With help from Miley Cyrus and Dave Chappelle, New York’s largest single fund-raiser generated $54.5 million to fight poverty in the city.
As guests walked through a heart-shaped portal into an idealized version of a New York park, they were stepping into an event that stands out among galas for its scope and vision.
The Robin Hood Benefit, held May 15, sets itself apart in a number of ways. There’s the obvious difference in its size and impact, drawing some 3,700 guests to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and raising more than any other benefit in New York—this year, $54.5 million for its mission to fight poverty in New York. It also bucks certain gala traditions—for example, declining to set up a press wall for the business titans, politicians, celebrities, and other guests to pose for photos. With a powerful and well-connected board that covers the operating costs, it can draw A-list talent like this year’s Miley Cyrus, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland of Coldplay.
The evening’s theme was “love and leadership,” celebrating its donors’ love of New York and introducing the organization’s new C.E.O., Wes Moore, said Lindsay Carroll of Robin Hood’s events and productions team.
That theme was translated into the event design from David Stark Design and Production, which created a lively New York City park in the cocktail space with a Sherwood Forest twist. Bars and signage were inspired by park architecture, and fabricated trees were topped by flowing fabric canopies in shades of green suspended by airline cables. Familiar landmarks like Bethesda Fountain in Central Park were recreated and enlivened by costumed salsa dancers, while roller skaters entertained guests from the main stage. Catering stations included classic food carts, and park benches provided seating.
“The idea of the evening is to look at the parks of New York,” Stark said. “Those are common spaces we all share regardless of where we’re originally from or which neighborhood we live in. Entering into a park setting in cocktails allows us to share and be in a communal setting.”
Other thoughtful touches set the stage. The perimeter of the room evoked the city’s skyline—a first for Stark rather than “living in a black void” with draping. The lighting progressed throughout the evening from late afternoon to the golden hour to dusk to nighttime during the performance from the Coldplay duo.
A “love and leadership parade,” with a 100-piece marching band, balloons, and other props, led guests to the dining room, which was set with the stage in the center. The program opened with remarks from New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Next was a video about Robin Hood’s mission, which was produced to take full advantage of the 20 movie-theater-size screens along the perimeter of the room. At times they showed the same image; other times different images appeared on individual screens. Other highlights of the program—known for surprise performances—included remarks from television personality Michael Strahan, a two-song set from Cyrus, and a set from Chappelle, who mixed observations about race and poverty with jokes about President Donald Trump and the gala guests themselves. Chappelle stayed on stage to welcome former executive director David Saltzman and new C.E.O. Moore.
Following a live call for donations submitted via email, board chairman Larry Robbins revealed the final fund-raising total. Guests then returned to the cocktail area for a concert by the Coldplay duo, who were joined for some songs by DJ Samantha Ronson.
“We find that we spend time and energy and effort into doing this beautiful cocktail space,” Carroll said, “So any excuse that we could repurpose the space we will take advantage of.”
One thing the organization did not bring back this year were its two concerts aimed at younger patrons, last year held on the same night at different venues. “We feel like we have a strong message that evening at the benefit itself,” Carroll said. “It was little bit of an experiment. We’ll revisit going back to it, but we wanted to stay focused on our big event.”
**Nimblist provided technical design, lighting design and technical production for the 2017 Benefit.