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Giving Thought blog

Understanding and reimagining civil society and how we support it.

Charities Aid Foundation


23 October 2015

The Global Goals could be a locomotive force for good. The train has left the station but many foundations and philanthropists are unsure where it is going.

Please excuse that opening analogy. It was an attempt to make a subject about which many column inches have been produced seem somehow new or profound. Hopefully by looking past the platitudes to some of the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of the proposed role for philanthropy in delivering the Global Goals I can be more engaging. Comments on this blog, more than most, are very welcome.

Like lots of other people, I found myself in New York towards the end of September to attend meetings and events on the fringes of a historic United Nations Summit to adopt the Post 2015 Development Agenda: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I arrived in New York with some reservations about what they could mean for philanthropy. Some have been assuaged, some remain and others have been exacerbated as a result of my trip. This blog will detail some of what I have learned and what I think this means for philanthropy.


If it wasn’t clear to me that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be an order of magnitude more significant for philanthropy than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before my trip to New York, it is now. The extent to which the biggest foundations have bought into the SDGs and the manifest interest from some of the worlds largest corporations should ensure that come January 1st, we will find ourselves in a changed global environment for philanthropy. There will be many opportunities and challenges for philanthropy in the coming years. Indeed, philanthropy has been recognised as an important delivery partner in the Addis Ababa Agreement of financing the SDGs.  Given that Project Everyone managed to reach half the world’s population just to make them aware of the SDGs being signed in September – amassing a smorgasbord of the worlds biggest media, commercial and CSO brands along the way, it seems complacent to underestimate the potential impact of the “Global Goals”.


The SDG movement, judging by the Addis Agreement, sees philanthropy primarily a source of money to be utilised within partnerships and to be accountable within them to governments – regardless of the fact of their independent funding. Little consideration seems to have been given to the way that accountability within such partnerships will be disproportionate, especially for small foundations and CSO delivering on the ground. More worryingly, seeing philanthropy as merely a source of money fails to take advantage of its core strengths and unique advantages. With accountability and resources tied into large partnerships, philanthropy might find it more difficult to innovate, take risks, be flexible, test assumptions or be controversial – yet these unique qualities were often cited in New York as crucial.

In the conversations and presentations I witnessed, there seemed to be a kind of cognitive dissonance whereby people would talk about the need for philanthropy accept a subordinate role within partnerships that would likely be determined by governments, and then minutes later talk about the disruptive benefits offered by independent minded foundations. Envisioning two mutually exclusive roles for philanthropy in delivering the SDGs might be defended as being positive or hopeful; in reality, it is naive. It is clear – and David Donahue, Irish UN representative & Co-Facilitator of the SDGs eluded as much – that some countries sought to limit the more liberalising elements of both the Global Goals and the financing framework for delivering them. This is evidenced by the lack of human rights related targets in the SDGs and the fact that where philanthropy is mentioned in the Addis Agreement, the need for it to be held accountable is highlighted. It seems that philanthropy is being welcomed as a partner, but with caveats. Its response should mirror this.


Philanthropy has very little time to prepare for the SDGs. Speaking at the Philanthropy Engaged event hosted by the Ford Foundation, Peter Laugham, Incoming President and CEO, Hilton Foundation suggested that we will need to demonstrate that SDGs have traction within 2 years or the agenda could flounder. Given that many foundations will be in the middle of long running existing funding cycles it is hard to see how they will be able to move this fast. As a result, corporate philanthropy seems to be in the driving seat. Indeed, some are suggesting that the SDGs could result in a golden age of socially orientated business.

Actually, judging from what I heard in New York (admittedly, not a representative sample but hopefully a sign of the future), corporate philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seem to have become a bit passé. That is not to say that the companies I spoke to are less engaged in pursuing a social mission. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Some of the worlds biggest companies seem have gone from delegating philanthropy to a small CSR department to mainstreaming their social mission into their core business in order to ensure that they are making money sustainably. However, what this means in practice is that when foundations and philanthropists partner with companies in the future it might have to be in support of market based solutions. I heard a lot about ideas which involved the philanthropic funding of entrepreneurial risk that would ultimately lead to profit generation in which donors would not share.

Though such market development may well be a win-win for companies and local people who benefit from new and sustainable products and services, it may not feel like a natural fit for many philanthropic donors. Furthermore, it is not clear how this sits with the need – enshrined in the SDGs – to address inequality. Indeed, this model of development could actively engender it as ultimately, the long term beneficiaries of such market development would more often than not be foreign multinational companies. None of this is to say that philanthropy should’t engage with business to deliver the SDGs, not to do so would be almost criminal. Rather, being clear about roles and exactly who benefits and how from partnership will be crucially important.


Mr. Laugham (who I was impressed by in case you hadn’t guessed) identified an alternative role for philanthropy, as the think-tanks of the SDGs. In this role we can try new ideas, hold governments and businesses to account for delivery against goals and advocate for alternative approaches by demonstrating that they work. To me this feels like a role that could allow foundations in particular to retain their independence whilst utilising their best qualities. Whether foundations can play this role from within partnerships remains to be seen. It might be difficult to scrutinise and advocate without true independence but that doesn’t seem to hold actual think-tanks back! I suppose it all comes down to the need to ensure that all partners are clear about their roles within partnerships and what they can expect from one another. I am a fan of the compacts between governments and civil society such as those seen in a number of European nations. Such compacts could be created at national level between SDG delivery partners.


The SDG platform for philanthropy, which will map all official development assistance (ODA) and philanthropic spending on the SDGs, has a lot of weight behind it. 1000 foundations have apparently been engaged. The transparency agenda is not going to go away and I think that any foundation publically claiming to be delivering on the SDG agenda will need to demonstrate transparency. Many already are. However, more consideration needs to be given about how this will affect some of the more sensitive funding programmes. For example, would it be advisable for funders to publish data detailing their grants to CSOs campaigning for equal rights for LGBT groups in Uganda? Given that we know that some governments baulked at the inclusion of such rights in the SDGs whilst calling for more transparency from donors, a cynic might wonder if the some have seen the goals as a handy way of exposing their critics.

I also have some slight reservations about the way in which financial reporting on the SDGs will be collated. There seems to be very little appetite to distinguish between genuinely new resources that have been implemented specifically to deliver against SDG targets and existing money for projects that has been retrofitted against the SDGs.


The early pilots in Kenya, Ghana, Columbia and Indonesia are diverse and fascinating. Kenya has acknowledged its failure to address maternal health over the course of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and has made this a priority. Indeed, the force of nature that is Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, is personally fronting the Beyond Zero campaign which is specifically targeted at SDG commitments to meet maternal and new born health (as well as HIV) targets by introducing 32 mobile clinics. In Colombia four government departments have formed a joint commission to look at SDGs. They have invited a business leader and a CSO leader to join the committee. In Indonesia the government and leading foundations have essentially divided the nation between each other to tackle certain targets to avoid duplication in a country where geography makes reaching everyone extremely difficult.

All of the pilots seem to have one thing in common: government commitment. Moreover, governments are setting the agenda which philanthropy must fit in. This has to be the right approach as national partnerships must be accountable at that level. By coordinating a partnership centrally, government may well be ensuring that the SDGs have traction locally, but this represents the end of an era in which western foundations were able to create their own agenda locally and expect CSOs on the ground to sing along to their tune. Foundations may still be providing some of the instruments, but governments in the pilots have seized the role of conductor in orchestrating SDG partnership and hopefully, local communities and CSOs will be able to claim greater influence.


The Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation will be monitoring the closing space for civil society. However, monitoring may not be an adequate response. Disparagingly, there is little sign that the SDG movement will ameliorate the “closing space for civil society”. Rather, the fact that David Donahue, Irish UN representative & Co-Facilitator of the SDGs, made it clear at an event I attended that freedoms of expression had been downplayed and human rights practically excluded indicates that some governments see the SDG movement as a way to cleave such challenges to their governance from the collective model of development. As funding inevitably gravitates towards SDG targets it may be that this is at the expense of those causes which have been left out. Brave and controversial philanthropy may become increasingly rare and increasingly precious.