Many of the world’s top philanthropic foundations stand prepared to play much bigger roles in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals than for the Millennium Development Goals. With their agility and risk-taking prowess, they could punch above their financial weight in the process towards 2030.
“Philanthropy is more active [now],” said Mario Pezzini, director of the OECD Development Center and acting director of the OECD development cooperation directorate. “Obviously the volume [of money] is not comparable [to that of donors and multilaterals]. But their method of work can help accelerate the impact.”
A series of long-term trends — from climate change to demographics — are creating a new landscape for practitioners as they set their sights on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Devex interviews Mario Pezzini, director of the OECD Development Center, on the major challenges that development professionals will face over the next 15 years as they work to achieve the SDGs.
“We are engaging around specific SDGs that are aligned with our initiatives,” said Claudia Juech, associate vice president and managing director of the strategic insights program team at the Rockefeller Foundation. “We are clearly looking at the SDGs as one filter. This might unleash new funding and new interest.”
To help things along, two coalitions of philanthropic organizations have been formed: the Network of Foundations Working for Development — or netFWD, coordinated by the OECD Development Center and the SDG Philanthropy Platform. They aim to encourage dialogue and partnerships among foundations and other actors.
With notable exceptions, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, philanthropic groups generally rang in with too little, too late for the MDGs. The new trend for SDG-engagement is rooted in fresh thinking from both foundations and those who call the shots at international institutions and governments.
“Foundations have not been invited to the party on several occasions,” said Bathylle Missika, senior counselor and head of the partnerships and networks unit at the OECD Development Center. They were absent from the 2000 Millennium Declaration and again from the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005, she noted.
Even if invited, who knows if they would have shown up back then.
“I’m not the first to say this, but the philanthropic sector is acknowledging that we’ve perhaps been too sectoral in the past,” said Nina Blackwell, executive director of the California-based Firelight Foundation.
When the MDGs first came up, foundations weren’t on the radar.
“At the time it was an intragovernmental business,” said Missika. “Nobody would have thought of inviting them, and nobody would have known whom to invite ... Now there is space for everyone, recognizing that no single set of actors can solve these issues alone.”
A place at the table might not be sufficient. Many insiders say that philanthropic endeavors can be fragmented and isolated or poorly coordinated with local policymakers.
“[Philanthropists] need to understand the multilayered [nature of] development challenges,” said Missika. “It takes partnerships to go from innovation to scale. If you want to impact a lot of lives, you have to partner — usually with governments.”
At their best, foundations are flexible, innovative, creative and daring. No surprise that they perceive governments as sluggish and bureaucratic, but there is a flipside: Governments often view foundations as mere providers as capital, rather than as strategic partners.
As Missika put it, “There’s a clash of civilizations … They don’t speak the same language.”
Blackwell meanwhile urged more collaboration and for efforts to be more cross-sectoral.
“As you see with some of the emerging discussions about the SDGs, we need to be looking at the role we each play in the much broader ecosystem,” she said.
Both netFWD and the SDG Philanthropy Platform are designed to facilitate this transformation. Founded in 2012, netFWD aims to create dialogue between the philanthropic sector and public officials, with special emphasis on data sharing and the creation of partnerships.
Marquee names include Ford, Kellogg and Rockefeller, but membership extends to 15 countries on five continents. From the “global south” come organizations such as the Emirates Foundation, Egypt’s Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, and Mexico’s Fundación Banorte. Pilot projects aim to develop action plans in India, Myanmar, Mexico, and Kenya.
The platform’s pilot projects in Kenya, Colombia, Indonesia and Ghana are generally coordinated by a point person within the U.N. system. The platform aims to establish “real collaboration” among international and local philanthropic groups, governments, U.N. agencies, grantees, and businesses, said Heather Grady, vice president of the San Francisco-based Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
How can this translate on the ground? Blackwell cited an effort to promote secondary education in Malawi where the Firelight Foundation is working closely with public officials and traditional and nontraditional community leaders.
“What we’re hoping to do on the micro level is to build ideas and programs that can take root and be scaled by others,” she said. “We’re not large enough to scale programs on a massive level ourselves … It feels like an ecosystem is emerging.”
Bill Hinchberger is Devex's Paris correspondent. In his spare time, he's a freelance writer, communications consultant and educator. A native of California, he lived in Latin America for over two decades, reporting for media such as The Financial Times and Business Week. He also served as president of the São Paulo Foreign Press Club and founded the online travel guide BrazilMax.com. Assignments have taken him to over 30 countries, from Cuba to Egypt, India, Kenya, Turkey, and beyond.
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