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How Philanthropy Adds Value to India’s Effort to Achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals

July 10, 2018

How can philanthropy leverage its specialized resources to effectively contribute to India’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) implementation? This was the question posed to a group of Indian philanthropists and international funders during a recent deep-dive session in Bangalore on the occasion of the second annual meeting of the UN India Business Forum and the 13th National Convention of UN Global Compact Network in India. The SDG Philanthropy Platform—of which Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) is a founding member in collaboration with UNDP—is part of a continuing effort to engage the philanthropic sector in SDG implementation through forging multi-sector partnerships around the world. India is one of the Platform’s primary focus countries.

According to the UN, philanthropy in India increased from US $894 million to $5.3 billion between 2011 and 2016. Even with this dramatic growth, the financial resources of the government and business sectors far surpass philanthropy in India (as it does elsewhere). This makes it that much more important for philanthropy to think carefully and creatively about its role and value added in SDG implementation.

Contrasting Approaches of Business and Philanthropy

At an event focused mostly on business, the need to differentiate between business and the philanthropic sector becomes obvious. The global philanthropic sector is very diverse, with over 200,000 foundations in the US, Europe and emerging markets. Despite this diversity, foundations’ approaches to creating social impact tend to differ from those of business in noticeably consistent ways. Business thinks big is beautiful; philanthropy tends to take on projects of a smaller scale. Business is full of dealmakers who know they have to compromise to get things done; philanthropy actors cherish their autonomy and independence, and are reluctant to compromise. Using a hockey metaphor, business skates to where the puck will be; many in philanthropy care most deeply about addressing the most pressing issues of today, and where the puck is now. And business sees brand benefits to aligning with the SDGs; very often, philanthropy actors don’t need brand benefits because they don’t have customers. While these are generalizations, they are important to understanding philanthropy’s strengths as they apply to the SDGs.

Why Philanthropy is Crucial to the SDGs

The philanthropy sector and its grantees are full of brilliant, committed, generous, knowledgeable individuals and organizations. And many in the sector are very close to those who understand best the problems we’re trying to solve, as well as the solutions to both immediate challenges and long-term root causes. Indeed, historically and today, there have always been those in philanthropy supporting the building blocks of sustainable development by:

  • finding routes to scaled impact for impoverished, remote communities;
  • funding in-built capacity for innovation, risk-taking and prototyping;
  • providing the long-term, patient capital required for social change;
  • addressing root causes, not symptoms;
  • leveraging our relatively smaller amount of funds with larger players; and
  • prioritizing the needs of disadvantaged groups.

Philanthropy in India – Then and Now

Many, if not most, of India’s world-renowned sons and daughters were supported early and often long-term by philanthropy, including SEWA, Pratham, Nobel prize-winner Kailash Satyarthi, and so many more. Even the investments in agriculture that staved off famine in the region during the 1950s were spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation, an example of philanthropy.

Today, game-changing philanthropy in India is led by Indians, and much of it is making important contributions to the SDGs. Our event highlighted several current examples of this, including two organizations focused on the all-important area of education and capacity building: the Azim Premji University, and the Tata Trusts DELTA program, which supports development through data, evaluation, learning, technology and analysis. Another example is Internet Saathi, a joint project by Tata Trusts and Google that is focused on bridging the digital gender divide in rural India.

A third example is the work of Educate Girls, contributing to SDG Goal 5 on gender equality and SDG Goal 4 on education, with tertiary benefits across a range of goals. This organization is supported by generous organizational development grants from a number of foundations, including a 2015 Skoll Award, and by more experimental development impact bonds that use an innovative financing mechanism to scale the number of girls reached.

Another example is the Joint India Programme of the Oak Foundation, which uses a cross-program funding lens in focussed states to optimally impact indigenous communities, women, youth and children.

Two Approaches for Getting the Most from Philanthropy in India

In our view, two approaches are needed for the SDG efforts in India to get the most from philanthropy, and in this India mirrors all other countries. First, to track progress from all sectors against the SDGs, we will need to get into national government data sets more baseline data and program outcomes from philanthropic funders. Many of these funders will never  take the step to join a collective SDG effort, but their knowledge and data is important. We have the technology to do it, but we need some ingenuity and hard work to get it done.

Second and perhaps more important, we need to activate and expand participation in platforms for the philanthropy actors who are committed to collaborating to create scaled-up solutions to achieve the SDGs. Indeed, many of us in the sector are exploring how we as funders can collaborate better to scale solutions to pressing challenges represented by the SDGs, using systems-change approaches.

In sum, around the world, while philanthropy comes to the SDGs more slowly than the business sector does, it is no less important to have philanthropy engaged and leveraged so all can benefit from our passion, our provocations, and our partnerships.

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