The first thing you notice about Ms Peggy Dulany when meeting her in person is how tall she is, and you wonder if she got it from the Rockefeller side of the family.

The Rockefellers are the United States billionaire family who made their fortune in oil and controlled then Chase Manhattan Bank.

Ms Dulany’s father – she dropped her last name in 1969 – was the late David Rockefeller, the bank’s longstanding chairman.

Forbes referred to her as the reluctant Rockefeller in 1999. Even though she says she would rather not focus on her family, Ms Dulany is happy to reveal snippets of what it means to be part of such a legacy.

“When I was young, the family name was such a big mantle that it was a little difficult to separate who I was and what I did want to do – apart from just simply being a member of this family.

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“I think, a long time ago, I didn’t need that title anymore. I’m proud of the many things my family has done, and I feel so grateful for the support, and I’m talking more about the emotional and connective support my father provided for me, his (and) my entire life,” says Ms Dulany, who is 70 this year.

The Rockefellers are well known for their philanthropic activities, and giving back to society is something that Ms Dulany holds dear to her heart as well.

She founded non-profit organisation Synergos Institute in 1986, and was here recently to speak about her work and experiences. The UBS private forum for top women leaders, held at the Shangri-La Hotel, covered topics such as wealth management and family legacy.

Synergos focuses on tackling global poverty, and its efforts are directed at areas that include nutrition, agriculture and youth employment, as well as sustainable development projects.

Initially, the institute had an annual budget of US$200,000 (S$273,000), which has since risen to about US$16 million, funded by various sources including foundations and income earned from its consulting arm.

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Ms Dulany made sure early on that her financial contribution would not exceed 10 per cent of the annual budget; today, it comes to far less. She had learnt from her father and uncles that too much funding from the founder can have an adverse effect.

“Even though, in today’s world, so many businesses and families have made much more than we have, the Rockefeller name is still one equated with wealth,” she says.

“If a member of my family starts an organisation and funds it, everyone thinks it’s wonderful work, but they are not going to want to contribute money. The reality is that, if we were going to do the work we wanted to do on a global basis, we needed much more than the money I could put in.”

The organisation took years to get to where it is today, and to figure out the best way to do things, because giving back is not just about money.

“Now that we’re 30 years old, I feel we have ‘proof of concept’ with what kind of partnerships can work – (and) only in the past five years. Each of the initiatives, such as deep partnerships, can take five to seven years to work.”

And sometimes things do not go as planned. Ms Dulany recalls how Synergos was helping Unilever and Unicef to determine how to work effectively with non-governmental organisations. The goal was to reduce the malnutrition rate in India’s Maharashtra state, one of the highest rates globally.

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The institute found that the “biggest impediment was the lack of trust”, and other factors included corruption. It then sent key people on a retreat to work things out.

They hit on an idea, and a chef from Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces was tasked with reworking the type of meals that poor children in the state ate every day, creating just three easy-to-prepare menus.

“We never got beyond the pilot because the corporates said it was enough, and we were in only three districts. We were upset but, two years later, Unicef did a study of nutrition efforts all over the world, and found the most positive results in this state,” notes Ms Dulany, adding that the rate of stunting – a severe effect of malnutrition – fell from 39 per cent to 23 per cent there.

“We realised that it wasn’t just the pilots – it was the trust built up in a previously disjointed system – and we’re going to do a case study on that as well.”

She has always been passionate about social and political causes – marching in Washington to protest against the Vietnam War as a university student in the 1960s, and spending a year at a squatters’ settlement in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

But it was not until she was in her late 30s that she fully understood how to harness her connections to further important causes.

She was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, working to promote better policies. “I was travelling to the Soviet Union with my father, and stopped overnight in Paris, where he ran into the head of Johnson & Johnson, which was one of the corporations that the African National Congress party was trying to lobby for disinvestment.

“The company didn’t want to leave South Africa as they were hiring a lot of black people and providing them with jobs. A friend of mine, an ambassador for the African National Congress, was in Paris the same day.”

Father and daughter were going to meet their contacts separately, but serendipitous timing brought them together for a breakfast meeting, one that eventually played “a small role in the pressure against the apartheid government”.

She recalls: “The point I got from this was that, wow, the connections I could have or make use of, in being part of the family, could perhaps be more valuable a contribution than grassroots work.

“That gave me the idea for the next phase of Synergos, which is building, bridging leadership. My father was very much about bridging leadership. He would talk to people he disagreed with, and I was trying to emulate that, to talk to anybody with an open heart.”

It is clear that Ms Dulany, who has five siblings, has always adored her father. In the early 1980s, she joined the Partnership for New York City, an organisation he founded that strives to help business leaders take an active role in shaping the city’s future.

It was important for her that he understood her work, so when discussing it, she used the language he knew best – business.

“At first, it was a little difficult for him to understand because it wasn’t the banking business. But I’d worked with him on the Partnership for New York City after he retired from the bank. If I said the word partnership, he could relate, even if the way I was doing it was somewhat different, and he was proud and supportive.”

Her mother Margaret “Peggy” McGrath died in 1996. She recalls that, four years earlier, “the mother- daughter tension went out of our relationship, and I began to find her so interesting, delightful and fun to be with”.

In the years following her mother’s death, she grew even closer to her father, who died in March this year at the age of 101. “I had 21 years with my father in a beautiful relationship. There’s a song, Wind Beneath My Wings, and he was really the wind beneath my wings.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times
Photo credit: Chew Seng Kim / The Straits Times