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Helping Philanthropists Tackle the U.N. Goals

Helping Philanthropists Tackle the U.N. Goals

As seen in Barron’s, click here to read the online version.

After the U.N. developed its Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, corporations and investors began to align their efforts to improve society and the environment to this global framework of 17 goals, such as “gender equality” and “climate action.”

But philanthropic organizations were slower to catch on. That’s changing through the efforts of major foundations, like the Conrad Hilton Foundation and the Ford Foundation, and city-led partnerships in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors is working to move the ball even further forward with a two-volume guide for philanthropists describing what the goals, known as the SDGs, are all about, and providing tools for taking action within the U.N. framework.

They are finding a receptive audience among those who view the SDGs as a way to collaborate with other philanthropists, and to effectively achieve their own goals, says Heather Grady, who leads RPA’s strategy and program development in global philanthropy.

What these philanthropists have recognized, Grady says, is that “if we have a common, agreed framework, it facilitates collaboration.”

Impact investors—who invest in companies to create a positive social or environmental outcome—as well as companies and corporations—more naturally gravitated to the SDGs, as the 17 goals proved to be a great tool for creative efficient partnerships with like-minded investors.

Foundations, however, have been more likely to have internally defined program areas, like a focus on plastics in the ocean, or homelessness, Grady says.

But as more funders see the power of working collectively, they have become more interested in finding ways to work together, and “suddenly we find the SDGs are more popular,” she says.

This was first evident in the arena of climate change, where the Paris Agreement created an effective framework for advocacy, as well as data collection and reporting. Similarly, SDGs like No. 3, “good health and well being,” and No. 4, “quality education,” which each include specific underlying targets, allow funders to focus their work more effectively.  (“No poverty” and “Zero hunger” are numbers 1 and 2.)

“There’s an appetite today for leverage,” Grady says. A foundation that can give US$1 million may question whether that’s enough to solve hunger in their community, for example. But they recognize, “if we leverage our own funds with those of others, it will make a difference.”

Making a difference is what the SDGs are all about. The U.N. has said that US$5 trillion to US$7 trillion is needed each year to meet the goals by a 2030 deadline.

As part of its own work in addressing sustainability, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation began looking at the SDGs shortly after they came out, in 2016, “as a way we could begin mapping and creating a common language,” says Sarah Owen, CEO.

This allowed the foundation to look at a common map of targets and goals with its grantees, donors, and community stakeholders, including corporations and governments, Owen says.

“Grantees can look at where they fall—as far as how they are addressing and impacting the SDGs—while for donors, it creates a conversation that allows them to see what impact they are having,” she says.

Although the foundation works regionally, the issues it tackles are universal, allowing local and regional foundations that work together to have an even bigger impact.

“Community foundations are such a fantastic network—they are an international network—that if we could all talk and measure in the same way, it could be one of the most powerful networks available on Earth,” Owen says.

Southwest Florida Community Foundation
Southwest Florida Community Foundation

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