Philanthropy and the SDGs: no-brainer or Faustian pact?

SDGs, Future World Giving, Charities Aid Foundation

SDGs offer strength in numbers but what of the individual?

For many philanthropists, foundations and civil society organisations (CSOs), engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda represents a unmissable opportunity to come together with partners across economic sectors to deliver tangible results. For others though, the risks may outweigh the benefits.


From the 13th to the 16th of  July 2015, the United Nations held an historic conference In Addis Ababa to endorse an action agenda for the financing of the SDGs. The agreement follows a lengthily period of negotiation between all 193 UN recognised nations and will be ratified, alongside the 17 Goals and 169 targets of the SDGs themselves in New York in September.


A little background on the SDGs


If you know the history and basic content of the SDGs please skip this section, if not, here is some useful context.


At the turn of the millennium, world leaders came together to make an unprecedented promise: to eradicate extreme poverty and improve the health and welfare of the world’s poorest people within 15 years. This commitment, adopted at the Millennium Summit in September 2000, was set forth in the United Nations Millennium Declaration. This vision was expressed in eight time-bound goals, due to expire this year – known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).


This ambitious project has, depending on your point of view, been an a heroic victory of multilateralism on behalf of the worlds poor and needy, or a qualified failure. Objectively, judging the MDGs by their own inbuilt metrics, the results have been mixed. For instance, targets on reducing maternal and child mortality will seemingly be missed but targets such as the cutting by half of the share of people who live in abject poverty have been exceeded. But such a sober judgement fails to see the MDGs in historic context. The very fact of such an agreement and the commitment to resource, cooperate and measure the impact of efforts to meet the MDGs represents an important moment in the development of a shared global conscience.


Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - Click to Enlarge

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – Click to Enlarge

As the MDGs began to come to the end of their pre-determined life cycle, efforts to create a successor regime began in earnest. With extensive engagement mechanisms that aim to reach across all sectors and nations (too many to detail here but the image below contains a summary of the basic structure) some clear messages that would drive the development of the SDGs emerged. It was clear that the focus of the MDGs had been too narrow and too paternalistic. The MDGs focused on the symptoms of poverty rather than the underlying causes and there was a strong paternalistic sense from the very beginning that “development” was a term that applied only to the Global South.


SDGs, philanthrpy

SDG engagement process – Click to enlarge

As such, the SDGs are much broader and much more inclusive and encompass peace, stability, human rights and good governance in suite of targets that will require action in even the wealthiest nations. There has been much debate around the SDGs with many – including UK Prime Minister David Cameron – claiming their comprehensiveness will make it much harder to raise awareness with the public. Also, some have highlighted the absence of certain rights issues – such as LGBT rights – as unacceptable and a sign that rights based targets would inevitably be watered down in negotiation with less liberal regimes.


SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals

Proposed SDGs (Click to Enlarge)

Philanthropy: just another funder in the SDGs?


Arguably the most significant difference between the outgoing MDGs and the incoming SDGs can be found not in the goals and targets themselves, but in the way they will be financed. The MDGs were largely envisioned to be funded by aid flows. Despite numerous commitments to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid, the money never materialized in practice. The SDGs have sustainable, inclusive economic development at the core of their strategy, and they focus on the ability of countries to tackle social challenges largely through improving their own revenue generating capabilities. In addition, to meet the estimated $2-3 trillion needed annually to meet the SDG targets, the plan is to encourage businesses to play a strong role, and inevitably, philanthropy.


A possible danger here lies in the fear that this expansion of

Future World Giving, Philanthropy, SDGs, MDGs, Sustainable development

Philanthropy just a cash cow?

responsibility for financing the SDGs from governments to other sectors, will see a rolling back on official development aid (ODA) commitments from governments – something that they have not so far needed an excuse to do. Despite continuing to put governments in the driving seat in delivering the SDGs, the Addis Ababa agreement does not mention the 0.7% ODA commitment until page 17 and does not mention it again.


Perhaps most worrying, is the sense that the Addis agreement, and the SDGs themselves, seem to see philanthropy as merely a source of funds and CSOs as the deliverers of projects and services. The SDGs fail to clearly state that charitable giving and engagement in a vibrant civil society is an outcome in and of itself that enhances community cohesion, challenges corruption and drives innovation. Instead, philanthropy is seen mostly as a mere delivery agent.


The power of partnership


Of course, for many, this is a completely natural fit for their philanthropy. Corporate foundations and in-house CSR leaders may well feel that working in partnership under the guidance of government offers legitimacy on one hand, and on the other, the chance to be part of something far bigger than they could ever have the capacity to deliver alone. For many private philanthropists and foundations who subscribe to the effective altruism school of giving, the opportunity to coordinate and deliver at scale to defined and measurable targets may be especially compelling.


 “Multi-stakeholder partnerships and the resources, knowledge and ingenuity of the private sector, civil society, the scientific community, academia, philanthropy and foundations, parliaments, local authorities, volunteers and other stakeholders will be important to mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, complement the efforts of Governments […]” Par. 10.


Clearly, the Addis Ababa agreement presents some huge opportunities for philanthropy to join up with each other and within wider partnerships of cross-sector bodies to deliver joined up solutions on the behalf of beneficiaries. They will be able to influence others from the inside and, with the advantage of shared scale, specialise. However, the decision to work in partnership should not be taken lightly as it could, in theory at least, jeopardise some of the qualities that make philanthropy so special.


The risk of risk aversion


A welcome addition to the current iteration of the Addis agreement is the acknowledgement that;


“We recognize philanthropic donors’ flexibility and capacity for innovation and taking risks, and their ability to leverage additional funds through multi-stakeholder partnerships.” Par. 42.


Though this goes some way make a more expansive case for the role of philanthropy, it does not fully allay fears that when delivering from within large cross-sector partnerships, philanthropy will lose one of its core competencies. Increasingly, aid agencies are driven by accountability to tax payers and are expected to deliver value for money. In this climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to try new ideas and approaches that might, or may even be likely to fail. However, such risk taking is crucial for sustainable development. Philanthropy can act as societies risk capital and when a successful innovation has been proven, bigger partners can be persuaded to change tack. In this way, philanthropy can influence change in the most profound of ways for a relatively small investment. The danger is that this would be more difficult when working as a minority partner.


A sacrifice of independence?


Size matters in partnerships and philanthropy, no matter how you look at it, is always going to be a minor partner in delivering the SDGs. Let me break it down in the simplest way I can think of. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – arguably one of the biggest spending philanthropic institutions in the world, has

Future World Giving, SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, MDGs, Philanthropy

It can be powerful to stand alone

spent $33.5 billion since the year 2000 and total grantee support was $3.9 billion in 2014. That is a mind bending amount of money, but it needs to be seen in perspective. Even an incomplete total of the ODA contributions from EU nations (including through the EU itself) in 2014 amounted to approximately $94 billion and the USA contributed more than $32.7 billion in the same year. Should business, as is hoped, grow to play a significant role, the influence of philanthropic institutions will decline further still within SDG delivery partnerships. Again, for many this may not be an issue, but for some, being an increasingly small partner may mean an unacceptable loss of influence and even, in some small way,  of control over their own destiny. This of course has connotations for donor accountability.


It comes down to what you think the purpose of philanthropy is …


Whether and to what extent a philanthropist, a foundation, a corporate donor or a CSO decides to commit to working in partnership to deliver the SDGs will likely be settled by which of the following best defines the value of their contribution;


“I believe that I / my organisation is here to deliver projects and services to where they are needed”


If you agree mostly with this statement then the Addis agreement and its call for philanthropy to work in partnership to finance the SDGs will probably seem like a no brainer. Indeed, looking back at the SDGs you will probably see yourself or your organisation as fitting into the SDGs under the following goal as well as your core purpose if that is covered in the goals and targets.


Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development


“I believe that I / my organisation can change the world by being disruptive / challenging power / speaking out for the marginalised / doing things differently”


If you agree most with this statement you may share some of the reservations expressed in this article and may well see yourself or your organisation as fitting into the SDGs under the following goal (which you probably think should contain stronger targets);


Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels


If like me you fall somewhere in between these statements, this article has probably left you feeling more confused than when you started reading it.



Adam Pickering



2 responses to “Philanthropy and the SDGs: no-brainer or Faustian pact?

  1. Pingback: Philanthropy and the Global Goals: a brave new world? | Future World Giving·

  2. Pingback: Appealing to the enlightened self-interest of partners to reinforce civil society | Future World Giving·

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