All Hands on Deck: Philanthropy’s Role in Achieving the SDGs


Hannah Vos


On September 18th and 19th leaders from around the world will participate in the SDG Summit which will be ‘critical in setting the tone’ for the remainder of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Unfortunately, we are ‘far off track’ from achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The urgency for action is further supported by the breaking news last month that our planet experienced four of the hottest days ever recorded, a sign of how far we have to go before achieving SDG 13: Climate Action. As the Global Sustainable Development Report 2023 states, ‘Civil society organizations (CSOs), Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks and other institutions can be powerful advocates for change, and can promote accountability.’ In this article, I rely on data from the 2023 Global Philanthropy Tracker to discuss the existing relationship between philanthropy and the SDGs, the need for increased data availability, and the importance of engaging with diaspora communities in the move toward localization.

The 2023 Global Philanthropy Tracker (2023 GPT), written and published by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, tracks cross-border philanthropic outflows from 47 countries around the world and places them into the larger context of three externally tracked cross-border flows: remittances, official development assistance (ODA), and private capital investment. The 2023 GPT found that in 2020 (the year for which data was available for most countries) these countries sent $70 billion in cross-border philanthropy.

The SDGs & Philanthropy

The SDG Foundation Giving Estimates Paper opined that a total of $651 billion from philanthropic foundations alone could be unlocked between 2016–2030 for the SDGs. Research from Candid of primarily US-based foundations shows that between 2016–2020 funding focused on the SDGs totaled $217 billion. This may appear to be a drop in the bucket of the estimated $3.9 trillion annual funding gap in developing countries, but experts have highlighted that focusing only on the dollar amount misses the philanthropic sector’s role. The philanthropic sector can react more quickly to changing needs and technology and help catalyze innovation.

Some philanthropic organizations already utilize the valuable common vocabulary and framework that the SDGs provide. From the European Community Foundation Initiative to the Arab Foundations and the East Africa Philanthropy Network, the 2023 GPT highlights how regional member organizations around the world integrate the language and framework of the SDGs into their everyday work.

Data to Inform Best Practices

The 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Report Special Edition echoed a common refrain in the 2023 GPT, which is both the importance and the lack of data relating to the SDGs. Without specific data on how much philanthropy flows across international borders, where this philanthropy goes, and what causes it supports, one cannot begin to map the most effective use of global philanthropy.

Yet, of the 47 countries with data on cross-border philanthropy in the 2023 GPT, only 14 had available data on which causes the cross-border donations supported. Fewer still utilized the same categorization framework when detailing the various causes, making cross-country comparisons difficult. Still, the 2023 GPT found that nine countries each listed support for both health and education – corresponding with SDGs 3 and 4 respectively – making these the most popular causes.

As we redouble our efforts to achieve the SDGs by 2030, to ensure charitable contributions are meaningful, fruitful, and sustainable, cross-border donors can begin by engaging with the myriad of diaspora organizations in their local communities.

The source for Spain’s cross-border giving data, the Coordinadora de Organizaciones para el Desarrollo (Spanish Development NGO Coordinator, La Coordinadora), was one of the few sources that provided thorough country and cause-level data on international projects by NGOs. While La Coordinadora did not explicitly link the causes to SDGs, such publicly available and robust data tracking is an important step toward building accountability and trust in the third sector. As detailed in the 2023 GPT’s suggestion of developing ‘international standards for data tracking and promote[ing] data transparency’, without sound data it is difficult to make educated decisions on philanthropic best practices.

The Role of Diasporas

When the devastating earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria in February 2023, Turkish and Syrian diasporas around the world quickly mobilized fundraising campaigns to provide immediate support to those impacted. The movement towards localization is vital for the philanthropic sector, and an increasingly recognized step toward achieving localization is partnering with diaspora populations who often have a better grasp of the social, political, and economic climate of their home communities. Recognizing this knowledge in diaspora communities, a key finding from the 2023 GPT explained that ‘[c]ross-border philanthropy can be bolstered by highlighting and utilizing the expertise and dedication of diaspora communities who, especially during times of crisis, rally and provide targeted and informed philanthropic relief to their home countries.’

In 2022, the Global Diaspora Summit in Dublin released A Future Agenda of Action for Global Diaspora Engagement that called for all sectors to ‘actively create conditions for migrants and diasporas to fully contribute to sustainable development.’ As we redouble our efforts to achieve the SDGs by 2030, to ensure charitable contributions are meaningful, fruitful, and sustainable, cross-border donors can begin by engaging with the myriad of diaspora organizations in their local communities.

Looking Ahead

To summarize, the philanthropic sector has already played an important role in achieving the SDGs, but there is much more to be done. To accomplish this, it is important that we systemically track and report on philanthropic data with a unified framework. Additionally, while diaspora populations consistently support their home communities through remittances and philanthropic donations, they also can be knowledgeable advisors to donors who seek to engage in philanthropy across borders.

According to the 2023 GPT, the same 47 countries that sent $70 billion in philanthropy outflows in 2020 also reported $590 billion in remittances, $180 billion in ODA, and $0.4 billion in private capital investment. Altogether, these four cross-border resource flows totaled $841 billion. Our planet has already entered an ‘all hands on deck’ emergency and cross-border philanthropy can catalyze both its strengths and resources along with other resource flows as we renew our commitment to achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Hannah Kristine Vos is a Research Associate at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.


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