Peggy Dulany: On creating meaningful partnerships for effective change

Peggy Dulany, founder and chair of Synergos. Photo by: Synergos

As a fourth-generation Rockefeller, Peggy Dulany had been raised in a family that valued philanthropy and giving back to the community.

But it wasn’t until she spent a year living in a squatter’s settlement in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, working on a child vaccination program, that she began to develop her own philanthropic philosophy and to think critically about what the obstacles to fighting poverty really were.  

“From my experience in Rio, I was able to see the amount of will and creativity people living in poverty have to get out of it,” she told Devex. “But more than money, what they lacked was connections and access.”

Her experience in Brazil inspired her to found Synergos, a nonprofit that focuses on cultivating inclusive partnerships between diverse actors — from activists, to governments, civil society, philanthropists and the communities that these groups are trying to serve — in order to create sustainable and effective solutions to poverty and to advance social justice.

Thirty years later, Synergos has played a major role in facilitating sustainable development projects all over the world, from tackling malnutrition in Maharasthra, India, to decreasing infant and maternal mortality in Namibia, to improving educational systems in a state in Brazil, and food security in Ethiopia and Nigeria, to name but a few.

In doing so, Dulany has learned a great deal about what it takes to create partnerships that are capable of solving large-scale, complex social problems, and some of the key problems that lead them to fail.

“It’s not a simple thing,” she said. “We’ve had 29 years to look at what is needed to really create large-scale, lasting change — and it’s a combination of factors: systematic approaches and personal transformation, bridging leadership and inclusive partnerships as a mechanism for creating sustainable change.”

Cultivating ‘bridging leaders,’ local champions

“Civil society was at war with business and government, so one of our challenges became how to create a circumstance in which people could come together and begin to change to see things through the same lens.”

— Peggy Dulany, founder and chair of Synergos

First, there’s the issue of leadership: Partnerships that lack effective leaders are almost certain to fail. But for a leader to be truly successful when working with diverse stakeholders, they should have the qualities of a “bridging leader” — someone who works primarily as a facilitator, able to translate meaning across sectors, build trust and co-create with others in order to generate collective action. In this way, they become a connector between organizations and institution across a system, rather than a traditional “boss” heading the effort.

“Bridging leaders need to be low-ego,” Dulany explained. “They need to be a person who can listen deeply and empathetically to all stakeholders, and whose primary goal is to mobilize the expertise of others in the group to create a common solution.”

Second, Dulany observed that the most effective collaborations often also have a local “champion” — someone with power, often in government, who is in a place of influence to push through the agreed-upon solution, and is 100 percent committed to making the project work. This, she explained, might be someone in a key governmental ministry, or the CEO of a big, influential business.

Finally, it’s important to define “inclusive partnership.” According to Dulany, while many development efforts claim to work in “partnerships,” few are truly inclusive — usually one partner has far more power than the others. When it comes to addressing complex social challenges, however, a multisector approach becomes necessary, drawing on stakeholders from different levels in governments, businesses, civil society, and members of the communities they hope to serve.

According to Dulany, neither top-down, nor bottom-up solutions work well — a combination of the two approaches is necessary. And for a truly effective outcome, it’s important that the people most affected the problem are involved in coming up with solutions, though this can often make the process take longer.

Building stakeholder trust

Unfortunately, while such collaborations easy to talk about, they are much more difficult to implement in practice.

“In the beginning, we noticed that part of the reason no one was working together was because of a complete lack of trust — people had different ideologies, different political and socio-economic levels, they didn’t know one another and they spoke different languages,” she said. “Civil society was at war with business and government, so one of our challenges became how to create a circumstance in which people could come together and begin to change to see things through the same lens.”

But learning to see things through the same lens is a process, and rarely a fast one. Synergos found that if individuals from different stakeholder groups had the opportunity to get to know one another on a personal level in a safe, informal environment, it would translate directly to better trust and communication.

“You need to take people out of their roles,” she said. “Put them in a place where they are people first, so they can connect on that level.”

One way to do this is through strategic retreats. An example is from an initiative to address the roots of malnutrition in the state of Maharashtra, India, with the state government, UNICEF, businesses including Hindustan Unilever, ICICI Bank, and Tata Industries, and local nonprofit and community groups. Dulany’s team quickly found that trust would be a barrier to finding sustainable solutions.

“We realized that there was a problem with the supply chain — that only 10 percent of medicines were reaching their destinations,” she said about an effort to improve services in health centers for children that was part of this collaboration. “The problem was due to combination of many factors, including some corruption and inexperience — the kind of thing where the government was feeling defensive of receiving outside help. So building trust was very important to getting the project to work.”

Using team-building retreats

Synergos implemented a two-part trust-building process. They identified about 30 people across different levels and sectors who were willing to commit to an intense six-month process together. First they sent them in cross-sector groups of five on a five-day learning journey to look at the nature of the problem.

“At the end of the week, after listening to one another ask questions, and hearing each person’s perspective, they had a much more common understanding and trust,” Dulany said.

But the real breakthrough took place when the group went to the Himalayan mountains for a week. For the first three days, they were camping by themselves and were instructed to reflect on their purpose in life. Then they met up as a group to finish the week together.

“They were terrified — and that helped them bond as a group. For many of them, it was a life changing experience, and their bonds became very strong,” she said. “It pulled them from their roles, and the stress of everyday life, and put them in a very creative space — that’s where the brainstorming started.”

Dulany believed that it was this experience of shared personal transformation that enabled the team to trust one another — and to focus on the task of solving the problem as a group, rather than through the lens of their individual experiences.

Ultimately, the stakeholder groups’ solution was a program called Bhavishya, which contributed to some dramatic results: stunting among children under the age of 2 in Maharashtra fell from 39 percent to 23 percent over the approximate five-year period of the partnership. It also provided a tested model of collaboration that could be scaled up by government, both in Maharashtra and in other parts of India.

“Our way of forming partnerships isn’t an easy process,” said Dulany. “It’s messy and difficult, and it takes a long time. But the results are worth it.”

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About the author

  • Malia Politzer

    Malia Politzer is an award-winning long-form journalist who specializes in international development, human rights issues and investigative reporting. She recently completed a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in India and Spain. For three years, she worked as a feature-writer at Mint, India’s second-largest financial newspaper, where she wrote about international development, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. She holds an M.S. journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Fellow for Investigative Journalism, and a B.A. from Hampshire College.