Localizing SDG Impacts Through the Philanthropy Sector

August 17, 2017 - Heather Grady, Vice President

If we as a global community are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—the 17 goals that the world’s governments committed to achieve for all people by the year 2030–philanthropy must be a key partner, particularly with respect to local implementation efforts.

Each July, governments, UN agencies, civil society organizations and businesses convene in New York to report on and debate progress on the 17 goals and their targets at the High Level Political Forum. At this event, philanthropy is typically lightly represented, but I was fortunate enough to present at an event organized by the Local 2030 Hub for Sustainability Solutions, moderated by Paul Clements-Hunt of the Blended Capital Group. He emphasized that we must remember to focus on “those left furtherest behind.” While not particularly eponymous, it was an important orientation for the two-day event.

The speakers came mostly from governments including Sweden, Tanzania and Canada and the UN, each demonstrating their respective commitments to achieving local impact from these lofty goals. Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International provided the civil society perspective.  Mohan Vivekanandan of the Development Bank of Southern Africa reminded us of the role private sector finance could play. I described our sector’s view of the potential and the special niche philanthropy can help fill in creating local impact and reaching the ‘last mile’.

There are over 90,000 foundations in the US and more than 110,000 in Europe. The number of foundations in China, India, South America, Africa and many other regions is growing fast – in fact it’s the fastest growing sector in the world due to growing wealth. Therefore, there is increasing responsibility not only for wealth holders to share it effectively to support those usually left behind, but also for those managing the SDG processes globally and locally to open the doors to this growing sector.

Philanthropic funds have historically gone to communities in great need and to localities, such as rural districts and poor urban neighborhoods, who are often last to be given access to government services and private investment. The diverse actors in the institutional philanthropy sector – which include family foundations, large endowed foundations, community foundations, corporate philanthropy and impact investors – can be mobilized and encouraged by more responsive and coherent programmatic planning at the local level, as well as opportunities for leveraging their giving through government budgets and improved policies. In other words, lots of funds are flowing, but often in a fragmented pattern. The SDGs can remedy this disconnect and bring more coherence and impact by bridging across sectors. But this can only happen when the doors are open.

Created by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in partnership with the UN and other key foundations, the SDG Philanthropy Platform is demonstrating how this works in practice. The Platform is creating new models of collaboration in almost a dozen countries, including a regional approach in the Middle East/North Africa. Examples of leveraging for impact are increasing.

In Kenya, the Platform is connecting organizations supporting early childhood development to encourage potential partnerships, and is poised to host a new UN collaboration in the sector that could help all players converge their efforts to get real systems-level change for young children. In Zambia, the Platform enables women at the grassroots level in faith-based organizations who have strong commitments to the SDGs to connect their perspectives and actions with national dialogue and planning. In Colombia, our partners the Association for Family and Corporate Philanthropy (AFE) worked with their members to jointly pilot a new program in rural Antioquia that builds on the peace process and catalyzes new collaborations required to avoid a resurgence of conflict. In the US, where working at the federal level has encountered so many roadblocks, philanthropy partners are working on SDG implementation in places as diverse as New York, San Jose and Little Rock.

Philanthropy works differently from the UN system and governments, but there is value in cross-fertilization of approaches that allow local successes to percolate upwards. Just as well, there are advantages to philanthropy partners in collaborating with governments to scale what works. We know that the traditional assumption that pilots will be taken up by governments has been challenged as government budgets are increasingly stretched.  At the same time, successful innovation rarely happens without an intentional prototyping process to see what ‘sticks’ in terms of shifting human or market behavior – and this prototyping most often starts outside of government planning.

For now, what is certain is that pathways that give the philanthropy sector and our partners a place and space at the SDG table will be a critical element in achieving success across the goals and helping to ensure that we are, indeed, targeting our efforts and resources at those who have been left “furtherest” behind.

For more information see SDGphilanthropy.org and SDGfunders.org.