Interning at Synergos: Heleena De Oliveira

I would like to thank Mr. Brown and the McGill Experience Awards founders for their generous donation of the Susan Casey Brown Fund for McGill, MIEA, which has allowed me to participate in a three-month virtual internship this summer at the Synergos Institute based in New York City.


My reasons for participating in this internship were to broaden my understanding of the philanthropic world and all its facets. I have a very personal passion about driving social change – notably in the fields of climate change, human rights, poverty, and women’s rights. These are issues that I felt the Synergos Institute had prioritised in their mission which consequently led me to apply to their internship program.


The Synergos institute is a non-profit philanthropic organization which aims to assist in the resolution of complex global issues facing humanity. The approach they take in doing this is one of building trust in order to inspire collective action. Part of their service as an organization includes facilitating partnerships between stakeholders who are interested in making contributions towards social change, consulting foundations and other non-profit organizations on how to achieve sustainable growth and social impact as well as strengthening leaders by giving them the tools to build trust and collaborate with others.


Work from home set up including a computer, a coffee, and a notebook
My workspace set-up from home. Working on CRM data entry for membership information.
During the internship, my tasks included undertaking prospect research and other philanthropic research, copyediting, writing newsletters, marketing and online programming support, and participating in working groups and other staff meetings.


My learning objectives upon entering the internship were centered around developing my collaborative skills as well as well as my time management and problem-solving skills. Ultimately, as I previously mentioned, I was most interested in understanding the daily functions of NGOs like Synergos and how these endeavors culminate into the ‘social change impact’ they seek to achieve. It was this desire to truly understand the benefits and limitations of philanthropy that drove me and inspired me throughout my internship.


There were several highlights of my internship, the most notable being my ability to participate in Synergos’ annual Global Gathering event (SGG), which this year also happened to commemorate their 20th anniversary. I was moved by the call to action of many indigenous and climate activist guests who were invited to speak at the event. I was also fortunate enough to have been able to meet several of Synergos’ members and even discuss with them what their priorities were as philanthropists and how they felt they were making a difference through their work. I found this experience to be very enlightening and I will certainly recall it as my favorite highlight of the internship. Another significant highlight of this internship was the opportunity I was given to contribute to the relaunch of Synergos’ Food System group. This opportunity allowed me to observe first-hand how the process of organizing and mobilizing members and staff is undertaken, and ultimately how budding ideas come to fruition in such organizations.


Heleena working outdoors on a table, with a fresh drink and fruits
Working outdoors from an internet café on no-meeting days at Synergos.
My academic background as an anthropology and political science major was helpful in giving me a solid foundation to understand many of the issues being dealt with within the organization. Anthropology, in particular, was highly relevant to the work being done at Synergos, especially in support of indigenous and local cultures and the rights of people who are consistently at the forefront of global threats to human life, such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, amongst several other things.


This award allowed me to participate in an internship that has informed me of the strengths and weaknesses of working both in non-profit organizations, and within the field of philanthropy. Through it, I have begun to shape concrete ideas of how I want to contribute to the maintenance of human right and indigenous autonomy, in my future legal career.


Receiving these funds allowed me to live independently in Montreal over the course of the summer internship instead of returning home to Kenya. Had it not been for this award, I would have struggled to complete this internship to an adequate standard, both because of the time difference between Kenya and New York as well as the distraction of living at home. Because of this award I was able to devote myself and my attention fully to the internship and make the most out of it.

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