What Does Peggy Dulany Know about Philanthropy?

Listening first, before doing anything else as a philanthropist, is essential, according to Peggy Dulany (Rockefeller), one of the most prolific philanthropists of our time. I recently had the honor of sitting down with Dulany for a conversation on topics ranging from cross-cultural allyship to meditation to accepting the growing pains that come with diversity and inclusion. 

Peggy Dulany (Rockefeller) spoke with Yolanda F. Johnson about the meaning of philanthropy and how to find one’s deeper purpose in life. (Image credit: Peggy Dulany)

“Listen, listen, listen–with an open mind and an open heart. Because if we haven’t started with that, then what we’re liable to do will probably come from our own experience or lack of experience or misconceptions or biases,” Dulany said.

“It’s not just the philanthropists deciding what the problem is and what the solution ought to be and applying funds or time to that,” Dulany told me. “It’s an evolving, ‘how can I, as a philanthropist, apply my best values and understanding after I’ve done all that listening, with respect?’” 

Ms. Dulany is Chair of Synergos, a global organization helping solve complex issues around the world by promoting trust and collaboration among grassroots groups, government, business leaders and organizations. In 2001, she co-founded Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle with her father, David Rockefeller, to support philanthropic families in using this approach. 

As a young woman, she lived in Rio de Janeiro, where she realized that the people most affected by adverse living conditions are also the ones with the motivation to solve their problems. What they really lacked were connections.  

She has applied her ideas about listening and building connections in her many roles: head of a public high school program for dropouts; Senior Vice President of the New York City Partnership; consulting with the United Nations and the Ford Foundation on health care and family planning, and and has also worked in a consultation role with the National Endowment for the Arts on issues of nonprofit management and planning. She has served on over thirty nonprofit and corporate boards. 

Since it is one of my personal goals to encourage and spotlight women’s philanthropy in every way I can, I asked Ms. Dulany about her thoughts on recent studies from philanthropic thought leaders that show how women give differently than men. 

“A lot of my thinking focuses on the masculine and the feminine–– not necessarily gender, but how we carry both of those inside ourselves,” Dulany said. “Globally and in this country, we tend to be a bit out of balance toward the masculine aspect.” 

She defined the masculine approach to giving as more aggressive, more data-driven, and less heart-based. The feminine approach is more interpersonal, she explained: “It tends to be more passion-based but not without intellect and reasoning; if something catches the feminine side of us, we’re more likely to go with it, even if it doesn’t have all the data behind it.” 

Next, I asked Dulany to discuss the evolving meaning of the word, “philanthropist.” This is very important to the work of Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy (WOC)®, where we strive to dismantle the stereotypical definition of the word. A lot of the work that we’ve done tackles that old archetype, which usually referred to an affluent white male or female. We’re now trying to redefine it so that it’s just a person who is committed to changing the world and their local community for the better.

So, what would Dulany say to people to assure them that their contribution matters? 

Dulany pointed out that the Greek root of “philanthropy” is “love of humanity,” and that anybody can love humanity. 

“When I talk with people of any level of wealth, or lack thereof, I talk to them about giving with our full selves,” Dulany said. 

Through Synergos, she guides wilderness retreats that offer participants a safe space to do inner work, carving out a time and a place for them to reflect on their deepest purpose in life. I asked her about this in relation to using philanthropy as a tool for change and impact. 

“Most of us have encountered some trauma that leads to rage, shame, fear or grief; these tend to narrow our vision. Mindfulness, therapy, group work, time in the wilderness or meditation all allow us to witness how trauma affects our interactions, our behavior, and our giving. Getting curious about where our ideas come from instead of judging ourselves or others–that is a really important first step,” Dulany explained.

She pointed out that more curiosity and less judgment could also be the beginning of change on philanthropic boards, which need to embrace diversity and inclusivity. Curiosity could lead to a more open perspective. 

“Some of the resistance to diversification might be intentional and some of it might be out of ignorance, or lack of awareness.” Dulany pointed out. “There’s a responsibility on the part of organizations to become more aware; that responsibility is being met by communities of color right now. We need to raise the issues—even if that leads to uncomfortable conversations. Consider those conversations growing pains.”

Peggy Dulany’s approach — one that blends self-care with deep listening to hear the community you are working with as it formulates its own response to a problem — is the type of approach that often leads to substantive change in advancing a more equitable philanthropic landscape. I left our conversation grateful for the excellent perspective Dulany shared. All of us in philanthropy can learn a great deal from her insights.


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Author: Yolanda F. Johnson

With more than two decades of experience in the non-profit sector, Yolanda F. Johnson has successfully led fundraising operations for a wide range of non-profit organizations, launching creative event, sponsorship and marketing initiatives that produced new streams of both contributed and earned income. Her fundraising expertise includes securing foundation, corporate, and government funding and cultivating a diverse major gifts portfolio. In addition to leading YFJ Consulting, LLC, Yolanda is the Founder of WOC, Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy®, the Allies in Action™ Membership Network, and is President of Women In Development (WID), NY, the NYC area's premier professional organization for women in fundraising and philanthropy. Yolanda has also had an outstanding career as a performing artist, as a composer, as a producer, as an educator, and she has used her background as a performer to become a sought-after fundraising expert. Her leadership roles include: serving as an International Advisory Board member and the former Representative for the Foundation for Post Conflict Development to the United Nations; a member of the board of directors of the Lehman College Art Gallery; a member of the board of trustees of the Hudson River Museum and a member of the PowHerNY board of directors. A trailblazing figure on the national fundraising landscape, Yolanda is the first African American President in the 40-year history of WID. She co-established the WID Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and is often a featured expert on incorporating DEI initiatives into organizational culture. She has appeared as a panelist at Fundraising Day in New York, the Women’s Alliance National Conference and CASE events among others. Yolanda is also a member of the Chronicle of Philanthropy Advisory Committee of national leaders in the non-profit sector. Tying together her life as a successful performing artist and a non-profit leader, she developed All the World's A Stage, a special workshop using performance practice for get-ting what one wants out of fundraising, philanthropy and life. She presents All the World's A Stage to audiences across the United States. Yolanda is the Worship Leader/Music Director at the church she attends, a member of Sigma Alpha Iota International Women’s Music Fraternity and is on the artist roster for Random Access Music/Queens New Music Festival and the newly formed Westchester Chamber Soloists Orchestra. She holds a B.A. in Voice (Music Performance) and an M.A. in Arts Administration with a focus on Fundraising and Events and is the author of various publications and articles on fundraising.

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