The Rockefeller philanthropist who believes collaboration creates social change.
Peggy Dulany has spent a lifetime thinking about how to make the world a better place. When she was 17, she traveled to Brazil for the first of three summers spent working with impoverished children in the favelas, the crowded slums that sprawl around Rio de Janeiro. For two summers she traveled three hours by bus each day to where she worked. For the third year, when she was 19, she moved in with a family in the favela itself. “We shared a pretty primitive bathroom, the whole family, and I stayed there for the whole summer,” she says, “which was a deep experience, because when you’re actually living there you feel the reality much more.”
Dulany was born into America’s most recognized dynasty. In 1870, her great-grandfather John D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company, which would grow to control 90 percent of the country’s oil refineries and pipelines. Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire, and the fortune he amassed was historic; by the end of his life, his wealth – estimated at around $340 billion (€300 billion) in today’s dollars – amounted to around 1.5 percent of the entire gross domestic product of the US.
But his legacy was about more than just amassing vast sums of wealth: he was also a trailblazing philanthropist, creating powerful and effective foundations in a wide range of fields, including education, the arts and public health. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, which would later become the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, was responsible for a dramatic reduction in hookworm disease.
How Peggy Dulany took on the ultimate philanthropic legacy
His descendants carried on that legacy, and Dulany was influenced by the weight of her paternal family’s history from early childhood. “The desire to serve started from the breakfast table at age three or four or five,” she says. Her mother Margaret, too, “had a sense of fairness and justice that we all took on”. But it was in the favelas of Rio that Dulany had the first inklings of an idea that would come to be the core driving force of her life: that achieving real, meaningful, lasting and positive change could not be achieved in isolation. “Even to a 17-year-old,” she says, “it became apparent that giving immunization shots to kids who were going and playing in the sewers was not getting at any root causes.
“What I realized was that there were no services, no information, no education, so the overall system was not providing any way for mobility,” she says of what she saw in Rio. “It was like a trap.” The question, it struck her, was this: how could you build the kind of social capital – the will to act and the structures that enable action – needed to make a society work, to help reduce poverty and inequity, and to change humanity for the better? Answering that question “became my sort of theme for life,” she says.
By 1972, Dulany was teaching in a school for “drop-out kids” – children the education system had abandoned. She loved the work. But while her father David had dedicated his life to business as Chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, and several of his brothers dedicated theirs to politics (one of Dulany’s uncles, Nelson Rockefeller, was Vice President under Gerald Ford; another, Winthrop Rockefeller, was Governor of Arkansas), her uncle, John D. Rockefeller III, had dedicated his life to philanthropy and became a mentor to Peggy. He encouraged her to think bigger.
In 1981, he offered her a seat on the board of the Population Council, a foundation that funds medical and reproductive-health initiatives in the developing world and research into HIV, AIDS and other diseases. Her board seat took Dulany to Bangladesh, India and Indonesia (all places where the Council had projects); trips, she says, that “opened her eyes” to other parts of the world. After her son was born, she moved back to New York, where she worked with her father at the New York City Partnership (now part of the Partnership for New York City), an organization that aimed to create links between unions, business and civil society to help solve economic problems in the city. They were not always successful, but, she says, the experience “gave me the idea that you could create an organization that would bring different groups together to solve problems”.
Why collaboration is critical to philanthropic success at scale
In 1986, Dulany brought together the lessons she learned from these experiences to found Synergos, a global non-profit organization dedicated to doing just that: bringing together stakeholders from business, government, civil society and marginalized communities to help with philanthropic projects in collaborative ways.
By the early 1980s, Dulany says, philanthropy was already changing. Especially in the corporate world, the attitude of “we’re just going to give this money away” was being replaced by “we’re only going to give it to things that benefit our social image or business, or are in line with the type of business that we’re doing”. She is at pains to add that some of what resulted “were really good programs – but it was definitely a self-interested thing”. She shrugs. “And, you know, if you can get the two together, great.”
All this change meant that philanthropy needed to evolve, too. With Synergos, Dulany wanted people to take a more systemic approach. “That is to say, to look at what the root causes are of whatever they were trying to address. So instead of a shelter that would get homeless people off the street, could there be a job creation program?” Another example she gives is from Brazil: as part of a conditional cash-transfer program called Bolsa Familia, poor parents who sent their children out to beg were given a certain fixed sum of money if the kids went to school instead. It was, Dulany says, “very effective”.
One problem Dulany saw was that some philanthropists, especially those who had been successful in the business world, “think they can apply the same principles, and the same speed, to social problems like education”. But no matter how wellintentioned, that top-down approach can fail. A big part of Synergos’s mission is to educate philanthropists in how best to achieve their goals – which can often be difficult, especially in the age of Silicon Valley. “Patience is in short supply in the private sector, especially in the tech industry,” Dulany says. “They want everything to happen like that!” At which she snaps her fingers. “But social change just doesn’t happen like that.
Why collaborative philanthropy is worth the extra effort involved
“You have to be pretty committed to want to work in partnership with others, because it’s slow, it takes time,” Dulany says. “But it’s sustainable. And it can go to scale.” One of the first large-scale partnership projects she embarked upon at Synergos was a project to lower malnutrition rates in Maharashtra, India. Synergos partnered with Unilever and several large Indian corporations, as well as the UN aid agency UNICEF. At first, there was little trust between the representatives of these groups: “The corporates felt that civil society was inefficient and radical and that the government was bureaucratic and corrupt – and the others felt that business was greedy,” Dulany says.
In order to build a foundation of trust, Synergos organized a series of trips, splitting the team into small groups to tour the state and identify ‘bridging leaders’ who could be encouraged to reach out across the cultural divide between different sectors. “By the end of five days and five nights, with onerous journeys on terrible rural roads, seeing the devastating situation of children in abject poverty and malnourishment, they were much more willing to listen to each other,” she says.
Their experience together meant that the disparate groups now felt able to be creative, learn from each other and innovate. “They’d seen the situation, they’d built the trust, they liked each other, and so when they did the brainstorming they came up with really interesting solutions,” Dulany says, one of which was to send Taj Hotels chefs around the state to reevaluate the national feeding program and design a menu that was rooted in local produce, costeffective, easy to prepare, nutritious and tasty. After just six years, Dulany says, the rate of children under five with stunting caused by malnourishment had dropped from 39 to 23 percent.
The four key elements of effective philanthropy in the 21st century
This involved three of what Dulany says are the four key elements of effective philanthropy in the 21st century: systemic thinking, bridging leadership and building partnerships. The fourth is a more spiritual element – what Dulany calls “inner work”; and she would discover it in a tent in rural Montana.
By 1997, Dulany says, she was “burned out”. She was not the only one. “Everybody else who was trying to emulate me was also working themselves into the ground,” she says, “so the atmosphere around work wasn’t that good.” She took what was initially meant to be a six-month sabbatical and moved to a ranch in Montana, near Yellowstone National Park. It was a transcendental experience. “I began to feel a sense of connectedness to a larger whole that I hadn’t had in my life, because I’d been so busy ‘doing’,” she says. “It created in me more of a sense of peace, but also curiosity – ‘Are we really doing this right?’ – because we had no inner work component at Synergos.” She lived in Montana for 13 years, traveling from there to work. Today, her retreats at the ranch are frequent backdrops for brainstorming sessions between members of the Global Philanthropists Circle – Synergos’s network of philanthropists around the world – and other participants in their projects, as well as Synergos staff.
All of this is not to say that Dulany believes she has completed her quest. Brazil, where her journey began, has just elected a new authoritarian president – which means old problems are back again. She sighs deeply when this fact comes up. “So, we’re going to go back to trying to stop the destruction of the Amazon.” It begs an uncomfortable question: is philanthropy a project which, if enough connections are made, enough trust built, enough leaders inspired, produces a straight-line trajectory towards a better and, eventually, perfect world? Or is it a rearguard action against encroaching chaos? Which will win? Partnership, or entropy?
“I am by nature an optimist, so I have hope,” Dulany says. “But I think I’m also realistic enough to know that the forces that are against this kind of progress – social, economic, political – are very strong, and will continue to be strong. The forces of greed, in particular.”
“I know what we’re up against,” she says. “But I think that the expansion of the kind of consciousness that comes through building communities of trust – helping people feel safe enough to allow themselves to be a bit vulnerable and trust others, and feel a sense of belonging – then opens to curiosity and imagination and creativity. And then there is that further opening, to compassion, and gratitude and love, and a sense of connectedness at a larger level even beyond the human.
“The kernel of the success that we’re looking for globally is in that shift in consciousness,” she says, “in relating to each other as human beings.”
How Synergos and its network members have helped communities around the world thanks to collaboration:
JORDAN: With the help of a Synergos award, Dr Rana Dajani was able to grow We Love Reading, her children’s literacy non-profit. It is active in more than 40 countries and has seeded 330 libraries.
INDIA: The Adolescents Gaining Ground program, created with the help of Synergos by the Indian non-profit group SNEHA, teaches about youth empowerment, sex education and HIV and AIDS to adolescents in Mumbai.
PERU: Synergos Global Philanthropists Circle member Carlos Rodríguez-Pastor created Innova Schools, an alternative education system offering high-quality schooling to more than 37,000 children from lower-income families. Synergos recognized his work with the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award.
WORLDWIDE: Synergos Global Philanthropists Circle member Kim Samuel has pioneered the concept of building social connectedness to combat the isolation that often accompanies poverty, disability and other challenges. Through the Samuel Family Foundation and the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, she is helping groups worldwide to incorporate this approach into their work.
Nicky Woolf is the Editor of New Statesman America. As a writer specialising in politics and society, his work has appeared in The Guardian and numerous other publications.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.