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Robin Hood Event Adjusts to Tough Times

George Soros
AP
George Soros

Grilled shrimp and chicken Milanese for 3,200. Music by the Black Eyed Peas.

And Oprah in a pink dress.

All this, by the gilded standards of the hedge fund world, seemed like a lean night out.

The Robin Hood Foundation’s spring fund-raising event has long set the pace for charity benefits, raising tens of millions of dollars from publicity-averse hedge fund moguls who engaged in raucous bidding wars to win, say, dinner for 10 with the celebrity chef Mario Batali or a trip to Australia that included lunch with Hugh Jackman.

That was then, this is now. The highlight of this year’s benefit, held Tuesday night at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, was a far more conventional challenge grant announced by George Soros, a granddaddy of the hedge fund industry and one of the country’s biggest philanthropists.

Mr. Soros, who had flown in from Sweden hours earlier, pledged $50 million to address the rapid increase in people in New York City seeking basic support like food and shelter if Robin Hood and its board members raised almost the same amount in each of the next two years.

That is one of the largest gifts ever made to satisfy basic needs, according to fund-raising experts, and Mr. Soros said he hoped it would inspire other philanthropists and philanthropic institutions to make similar contributions. “Just as needs have increased so tremendously, the philanthropic organizations have been also victims of the crisis, and they have to cut back,” he said in a telephone interview. “We want to reverse that with this gift.”

The spirit of generosity was reflected in the total reached at the event, more than $72 million.

Foundations and major donors are wary of being drawn into — and sometimes legally constrained from — the kind of checkbook philanthropy needed to support social services in harsh economic times. Typically, big-league philanthropy focuses on specific issues and tries to find strategies to resolve or eliminate them rather than work to fill empty bellies and put roofs over heads.

Mr. Soros’s foundations, which are grouped under the name Open Society Institute and scattered around the world, work on issues like early childhood education and the shortage of programs to treat addiction. “As you know, we do some cutting-edge things in advocacy on many issues, and we will continue to do that,” Mr. Soros said. “But this is an exceptional situation and it calls for an exceptional response.”

In that vein, Robin Hood changed the formula of its much-envied benefit, which has relied on a mix of celebrity, money and competitive instinct to raise vast sums for the organization.

This year, holding that kind of party would be akin to walking down Fifth Avenue carrying a Prada shopping bag, a reminder of a bygone era of jubilant excess that everyone is trying to forget. “The kind of event we’ve had in the past just isn’t appropriate right now,” said David Saltzman, executive director of Robin Hood.

There was still plenty of celebrity. Tickets went for $2,000 for “individual seating” to $50,000 for a Leadership table of 10 to $250,000 for a Sponsor table of 10.

The giant hall, lighted with blue and pink, was decorated with six large panels depicting the New York City skyline. Oprah Winfrey joined Mr. Soros at table 247. Not far away, Michael J. Fox chatted with David A. Paterson, the governor of New York.

Jon Stewart returned as master of ceremonies.

“Tonight is a chance for Wall Street to help all those people hurt so badly by ... Oh, sorry,” Mr. Stewart quipped.

Aretha Franklin, at a piano under a pink arch, sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Numerous stars and models were guests. But the millions that had fueled bidding wars unknown in the world of charity were not on display. The bloom was already off the rose last spring, when the event raised $56.6 million, 21 percent less than it had the previous year.

So this year, each guest had a hand-held device to use to make an anonymous contribution to Robin Hood.