Peggy Dulany, the founder and chair of Global NGO Synergos Institute, on the role of leadership and how family shapes attitudes towards philanthropy
New Delhi: She dropped her last name—Rockefeller—at the age of 21 and prefers to be known as Peggy Dulany. A fourth-generation Rockefeller who runs the Synergos Institute, a global non-profit organization, Dulany’s work involves getting established businesses, big- ticket philanthropists, non-profits and communities to collaborate on finding innovative solutions for the world’s wicked problems.
In India to attend the Dasra Philanthropy Week 2018, she will speak at a session on Re-imagining philanthropy: What does the future hold? on Saturday. In an interview over Skype, Dulany speaks about why she thinks collaboration is the key to solving wicked problems, and why philanthropists should learn to be bridging leaders. Edited excepts:
Can family play a big role in shaping a person’s philanthropic journey?
Philanthropy or social involvement was part of dinner table conversations growing up and I am the fourth generation of my family, so it’s practically in our blood. But let’s take a family where that may not be the case. The values that are communicated, whether they are about philanthropy or just about how to live a good life, shape their thinking. Even in cases where the family has been involved in business or prefers the traditional form of giving, allowing the next generation to explore more broadly, interact with their peers and seek other mentors is what helps to eventually shape their philanthropic journey. If parents give the younger generation a licence to explore, they will find their own way.
How important is it for those who are new to philanthropy to go with what the family foundation does vis-à-vis exploring their own ideas?
Different young people find their way in different ways. If there is a family structure of philanthropy, then that is the easiest way to assume the dynamics. This can be almost like an internship and one can get a chance to visit the projects that the family supports. My father (David Rockefeller) set up a small fund for his 10 grandchildren and as they grew into majority, they took more and more responsibility for defining the areas that they wanted to fund. This gave them opportunity to decide what were the areas they were most passionate about and also learn how to collaborate with each other. He also hired a very good staffer who was closer in age to the children, and guided them through the process and helped them become more professional in their approach.
How can a second- or third-generation philanthropist forge a separate philanthropic identity?
The thing that I think is most valuable, and it certainly was for me, is to go and live at a different level of society or in a different society than what you have experienced so far. That is an incredible learning experience for a young person. Secondly, when I talk to families with multiple generations, I advocate letting the younger members start slow. You should not dump a lot of money and say give it away without them really having an opportunity to find their passion. They should also have an opportunity to work in an organization or spend time in a village so that they really get grounded in whatever arena it is that they are passionate about.
From your time in Rio, you have said that those living in adverse conditions have the most motivation to solve their issues. What kind of answers can philanthropists provide then that these communities cannot find themselves?
First of all, it depends on the extent to which philanthropists are willing to engage directly with communities or through social entrepreneurs who see it as their mission to help communities to make the connections they need.
Philanthropists often go in with an assumption of what is the most important need of a community. For example, education. Of course, it is an important need always. But somehow without that intermediary process of consultation, things that are simply donated are often passively accepted and you don’t get the community engagement that you need. The main thing for philanthropists is to learn to respond to the needs that the community diagnoses as its problems. But if you just go in and talk to the village leader, you will not, for example, include women in the diagnosis and you get a very different image.
That’s why I often advocate that philanthropists should engage for greater impact. If they don’t have the time to do this themselves, then they should find organizations who really take the time to engage the communities, and bring their will and energy. Then whatever philanthropic dollars are donated either directly to the community or the non-profit to administer will be much more effectively spent.
Would you say collaboration between stakeholders—NGOs, communities, governments, givers—is still lacking? Is the scene different in developing and developed countries?
I don’t think the key dividing point is developing versus developed countries when it comes to collaboration. I think the culture in a particular country matters and the degree to which the people, the citizens as well as the government and businesses have reached the awareness that the problems they are facing are too complex for any one group to solve alone. But I do think in general, except for in very autocratic countries, where the government decides everything and doesn’t invite participation or collaboration, the trend has been towards greater collaboration and that is true for India as well.
In the years that you have worked at forging partnerships between various stakeholders, which kind of leaders tend to be most successful at solving a wicked problem?
I strongly feel there are certain qualities in some people, whom I call bridging leaders, that makes them particularly suited to bringing people together. One is that they have credibility with their own constituency, whether it be the government or civil society or business. They must have the authenticity that people are going to trust in. Two, they feel sufficiently secure in themselves to be willing to reach out across divides. They don’t have to agree with everyone but they have to be willing to talk. Finally, they must have the will and the desire to reach out to deal with some of these problems.
How does one manage the power equation that comes in between donors, implementers and the recipients?
All complex problems take time. One problem we often run into with philanthropists is that they want things to happen quickly, particularly if they are business people. Unfortunately with social problems, it does not always work out that quickly. Philanthropists need to be bridging leaders. They must have the orientation to know that they have to bring different groups together and this will in turn help guide them to get the work done without power equations coming into play.
When philanthropists sign up for The Giving Pledge or Global Philanthropists Circle, the organization you run, how does it help further the cause of philanthropy?
We believe very much in peer-to-peer learning. Some of our members have been involved for decades or for generations whereas others are just coming into philanthropy and are eager to learn from other people’s experiences. The fact that many people are now becoming more global in their giving provides an opportunity for someone who wants to work in another country, let’s say India, to learn from Indian members. Part of what we do is to bring philanthropists on learning journeys to different countries to not only introduce them to other philanthropists but to innovators across sectors, to business leaders, government leaders and non-profit initiatives.
In this era of nationalistic focus, are philanthropists also looking to first solve issues within their own countries? Is there a shift from global good to local good?
India has many complex problems that can occupy the intelligence, resources and collaboration of many, many philanthropists. I certainly don’t advocate that Indian philanthropists think more broadly than their country until and unless they are in a business situation that introduces them to the issues of other countries.
How important is the role of innovation/social entrepreneurship in dealing with wicked problems?
Employment opportunities as we know them are going to go down. Social entrepreneurs are those who create their own jobs and jobs for others, and find solutions for problems. Many social entrepreneurs are highly individualistic and not necessarily the kind of bridging leaders we envision to develop these collaborative solutions to wicked problems. So one of the things we at Synergos Institute are doing in the Middle East is identifying these key social entrepreneurs and then giving them these bridging leadership skills so that they have both the entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to get people to collaborate to develop lasting solutions.
A lot of advice or coaching is geared to helping big-ticket philanthropy. Is there a way to increase focus on people with lesser resources who also give?
One should not forget the dedication and commitment of those who apply resources, even when they don’t have much, to philanthropy. Often these are also people who live in the community or are closer to the problems. There’s much that big philanthropists can learn from small philanthropists. There should be workshops, talks and conferences for people who have less money but are curious about strategies that might make their resources go further and be more impactful.
You have worked in Nigeria in agriculture. Any advice for philanthropists who want to pick up agriculture as a field to work in?
We work actively in both Nigeria and Ethiopia. We have worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and involved the ministry of agriculture there to ensure that the leadership is at its most effective and collaborative, and that they are interested in reaching out beyond the federal area to the different regions of the country. If the aim is to increase the productivity of small producers, then the question is how can the government collaborate with cooperatives and non-profits to work with small producers. Philanthropists should work to bring in the voice of the community in such cases, work to diagnose what would be simple and appropriate solutions that will not be so far from the small producers’ traditional practices that they refuse to adopt them