had stuff coming out everywhere,” she said, breaking down in sobs. The room was utterly silent until Peter Kiernan called out softly, “You’re among friends.” She rallied with a tearful smile, giving a rousing endorsement to Binding Together, saying, “I didn’t think I could do it. I just want to tell everyone how this school helped me.”
Touring the noisy loftlike printing operations, where workers were running copiers and folding church flyers, board members seemed relieved to switch from raw feelings to CEO mode, peppering Vince Poppiti, the director of business services, with questions. Did he get a deal on the Xerox machines? (No.) How long is the new lease for? (Ten years.) Where are people getting jobs after training? (A bulletin board listed new employers.) Showing a small classroom, Poppiti explained, “We teach life skills here. Some people have never learned how to fill out a W-4.” Weinstein, ever the class clown, joked that he could use help, saying, “I’ll come by.”
But the mood turned serious as Poppiti mentioned plans to add a second shift to expand the printing business and train more workers. “Would it help if we could refer you clients?” asked Dubin. Weinstein immediately jumped in – “Glenn just referred me” – promising to send some Miramax printing business over. Next, Dirk Ziff suggested that he and other board members use their contacts to get new copiers donated. Scribbling machine brand names on a notepad, Kiernan quickly conferred with Paul Jones: “Who should call Xerox chairman Paul Allaire?”
“They have the ability to make one phone call and accomplish something that would be impossible for anybody else,” Sawyer said later. “What I love is it’s not about sanctimony. It’s genuine excitement about seeing something work.”
After the board members filed back into the conference room for a confidential discussion, the staff of Binding Together stood in a hallway, looking stunned by this display of mogul clout. “To have these movers and shakers come here is an enormous opportunity,” said Philip Caldarella, an ex-policeman who is the program’s executive director. Added Ivan Braun, the development director, “Just to get funding officers from foundations to visit us is usually difficult, much less the board.”
As Robin Hood and its founders mature into middle age, the “guerrilla” charity has become much tougher about passing out grants. Eighty-five percent of the programs it funded a decade ago have been dropped from the portfolio, as the sadder-but-wiser board and staff bailed out of organizations where money was mismanaged, activists burned out, projects tanked, or results were disappointing. In recent years, Robin Hood’s list of grantees has become infinitely more stable (of the 98 programs funded in 1996, only 23 have since been dropped), as the foundation has become better able to assess the risk-reward ratio of new projects.
“We funded God knows how many organizations and clearly some of our past funding has not been successful,” says Paul Tudor Jones, wincing as he recalls “the worst failure”: financing a Harlem man running a drug hot line who turned out to have his own substance-abuse problems.
Robin Hood’s staff makes frequent advice-and-inspection visits, but seven years ago the board took the unusual step of hiring an outside researcher to analyze grantees and issue regular report cards. Robin Hood’s goal is to figure out which antipoverty programs are the most successful and why – what does it take to help kids raise their test scores, or enable an ex-addict to find and keep a job? “The board manages this charity as if it were a stock portfolio,” says Susan Philliber, whose eponymous research firm evaluates grantees. Noting that Robin Hood boosts funding for good “investments” and performs workouts on disappointments, she adds, “If you’re willing to learn and try to improve, they’ll stay with you through bad outcomes.”
Not all board members, however, have been enthusiastic about the revised, more pragmatic approach. Jann Wenner resigned from Robin Hood several years ago, partly out of disappointment that the place had changed direction. “There was always a tension between the commitment to do the odd, the outrageous, the less acceptable stuff,” says Wenner, “or to pitch in with five other Establishment foundations and give money to this thing or that thing. My love is finding the weird thing to do. When things get too comfortable, I’m bored.”
Wenner invented Robin Hood’s annual December hero breakfast, which draws such influential invited guests as Rudy Giuliani, Tom Brokaw, and ABC News president David Westin. Last year, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg gave a moving tribute about her brother’s passion for Robin Hood, and the latest heroes – a principal who’s worked wonders at a Bronx public school, a Queens social worker who counsels new moms to prevent child abuse, and a former crack dealer who’s heading to law school thanks to Friends of Island Academy – told their inspiring stories. “I go to cry,” says Pittman. “If you don’t have a tear coming down your cheek, there’s something wrong with you.
But here’s the thing: Being anointed a star by Robin Hood, with the video camera rolling and journalists taking notes, is no guarantee of future funding. The board, while it may get out its hankies once a year, is not a sentimental group of people, and it’s not embarrassed about turning off the spigot if the heroes turn out to be well-meaning but inept. As Kenneth Langone puts it, “I make a lot of investments that don’t work out.”
Rocky Robinson and Joe Perez were among Robin Hood’s first heroes, honored for starting the Bedford-Stuyvesant Volunteer Ambulance Corporation, in response to the fact that it took forever to get ambulances to respond to 911 calls in their troubled neighborhood. Robin Hood staked the two to more than $300,000 over several years to buy an ambulance and train staff in CPR and other lifesaving techniques. But the foundation cut off their grant three years ago because of bad bookkeeping.
“We were friends,” says Saltzman, sounding positively pained by the decision. “But we became concerned about their practices with money. They couldn’t do the simplest bookkeeping. We offered to pay for an accountant, but it just never worked.” Robinson, who freely admits that his bookkeeping has been “a horrible mess,” says he’s grateful that the foundation backed him for so long, but adds that the loss of funding has been devastating. “We feel very bad about it,” he says, describing laying off staff and cutting back on ambulance calls. “Me and my partner are just barely keeping things going.” Wenner regrets that Robin Hood gave up on them. “I spent an incredible amount of time fighting for Rocky and Joe,” he says. “The fact they can’t observe middle-class business strictures goes along with the territory.”
The fate of another “hero,” Willie Battle, hung in the balance at the recent board meeting at Binding Together. This magnetic 44-year-old ex-junkie, who now calls himself Brother Battle, started snorting heroin at age 12 and spent four years in prison on drug-dealing charges. He was honored just three years ago by Robin Hood for creating an after-school program in East New York called Imani Altisimo Inc. But since then he has overextended, adding a basketball league, a fitness-training program, conflict-resolution classes, and more, to the point that the entire enterprise has become financially shaky. “He grew too fast and lost his original mission with the kids,” says Lisa Smith, Robin Hood’s deputy director. “He’s not retaining the kids.” Battle sounded morose on the phone a few days before the board’s meeting. “Robin Hood has been our major funder,” said Battle. “We’re broke. If they pull out, then our program collapses.”
The closed-room board discussion got hot and heavy as members debated whether this program could be saved. “They really went at it,” Saltzman reported later. “Nobody wants to throw good money after bad. But we didn’t want to just let the kids go into the abyss.” The compromise solution: a brief reprieve for Battle, with the board providing a three-month $60,000 grant and instructions to prepare to merge with another neighborhood-kids’ program or radically cut operations. He was immensely relieved to get a second chance. “I appreciate their extending their hand to us one more time,” said Battle. “I’m glad they didn’t walk away.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that there has occasionally been a culture gap between Robin Hood’s middle-class staff and the people they’re trying to help. En route to visit a job-training program in Sunset Park run by a nun, Saltzman tells me, with a wry smile, that Sister Mary Franciscus threw out the first Robin Hood program officer who came to check out the program seven years ago. The problem: The woman’s stylish but provocative clothes sent the wrong message to the young adults, many of them school dropouts from welfare families, about appropriate attire in corporate America. “I thought what Sister Mary did was great,” Saltzman says, adding that the chastened staffer made a return trip in more conservative garb. “But it was gutsy, since we were there trying to decide whether to give her money.”
Sister Mary, a tall, wisecracking woman in a blue habit, teases the students as she sticks her head into classrooms in the airy converted-Catholic-school gymnasium, where African-American and Hispanic teenagers are studying for their GEDs, rehearsing for job interviews, and learning word processing. “Aren’t you supposed to be wearing glasses?” she calls out to a girl squinting at a computer. In the hallway, Sister Mary whispers, “I memorize everyone’s name. Most of them have never had much personal attention before – and if they did, it was the wrong kind.”
Saltzman has come by today to discuss the possibility of expanding this successful program, called Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, to another site. Robin Hood is only one of twenty funders of the job effort, kicking in $250,000 of the $1.6 million budget. (A rival foundation official grumbles, off the record, that Robin Hood is often a little too eager to grab credit for good works.) But to give Robin Hood’s merry band their due, they’ve often been the first to contribute vital start-up cash to get new projects rolling, as well as take the unusual step of arranging for top-notch (and free) legal, accounting, and management advice. “I don’t think we’d be around without Robin Hood,” says Sister Mary, noting that the foundation came to her financial rescue after a government-funding cut several years ago, as well as helping to organize its bookkeeping. “Robin Hood is like a mentor: They give us goals. They push us to think about how we can do better.”
Meanwhile, up in Harlem on West 116th Street on a Wednesday afternoon, people are lined up around the block waiting for free oxtail stew at the newly renovated Community Kitchen, which looks more like a cozy restaurant than it does a soup kitchen. The entire gut rehab was courtesy of Robin Hood’s Lonni Tanner, whose full-time job consists of badgering companies for donations of everything from books and computers to architectural plans and free electrical work; as she puts it, “I only deal in free.” Kathy Goldman, the executive director of the Community Food Resource Center, says, “Lonni got us almost everything – every tile on the floor, every pot and pan, every chair, even the copper pipes that you can’t see.”
It’s easy to measure the success of a soup kitchen by simply looking at costs and counting up the number of people who get fed every week. But trying to change people’s behavior – say, to stop teenage girls from getting pregnant – is an infinitely more complicated endeavor. Dr. Michael Carrera, director of the Children’s Aid Society’ s National Adolescent Sexuality Training Center, received his first $150,000 Robin Hood grant in 1991. The foundation is now backing Carrera to the tune of $700,000, in part to run a controlled three-year social experiment with 600 New York City teens. The goal: To see whether intensive tutoring, sex education, and counseling can keep the kids on the straight and narrow. “The trader mentality is not to take positions for a long time,” says Carrera, “so it’s good to be supported in this way.”
While this week’s star-studded celebration represents a social and financial milestone for the Robin Hood Foundation – and it certainly raises its glamour quotient to new heights – in some fundamental way the spirit of the core group hasn’t changed all that much since the days of those early, clubbier board meetings. Because they all see New York City as a laboratory for social change, this opinionated group, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, still thrives on arguing and debating over how best to tackle poverty on a block-by-block basis. The only difference between now and then, Jones and his crew would argue, is that the checks they disperse are a lot bigger.
Brushing off the inevitable failures, they take enormous pleasure in the successes. At the foundation’s most recent Tavern on the Green breakfast honoring its “hero” community activists, Stan Druckenmiller presented an award to Friends of Island Academy, the group that helps young Rikers Island ex-inmates get educations and jobs. It was the first big Robin Hood event since John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death (the breakfast was renamed in his honor), and the normally low-key trader got downright emotional as he praised the program for dramatically reducing prison recidivism rates, making New York safer, and saving tax dollars – as well as changing lives for the better. “I don’t care whether you’re a bleeding-heart liberal like Paul Jones or a coldhearted conservative like myself,” Druckenmiller said, bringing a knowing laugh from an audience filled with friends and colleagues. “There’s something in this for you.”