Council on Foundations conference focuses on Sustainable Development Goals


Peter Laugharn


The theme of the Council of Foundations’ annual conference in San Francisco this week was ‘Hope and Opportunity in a Destabilized World’. This theme led directly and logically to a significant emphasis on the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) being approved this September in New York by the United Nations General Assembly. The SDGs will guide global development planning, finance and implementation over the next 15 years.

The Partnership Platform
The SDGs were the topic of two standing room only sessions, both moderated by
Heather Grady of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, with Ed Cain of the Conrad N Hilton Foundation and Arif Neky of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Kenya as speakers. There is clearly curiosity in the philanthropic community about the SDGs.

Grady is the coordinator of the Post-2015 Partnership Platform for Philanthropy, which encourages philanthropy to ‘engage more meaningfully’ in the SDGs. This initiative is funded by the Hilton, Ford and MasterCard Foundations and works closely with the UNDP and the Foundation Center. Foundations’ knowledge of the goals varies greatly, and few foundations have the time to follow the technical and political negotiations which have led to the goals’ development. Thus Grady plays an important role in helping foundations grasp the complex agenda of 17 individual goals and 169 targets.

The Foundation Center’s contribution to the collaboration is the ‘’ website it is developing, which will allow foundations and other stakeholders to track philanthropic contributions by goal, country and other criteria.

How will foundations engage in the Goals?
While Hilton, Ford, and MasterCard have invested in philanthropic awareness and involvement in the entire broad SDG agenda, most foundations will probably be more attracted to making grants in a specific goal or country that is aligned with their organizational strategy.

Foundation affinity groups have begun tracking activity and opportunities around individual SDGs. For example, the International Education Funders Group ( recently canvassed bilaterals, multilaterals, advocates and think tanks about the optimal role for its 70 member foundations in the accomplishment of SDG4 on quality basic education for all. Most of those interviewed made the point that the crafting of the goals is essentially done at this point, and that interested foundations should instead focus on the ‘launch phase’ (2016-17) to help country-level efforts get off the ground. It was also pointed out that foundations could help the global community take the long-term view and keeps its eye on the successful implementation of SDG4 by 2030, since many actors would be focused on the much shorter term. Other affinity groups – climate, health, water and so on – are likely to be making similar efforts and it would be useful for them to share their results with both the Post-2015 Platform and

Grady’s Post-2015 Platform has also taken a country-level approach, choosing to focus on Colombia, Ghana, Indonesia and Kenya. It will have held launch conferences in all four countries by July, bringing local and international foundations together with government, civil society and aid agencies to identify the most promising ways for foundations to be involved.

As is typical for global initiatives, more effort has gone into crafting and wordsmithing the goals than into actual readiness to implement. This means that the launch phase of the SDGs will be uneven and at times chaotic. Foundations can play a useful role in helping goals be translated from general intention into action, and in helping civil society hold governments accountable for achieving the goals.

How will the Council on Foundations engage with the SDGs?
The Council on Foundations did not engage explicitly with the Millennium Development Goals (2000-15). The European Foundation Centre did endorse the MDGs in 2005, but could have done more to define what this meant or why it mattered. There is a chance to do more this time around with the SDGs, and according to CoF Vice President Will Heaton, the Council is ‘ready to engage’.

CoF’s new director for global philanthropy, Natalie Ross, has energy, ideas and relevant experience in building diverse coalitions. She also realizes that as a ‘one woman shop’ what she can do herself is limited, so she is trying to make good use of CoF’s networks, and the networks of other foundations and other SDG actors. Ross sees CoF’s role as educating, connecting and convening.

On the education front, Ross would like to see CoF introducing and promoting the SDGs to its membership. ‘We all should know about the goals. I am hoping that foundations will see themselves as part of this picture, part of a shared global agenda.’

Connection is an important task. Ross is working with her CoF colleagues based in different regions of the US to make sure that foundations with an interest in global issues get linked up with her and with one another. She also needs to signal foundations’ ‘willingness to engage’ (and deliver) to the SDG community. Doing this connecting and brokering adroitly and efficiently is very valuable – and challenging.

Convening around the SDGs is on the CoF agenda, but it is not yet clear what shape it will take. Heaton indicated that the CoF conference in Washington DC next year, whose theme is ‘community’, might be a good moment to feature a range of foundation efforts on the SDGs.

Peter Laugharn is senior adviser to the Firelight Foundation. He was executive director from 2008 to 2014.

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