Fight Song: Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore on $115M 'Rallying Cry' Rise Up New York! Benefit

Wes Moore
Courtesy of Robin Hood

Wes Moore

The executive, social entrepreneur and author discusses combatting the “unprecedented moment” that is the COVID-19 pandemic

On Mon. May 11, New York’s largest poverty fighting organization Robin Hood raised $115 million during its Rise Up New York! benefit. Produced alongside Alex Coletti Productions, iHeartMedia and talent producers Casey Patterson and Rick Krim, the virtual telethon raised awareness and funds to help New Yorkers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hosted by Tina Fey, the star-studded event featured appearances by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de BlasioBarbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Chris Rock, Eli Manning, Fab 5 Freddy, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lopez, Beastie Boys Mike D and Ad-Rock, RZA, Salt-N-Pepa and Spike Lee; as well as performances by Alicia Keys, Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mariah CareySting and many others.

Founded in 1988, Robin Hood is the largest organization devoted to fighting poverty in New York City. With board members covering the company's overhead, CEO Wes Moore says that 100% of each donation goes directly to help New Yorkers via front line organizations providing support for food, shelter, cash assistance, health and legal services, and more. The benefit was originally slated to take place at New York’s Javits Center, which ended up being allocated as a field hospital to help accommodate COVID-19 patients in the city. Moore and the rest of the board immediately pivoted to “use the moment,” he says, to serve as a “real rallying cry, to not just bring in resources that then Robin Hood can push out to our communities and the individuals that we serve but also to raise awareness for the level of devastation that has happened.”

During the telethon, Moore appeared from his former Bronx neighborhood to address the community’s urgent needs. He grew up between the borough and Baltimore, and later earned degrees from Valley Forge Military College, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He served as a captain and paratrooper with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, including a combat deployment to Afghanistan, and later served as a White House Fellow to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His New York Times best-selling memoir, The Other Wes Moore, was recently optioned by HBO with executive producer Oprah Winfrey to turn it into a film.

Ahead of the benefit, Billboard spoke with Moore about the benefit's many challenges and taking on the “unprecedented moment” that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m in my fourth year as CEO of Robin Hood, but prior I was fortunate to have the chance to see the American economy through a lot of different lenses. I was a combat officer who was deployed as a paratrooper in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne division. I’ve worked in mergers and acquisitions and private equity work, and had a chance to start up my own social enterprise. When Robin Hood first approached me about becoming CEO I was reluctant. I had been publicly skeptical of philanthropy and in fact I said that during our first contacts. But they said, ‘we’re not a traditional charitable organization,’ and that was really intriguing to me. I don’t consider Robin Hood a charity. We are a change organization and that means being able to, yes, use philanthropic heft, but also understand that philanthropy alone is not going to solve the social ills of economic inequality that exist. That’s why since I’ve been CEO we’ve built out a policy unit and have been able to focus on the role that policy making plays in determining what kind of conditions our philanthropy is going to have to operate in.

The Rise Up New York! benefit was one of the more complicated things to pull off because the world was and is changing in real time. We’re having to execute this at the same time as we’re watching 11 years of job growth go away in five weeks or as team members get sick. 1 in 4 people in this country that have died from COVID-19 are New Yorkers. 1 in 4 are from this city. There are more New York City children in shelters than there are in Madison Square Garden right now. 1 in 3 parents of small children are skipping meals in order to feed their children. We’ve got crisis epidemic numbers in New York City alone.

In addition to the diverse talent and community members, we told the stories of places like the River Fund, which is one of our partners, and has fed as many as 900 New Yorkers in a day and seen lines stretch 16 city blocks. Something like this would have been difficult to pull off in normal circumstances and these were as far from normal circumstances as you could possibly imagine. Now that we are on the cusp of a really special night, it’s important to take stock in that. We are a remarkably resilient organization in a remarkably resilient city at a remarkably complicated time, and there’s a real power in that. We wanted something that was going to reflect New York, because the city is such an unbelievably diverse and cultured place to call home and that’s one of the things that I think many people are working to protect.

Fight Song:

“In the chorus where Desiree sings ‘you gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser, you gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger, you gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together,'" says Moore. "That's a really powerful anthem for me and when I think about this moment when everything is up in the air. All of those lines have really served as a north star for me as I approach this moment and as we approach the kind of society we’re hoping to build in recovery.”