What role can community foundations play in achieving the SDGs?

The Sustainable Development Goals icons. Photo by: Ciaran McCrickard / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — Last week, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation announced it now has $13.5 billion in assets. That makes it worth more than the Ford Foundation, with an endowment outranked only by the philanthropies of George Soros and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Given its location among the tech elites, SVCF is not your average community foundation. But the dollar figure draws attention to community foundations, which experts tell Devex are overlooked vehicles for philanthropy. And the news comes at a moment of growing recognition that community foundations are essential partners in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The SDGs cannot be reached without the involvement of community foundations, according to “Local Leadership, Global Impact,” a report the Council on Foundations released last week. The report evaluates how the more than 1,800 community foundations operating around the world can connect their local work to this global agenda, highlighting what is working, and outlining 10 steps for how community foundations who aren’t already focusing on the SDGs can get started.

The number of community foundations has nearly doubled since 2000, and those in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are breaking the mold of endowed North American foundations. Between their convening power and their missions to solve problems and improve lives at the local level, community foundations are ideal but perhaps overlooked and undervalued partners to achieve the SDGs, the report said.

“Community foundations are grassroots partners that bring the SDGs to life in a place-based strategy,” said Natalie Ross, vice president of external relations at the Council on Foundations. “They can, at the same time, be hyperlocal and be channels for philanthropy that goes beyond their community.”

Foundations have come together to discuss the role of philanthropy in achieving the SDGs, through efforts such as the SDG Philanthropy Platform. And there are emerging examples of collaboration between foundations around the SDGs in countries including Colombia, Indonesia, Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia. But by and large, community foundations have not engaged in the SDGs, which is likely due to a few reasons, according to the Council on Foundations report that Ross authored.

As compared to the Millenium Development Goals that preceded them, the SDGs apply to high- and low-income countries, which is an adjustment for developed countries that are now expected to implement these goals as well. Newer community foundations in developing countries, meanwhile, may not be linked up with local governments and U.N. agencies, even though this same grassroots work that can keep them disconnected from national plans represents the very reason they are natural partners. But groups like the Council on Foundations are looking to change that, and it is gathering signatures for a solidarity pledge from philanthropic leaders in North America to connect across borders to achieve the SDGs.

The statement reads: “Community foundations are critically important local leaders who

bring a wealth of knowledge to driving change locally. To address the systemic challenges impacting our communities, we are committed to building coalitions with government, business, the nonprofit sector and others to bring together local voices and create a world that is more equitable for future generations. More than ever, the challenges we face are universal and span across geographic borders. Today, we are also more connected globally than ever before. Rather than succumb to any desire to turn inward, we believe our collective power lies in building learning bridges across the divides that often disconnect us, and empowering a global community where solutions span not just borders, but cultures, ethnicities, religions, politics, racial and economic backgrounds.”

On Monday, Emmett Carson, chief executive officer and president of SVCF and one of the signatories of this shared commitment, addressed the audience gathered for the 2018 Corporate Philanthropy Institute in San Francisco.

“Our democracy, our nation, and our world are at risk today,” he said.

He asked the audience to consider how to step up in three ways. First, he said, corporate social responsibility practitioners should use the SDGs as a way to organize their collective actions, or “row in the same direction.” Second, he asked them to consider how technology and artificial intelligence will change everything around them, previewing SVCF’s upcoming innovation conference and asking the audience to be purposeful in how they respond to these changes. Third, he made an appeal for Puerto Rico, asking people “to go outside business as usual” in order to contribute what they can, and asking that they do so together with the Puerto Rico Community Foundation.

How to engage community foundations in the SDGs

Community foundations can be a gateway to localization for international NGOs, but are often overlooked as partners in the Sustainable Development Goals. Natalie Ross, vice president of the Council on Foundations, talks to Devex about how to begin engaging community foundations in these challenges.

Last week, Carson was at the North American Community Foundation Summit in Mexico City, Mexico, where the theme of the meeting was leave no one behind, and the conversation focused on how community foundations can support progress toward the 17 SDGs.

“We are late to the party, but we have an energy as an overall field of community foundations for how we begin to adapt that framework, and I was proud to be able to say to that group that our corporate partners have been at the forefront of SDGs,” he said.

While in Mexico, he shared a report the SVCF sponsored called “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: A Why, When and How Guide for Business.”         

SVCF was featured in the Council on Foundations report as a case study for how community foundations can use the SDGs as a platform to engage corporate donors who make grants through corporate advised funds, or CAFs. CAFs provide channels for corporate giving without companies having to set up a separate foundation, and in 2015, SVCF’s CAFs contributed $41 million to the SDGs. The foundation works with corporations to include SDGs in their strategic planning, from prioritizing issues that are not receiving as much attention from corporations, to collaborating with like-minded funders on shared goals, to using the SDGs as a way to revisit and revise their corporate social responsibility programs.

“The SDGs can be relevant for community foundations whose work can feel disparate because of the work of their donors,” Ross told Devex. “It can help them pull all of their grantmaking locally and globally together in a way that makes sense.  

“Local Leadership, Global Impact” builds upon another report by the Council on Foundation released looking at the trend toward international grantmaking by U.S. community foundations.

“The growth of community foundations in the U.S. over the past 20 years has been significant, less in sheer numbers than in the breadth of missions, definitions of community, and imagination,” said Barry Gaberman, former executive at the Ford Foundation and contributor to the report, said in a release. “International giving is one manifestation of these phenomena and now we have a report that captures the scale and the reasons behind this giving.”

While the growth of individual philanthropy, private foundations, and donor advised funds, or DAFs from ultra high net worth individuals in Silicon Valley is exponential, that money tends to go far beyond the tech capital of America, write the authors of the “Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy.” The report evaluates what the authors call “prosperity paradox.” They are among the voices criticizing how, despite the way these startups and tech companies have driven up the cost of living, the millionaires and billionaires they create are giving their money away far beyond their own backyards.

“It’s a live debate within the community foundation sector,” Ross said, noting other examples of community foundations giving globally, including the Haiti Fund, hosted by the Boston Foundation, which is transitioning to become a Haiti-based organization. “What we believe is it’s a false dichotomy to believe that if you’re using a community foundation as a vehicle for international giving that it’s at the expense of local giving.”

The question the Council on Foundations is following is how community foundations who open up from being hyperlocal to giving internationally are bringing their hyperlocal values to that international giving. Whereas some foundations like SVCF are more grantmaking institutions, in the “global South,” the growing number of community foundations tend to work more like operating foundations, implementing programs on the ground. The vast majority of global giving by community foundations goes to grantees based in the U.S. and working overseas, but increasingly, international community foundations working locally can supplement the work of international NGOs, Ross said.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.