With most charities, you generally know what they do. God’s Love We Deliver brings healthy meals to the homes of the ill or elderly. City Harvest gathers foodstuff from restaurants and distributes it to the needy. Tuesday’s Children specifically helps families impacted by the terrorist acts of September 11. But what about the Robin Hood Foundation? The “foundation” part may throw you; its goal is to fight poverty in New York City. Still sounds vague? That’s because poverty is a huge, endemic problem, and it takes a ton of money and a lot of organizational intelligence to attack it.
That’s where Wall Street comes in. Thirty years ago, hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones and investor Peter Borish conceived of a charity that was run with the financial expertise and organizational rigor of companies in the for-profit sector. Robin Hood started out with five partners that made $52,000 worth of grants to two poverty-fighting organizations. Today it is New York’s most visible poverty-fighting juggernaut, raising about $135 million and supporting more than 250 poverty-fighting programs each year.
“We like to say we’re a venture charity,” says Lindsey Sheskey, a director within Robin Hood’s development department. “We’re borrowing from investment theory and trying to copy the investment world’s best practices in the way we make grants.” The folks at Robin Hood pride themselves on finding and funding programs—or creating them, if need be—that help raise the living standards of poor and struggling New Yorkers.
And how many people is that? About 1.8 million of our fellow urbanites live in poverty. Robin Hood gives one-year grants, and they have rigorous data collection, goal setting, and monitoring. If a program is not having an impact or using the dollars wisely, it may lose funding.
One can imagine that when it was started in the economically polarized, gritty, Reagan-era ’80s, Robin Hood was desperately needed. But isn’t NYC completely different now? Cleaner, safer, fairer? Sheskey politely but firmly corrects this false impression. “I hear all the time people saying that it’s a kinder city; it’s so much better than when they were growing up,” Sheskey says. “But there are crises all around us, and the need is just as urgent today.”
More homeless people outdoors is just one metric. “Right now, there are about 3,000 to 4,000 people sleeping on city streets on a given night,” Sheskey says. “What we don’t see are the 65,000 New Yorkers sleeping in the shelter system—including 25,000 children. That’s the highest it has been since the Great Depression. Maybe there’s less graffiti in Times Square, but when you have children leaving the shelter to go to school…that keeps us coming to work every day.”
Today Robin Hood supports programs that span the spectrum of ages and situations: support for K-12 education and after-school programs; extra help for children with learning disabilities; counseling for first-generation college students; job training; crucial loans to small, minority-owned businesses; Hurricane Sandy relief funds; needle exchange; and support for HIV-positive immigrants. It’s frankly breathtaking to see the whole range of charitable giving that Robin Hood gets behind, reinforcing one of its sobering mantras: “Poverty is complex.”
One initiative that Sheskey is especially excited about is the creation of an app for the cooperative cleaning business Up & Go. A cooperative business is one in which workers come together and pool money or resources from their labor. Up & Go is a cleaning cooperative for women-owned small businesses. Cleaning women can substitute for one another, join forces, pool money, and create more freedom and flexibility. “What we found,” Sheskey says, “was that giving the workers power over this small business and having them work together to build equity was a powerful tool for helping women find their way out of poverty.” Last year Robin Hood helped Up & Go create a platform that directly connects workers to clients, allowing the cleaners to keep 95 cents on every dollar they earn; the remaining 5 percent goes into running the app and the collective pool.
Freedom, power, community, stability. They aren’t easy to achieve when you’re worrying about how to feed your kids or whether you’ll be evicted in a week, but they are some of the goals that Sheskey and her colleagues tirelessly work on.
How can you help? The foundation has a popular group, PYTs: Philanthropic Young Things. To join requires a $365 annual commitment from budding philanthropists ages 21 to 41. Members are invited to attend a range of social and educational events: dinner one week and then maybe a trip to the Bronx to learn from folks in a job-training program the next. On February 10 at Hammerstein Ballroom, Robin Hood encourages those interested in joining PYTs to attend its fundraiser, Night: An Epic Sing-Along and Dance Party. After all, fighting poverty and having a blast don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Night: An Epic Sing-Along and Dance Party
Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 West 34th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues), Midtown
Saturday, February 10
9 p.m.–2 a.m.
$60 for early-bird admission