Synergos Institute in NYC a not-for-profit organization which does not promote itself, but the people it serves Interview with Robert Dunn, CEO of the Synergos Institute

Q: What is Synergos and what exactly do you do?
Synergos is a non-profit-making organization, founded in 1986 by Peggy Dulany, the daughter of David Rockefeller. Our mission is to reduce global poverty through “inclusive partnerships”, bringing together government, business, civil society and local communities.
Synergos works with leaders in public, private, non-profit and civil society sectors to change systems that keep people in poverty. Bringing together government, business, civil society, and poor and marginalized communities, Synergos works with its networks and other partners to create sustainable change in systems. Over the course of more than twenty years, Synergos has built and supported networks of change-makers, as well as innovative global partnerships in more than thirty countries and regions, including Brazil, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, the Middle East, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. To promote and support these systems-changing collaborations, Synergos helps leaders and leading institutions to learn from each other and to access the ideas, people and resources that help them make a greater impact in addressing issues of poverty, equity and social justice. In addition, Synergos is committed to sharing the knowledge learned through its work, so that others can benefit from lessons learned by the organization and its partners.
We become involved when there is an interest or willingness among local partners to take a comprehensive look at what underlies poverty. For example, in Ethiopia we are involved in a project to enhance income and increase access to food for small farmers and herders.
In Namibia we are looking at how to strengthen public health services so that all of the health needs, in particular those of the poor and isolated, can be addressed.
In India we are involved in a project looking at under-nutrition of children. Under-nutrition involves not only access to food, but the nutritional value of that food. It also involves water and sanitation, gender discrimination and government efficiency. Our project deals with the totality of causes.
It is really hard to make changes that are significant and ongoing, but that’s exactly what we are trying to do. We try to strengthen the ability of people in the system who will carry out change, and not be dependent upon outside resources, whether financial or human.
Q: Do you bring in the funding or the expertise or the full team, or do you just work with local partners?
It is a little of all of that. We help the leaders by enhancing their capacity to work with multiple stakeholders, bringing about structural change that includes some traditional approaches –– a concept that we call bridging leadership. It is a series of skills and characteristics that allow people to work across divides, so that business, government and the community can all be part of a dialogue to analyse problems and find solutions.
With respect to large-scale partnerships, we often work with local people to build trust, and to promote collaboration and innovation that will help people understand what they need to do to implement the change in sustainable ways.
Q: When you become involved in a project, what kind of deadline do you set yourself to reach sustainability?
We are patient partners. We believe that systems change is difficult and complicated, and there are not necessarily any formulas that can be applied universally. In the case of the India project, it has been operating for five years, and we now have a local board of trustees and local staff. All the core funding is being provided locally, and there is some support by a global entity.
In the case of Namibia, where we have been working for three years, legislation is being considered that would create a unit within the Ministry of Public Health to pursue the initiatives we have set up.
Q: When people contact you with project proposals, what do you look for?
We are offer grants to recipients, and we sometimes subcontract. When we look at projects, our interest is in what impact the project would have in the requested area, and in what way it would improve the well-being of poor and marginalized people.
The next step –– is the opportunity right for us to provide support. What are the prospects that the success of the initiative would be beneficial to others? Can it be replicated? What are the prospects of securing the resources needed to go forward in order to share their learning so that it will benefit others doing similar work? There are a whole set of criteria that we use.
Q: If I come to you and say “I would like to do something for the domestic female workers in Africa. Can we provide them with some basic training to increase their salaries?” Would this be something that you would be interested in?
Typically, we would take a broader view. If people working as domestic staff in Africa struggle to meet their basic needs, we would want to understand to what extent this is related to issues of migration, education, job training and skills. Would access to college allow them to be more effective? We would want to work with the organizations that are concerned about this client group. We would see if there is a place at the meeting table for the government that may affect the working conditions for this group. We may look at private sector entities that might make the situation better.
In India, for instance, Taj Hotels have been helping with the schoolchildren’s feeding programmes by sending their chefs out to modify the menus. They are identifying local, more nutritious ingredients, finding more tasty ways of preparing them and doing it within the government’s budget for the programme. In Namibia, whereas it can take years to plan and construct a permanent clinic, one way to provide access to health services for women living in rural and isolated communities has been to customize cargo containers that can be equipped in a couple of months. We discuss with anyone who is at the table, anyone with experience. Those are the circumstances that lead to better outcomes. Typically, that is how we would be involved.
Synergos is a family of networks of leaders. If you are a philanthropist interested in this situation, we could help you to connect to ideas, people and resources.
If you were a community-based leader, we have a global peer network of civil society leaders. You would be able to present your situation and benefit from the experiences of people who have dealt with similar issues. The network is really important because we often feel that the most helpful assistance comes from peers and other change-makers –– not because we think we know the answers (or even the questions!).
Q: Does your global philanthropist meet on a regular basis to share experiences?
Yes they do, and they also conduct informal peer consulting. We organize regional workshops and learning journeys –– China, South Africa, Turkey and Jordan. In the past we have arranged trips to Brazil and Mexico. We have a trip coming up to Cuba. So there is a whole array of offerings that are available to the members of the circle. We have a family membership. We have about 200 active participants from about seventy families representing twenty-two countries, including China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, South Africa, as well the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, etc.
Q: How do people become members of this circle?
We look for people who exert an important influence on philanthropy in developing parts of the world where they engage in community work. Some of our members operate very large foundations with professional staff, whereas others give more modestly. We are really interested in people who want to address poverty and social justice issues, working for system change and who are eager to share with others. That is more important to us than any particular amount of money.
We are eager to support people in the circle who are actively engaged in philanthropy. Some people may have modest resources, but generate more influence than others who have more financial resources. If we are working with the most important philanthropist in Ghana or Tanzania or Turkey –– they are going to have a greater impact on what is happening in these countries than people who have greater wealth but live in the United States or the United Kingdom. We want to promote good practice –– that is what is most important.
Q: We have interviewed several philanthropists and they all share this common goal of giving back to society. Do you encourage people to give money to your projects?
Sometimes our projects grow out of initiatives from members of the philanthropic circle, but we don’t attempt to align people with the project we are working on. Sometimes projects arise from initiatives from civil society members, for instance in South Africa.
Sometimes we take people on a learning journey to observe the work we are doing. Sometimes we refer to that work in meetings. Certain members may want to support particular projects. Some provide matching amounts of dollars if the project seems overwhelming to them. Others encourage us to find support.
One of the services of the circle is to make the rising generation of philanthropists aware of their responsibility. We have done a lot of work creating a space where young people, principally in their 20s, have a chance to learn and talk about philanthropy, to share some of their visions. We think that this is an important part of our work.
Q: For people who would like to join this circle, what must they do?
They should definitely contact us. We would help them to become more familiar with the circle and find out if it would serve their purposes. We schedule events throughout the year all around the world. In the last year, we hosted meetings in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Dubai, Paris and London. We tend to have regional cluster of members and we try to involve people in events happening close to them. Some global events taking place around the world may be of interest to them as well.
Q: How do you involve the business community?
Some members of the circle are founders, chairmen or CEOs of businesses. Synergos also offers advice for companies who are trying to develop more effective strategies to engage with developing economies and communities.
We have carried out work in Africa, Mexico, Brazil and India on behalf on global companies. For instance, in India not only were Tata and Taj Hotels involved, but we have support from Hindus, Unilever… Over the years we have worked with Shell. There are a number of important companies who are looking in their corporate strategy for ways of generating income for the company while serving the poor.
We perform a variety of activities. Sometimes we undertake learning journeys for business executives –– focus-forums for company leaders. Sometimes we conduct interviews with community-based organizations and community leaders. We function like a GPS –– when companies are entering unfamiliar territory, we show them how to reach a destination that is of benefit to the community as well as for the company concerned.
Q: So how does Synergos obtain its funding?
We have a mix of income. We receive significant support from individual donors, foundations, corporations, bilateral aid agencies, such USAID, and we generate some income from events that we host. We also earn revenue from the work we undertake for corporations.
Q: Have you been faced with donor dry-ups, like many other humanitarian organizations in Geneva?
During 2009 and 2010 we certainly had a reduction in support because individuals had seen a decline in their assets, foundations in their portfolios, while corporations were laying people off. They have not been interested in new initiatives. We reduced our spending in 2009 and 2010, but we see signs of recovery in 2011 –– if not complete, nevertheless recovery. Our funding comes from all over the world and is therefore independent of any one sector.
Q: You are quite well known in the United States, but you keep a very low profile. Why?
Our aim is to place the people we support at the centre of attention. We want people to know about us so that they can turn to us for help, but the credit always goes to those we work with –– not to us.
We have worked hard for almost twenty-five years to build social capital and to create a relationship of trust. One of the reasons people are comfortable working with us and allow us to continue working with them is that they do not see us promoting our own interest. We are doing this in the service of others.
We want to be known among people not only as a provider of resources, but also as a good partner. We are well known among the UN, the World Bank, the Gates Foundation, but we do not want to be too well-known, because we favour quality.
Q: Are there any projects in particular that you would like to highlight?
I think that one of the projects that we are quite excited about is the work we are doing to promote social innovation in the Arab world. We are launching an effort to identify and provide mentors, interns and support for 250 young social entrepreneurs in Egypt. Now that the country is going through a transition period, we promote people who play an important role in bringing about economic and social change. We have similar work underway in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, and we hope to expand throughout the region. We are very excited about this because the need is so great, the time is so right, and many people in the region have said: “What is missing is innovation”. We intend identifying people who can pursue ways towards important change.
Celhia de Lavarene