Vikki Spruill, President/CEO, Council on Foundations: Philanthropy and the SDGs

August 16, 2016
Vikki Spruill, President/CEO, Council on Foundations: Philanthropy and the SDGs

The United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by world leaders at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on September 25, 2015. The agenda includes more than a dozen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, designed to stimulate action in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet. More ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals, on which they build, the SDGs include a hundred and sixty-nine targets to be achieved over the next fifteen years, from eradicating extreme poverty for all people everywhere, to ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, to halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains.

Led by large, globally oriented foundations such as Ford and Hilton and key infrastructure groups like Foundation Center and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, philanthropy has rallied around the SDG agenda. In July, the Council on Foundations, another key infrastructure group, released a report that details how philanthropy can help achieve the SDGs in the United States. Based on lessons the council has learned from its members and other national and local partners over the last year, the report shares examples of how funders are using the SDG framework to structure their work domestically and offers suggestions for how others might use the goals to advance their mission.

Recently, PND spoke with Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the council, about the report, the council’s efforts to promote the SDG framework to its members, and why she believes the SDGs are good for philanthropy and the world.

Philanthropy News Digest: The council has released a report aimed at raising awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals among foundations and philanthropists in the United States. For readers who may not have heard of them, what are the SDGs, and why, as you put it in the foreword to the report, do they have the potential to be “revolutionary” for people around the world?

Vikki Spruill: The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, represent a historic global consensus about the shared responsibility that all nations have in advancing a global development agenda. They tackle seventeen areas of develop­ment and set aspirational targets for the global development community to achieve over the next fifteen years so that "no one is left behind." The seventeen goals, which cover everything from eradicating hunger and poverty, to advancing environmental sustainability, to reducing inequality, to improving education and health, were agreed on by a hundred and ninety-three countries in September 2015, including the United States, which, with President Obama's encouragement, agreed to pursue the goals both here at home and through our development activities around the globe.

As you know, the SDGs emerged from a previous United Nations initiative, the Millennial Development Goals, or MDGs, which were more narrowly focused on human development, whereas the SDGs cover all dimensions of development, including the economic, social, and environmental. And they're not just intended for developing nations, as the MDGs were, they're meant to be guidelines for all nations, including the United States.

I think the SDGs have enor­mous potential. We all recog­nize that government can't solve the world’s problems by itself — the MDGs showed us that. To change the world, to fully realize philanthropy's goals, we have to work across sectors, and the SDGs contribute to that by more specifically calling out the philan­thropic and private sectors. That's very exciting.

To change the world, to fully realize philanthropy's goals, we have to work across sectors, and the SDGs contribute to that by more specifically calling out the philan­thropic and private sectors....

PND: What kind of role did the private sector, and foundations specifically, have in developing the SDG framework?

VS: Founda­tions that are part of the global development community played a critical role in developing the goals and in stressing the importance of philanthropy to advancing the SDGs. There's a group called the SDG Philanthropy Platform that's led by the United Nations Development Program, your own organization, the Foundation Center, and Rocke­feller Philanthropy Advisors, and it has made enormous progress in raising awareness of the SDGs, increasing the resources available to support them, and helping to forge new partnerships.

Likewise, the Council on Foundations is working to raise awareness of the SDGs. In fact, our report grew out of meetings we had in three cities, and we're planning to hold several more over the next few months. It's important to note that the meeting that took place in Addis Ababa in 2015, the Financing for Development summit, specifically stated that the private sector, including philanthropy, is needed to achieve the SDGs. So, it's really a historic moment for philanthropy, which hasn't been recognized as a partner in the same way by the United Nations before and now is being engaged in UN development activ­ities in new ways. At the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in May, for example, three hundred and fifty different companies were represented, and because of the SDGs there is now a real opportunity for philanthropy to join in and shape these conversations going forward.

PND: The SDGs include seventeen goals and a hundred and sixty-nine different targets. Do you share the concern of some that the SDG framework is too ambitious in scale and scope to serve as an effective roadmap for sustainable global development?

VS: There are a lot of goals, but there is also a lot of connectivity between and among them. I like to think about the SDGs as a kind of holistic approach to problem solving — that's what makes them so powerful. It's a global framework, and it's an aspirational framework. There is no one institution working on all the goals or all the targets. It's really a pro­cess through which every funder can find themselves. I see that as an opportunity, not as a constraint. The SDGs are intended to push our thinking, to make us think more comprehensively and broadly about how we view the world and how we view our own domestic development agenda. They are also a kind of problem statement, with seventeen problems clearly identified. It's up to philanthropy and the private sector and government and everyone who is engaged in this work to come up with the solutions to those problems. And we have to be ambitious, because the problems are big. I don't know how the framework could be anything other than bold and big.

PND: The report goes to some lengths to point out that the SDG targets are universal. What does that mean, and why is it important for foundations and corporations in the U.S. to understand that?

VS: Given the scope and ambition of these goals, and the magnitude of many of the problems facing our planet, as a sector we can't just sit on the sidelines, we can't be passive. Another way to look at it is to recognize that foundations and corporations are working in a lot of these issue areas and their work already connects directly to the SDGs. So, the Arkansas Community Foundation, which is working on affordable housing in Arkansas, is just as much a part of that particular SDG as a global humanitarian organization that has been working on the issue in the developing world. If you're involved in trying to effect social change, which is what foundations and corporate foundations are trying to do, then it's your obligation to learn what’s happening else­where.

By participating in this framework, foundations and corporate foundations have a real opportunity to collaborate more intentionally and to learn from their peers across borders. That's particularly true of funders in the United States, which can learn a lot from what's happen­ing in other countries. Something like the SDGs force you to look at the root causes of problems, and maybe, as a piece I wrote for The Guard­ian suggests, they can help shed light on the feeling of alien­ation in our country, which, I think, is partly the result of not having had this sort of comprehensive development agenda for our own people.

PND: As you mentioned, the council has hosted a number of convenings around the SDGs. What do you tell funders at those meetings who express concern that any buy-in they evince toward the SDG framework will commit them to something they're not prepared, or have the resources, to do?

VS: What we want to do is raise awareness and demystify the SDGs. This is a holistic, global framework agreed to by a hundred and ninety-three countries. Funders can find themselves in these goals, and, more importantly, philanthropy is already work­ing to advance them. I think there's a tendency among some U.S. funders to see the SDGs as something somebody else needs to be doing somewhere over there, that the development agenda isn't something that applies to the United States. But as I've already noted, that's just not true.

Committing to the SDGs or participating in the SDGs isn't about funding new areas, or committing your foundation to something it's not prepared to do. It really is about asking your foundation to question how the work you're already doing connects to this frame­work, how you might be able to do that work better, and how some of the other goals might actually strengthen the work you're currently doing. It's human nature to think in terms of silos, and the SDG framework forces you to sort of look up and out, as opposed to just down at the whatever you happen to be working on at the moment.

Committing to the SDGs...is about asking your foundation to question how the work you're already doing connects to this frame­work and how you might be able to do that work better....

PND: Can you give us an example of what that might look like for a medium-sized or community foundation here in the U.S.?

VS: We give three ex­amples in the report, and the Marin Community Foundation is one of them. It has a project focused on health, energy efficiency, and built environments, and as part of that effort it has looked at Goal 3, ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, at all ages; Goal 7, ensuring access to afford­able, reliable, clean energy for all; Goal 10, reducing in­equality within and among countries; and Goal 11, making cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Any portfolio of work that a foundation might have is bound to connect to several of these goals, and MCF identified four goals where it sees potential for real synergies.

Then there's the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation's Expect More initiative, which is working on advancing skills training and education for Arkansans so that in ten years the state's current ratio of 70 percent low-skill, low-wage jobs to only 30 percent that require a postsecondary credential is flipped on its head. So the folks at WRF are looking at Goal 1, eliminating poverty; Goal 4, quality education for all; Goal 10, reducing inequality; and Goal 8, decent work and economic growth for all. Whatever the set of challenges you're working on, whatever initiatives you are funding, you're going to find that they intersect with one or several of the SDGs.

PND: Your report includes seven recommendations for funders working in the U.S., from educating stakeholders, to leveraging data and technology, to tracking progress. Do any of the recommendations stand out for you as being especially critical?

VS: All seven are important, but I would name three in particular that build on what we were just talking about. First, it doesn't matter where you start. Whatever it is you are working on, you need to figure out a way to connect it with one of the SDGs and then leverage the impact you are creating in that area to some of the other goals. When funders approach me and ask, How do I find myself in this process? that's what I tell them: Start with one goal and the rest will follow.

The second one is making sure you understand the goals and think about how they could benefit the work you're currently doing. At our recent gathering in New York, for example, there was a person there working on environmental sustaina­bility who admitted that he had been thinking rather narrowly about the issue. But after hearing others at the meeting, this person said, "Well, I'm never going to achieve my environmental sustainability goals if I don't start thinking about health and well-being." In other words, it's a recommendation to think about your work in a more holistic way.

And finally, we want to make it clear that the SDGs are intended to be inspirational as well as aspirational. We should be using and talking about the goals as something that force us to think up and to think bigger, both globally and domestically.

PND: Well, let's talk globally for a minute. Many people see the emergence of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, the Brexit vote in the UK, the political success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders here in the U.S. as the leading edge of a growing backlash against global economic integration and the role of the United States in leading that effort over the last half century. Should those who are working to advance the SDGs be concerned about globalization fatigue or what some are calling "peak globalization"?

VS: I don't think so. I want to emphasize that that our report is focused on the U.S. and what funders can and should learn from efforts in other countries to reach their goals domestically. Our focus is on how foundations in the U.S. can work on the SDGs here at home, and how the SDGs offer a framework that can be successfully adopted locally.

But I'd almost invert your question. And, again, remember that the goals don't come with pre-packaged policy solutions. It's up to us to take the goals and contextualize them locally, which means it almost doesn't matter what the sentiment with respect to globalization and global economic integration is, because the problems here at home are still problems, and we still have a responsibility to analyze and address those problems through a local lens.

It's up to us to take the goals and contextualize them locally...because the problems here at home are still problems....

PND: Has the council set any targets for its members around adoption of the SDG framework?

VS: You know, we're early in the process. We're only a few months into a fifteen- year effort, and I think it's safe to say we are still in the building-awareness phase. That said, it is exciting to see people getting excited about the SDGs and to see the momentum building. We're also hearing anecdotally some evidence to suggest that a growing number of foundations are looking at the goals and trying to figure out how they can inform their grantmaking. Again, it's early days, and while there may come a time when the council decides to set goals around SDG adoption, it's a little premature for that.

PND: Are you optimistic the SDG framework will work in the ways you’ve outlined for us? Fifteen years from now, will philanthropy be able to say it was instrumental in creating a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable global community and a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable America?

VS: Absolutely. Over the next fifteen years, we estimate that philanthropy's going to put $360 billion in grants toward the SDGs. That's significant. At the same time, the experts estimate that it is going to cost a trillion dollars to achieve all the goals. You don't have to be a math wiz to figure out that philanthropy can't do this alone. That said, I'm confident philanthropy can play a powerful, catalytic role in achieving the goals. And not just with dollars, but by facilitating connections, with leverage, and with the strategic thoughtfulness we so often bring to the table. That's just as exciting to me. I'm very optimistic we will succeed.

Mitch Nauffts spoke with Spruill in July. The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.