Foundations have invested $50 billion in the SDGs, but who’s counting?


Arif Ekram and Lauren Bradford


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent the most ambitious — as well as expensive — global development framework in history. The framework sets specific targets in seventeen areas, from ending poverty in all its forms (Goal 1), to combating climate change and its impacts (Goal 13), to achieving gender equality (Goal 5). But with an estimated annual price tag of $3.5 trillion, it’s clear that governments alone cannot finance the SDGs and hope to achieve the framework’s 2030 targets. With that in mind, all stakeholders within the development ecosystem, including private and philanthropic actors, need to step in and step up their contributions. Our research shows that while the philanthropic sector has been doing its part, it can do much more.

Foundation Center has been tracking philanthropy’s support for the Sustainable Development Goals since the beginning. Our data shows that foundations have contributed more than $50 billion toward achieving the SDGs since January 2016, when the SDG agenda was formally launched, and we are tracking that number in real time — i.e., as more grantmaking data becomes available, we immediately make more SDG-related funding data available. Pretty cool! (NB: We can only track what we can collect, so if we don’t have your data, we can’t account for your contribution.) Using this “latest available data approach,” we can confirm that philanthropy has been and will continue to play a crucial role in financing and driving the SDGs.

In a blog post in 2016, Foundation Center president Brad Smith predicted that foundations would contribute $364 billion toward achieving the SDGs by 2030. While it’s too early to say whether Brad will be proved correct, the initial trends are favorable. Of the $50 billion in foundation giving we have tracked, roughly $40 billion is based on 2016 data while the rest ($10 billion) comes from foundation giving data collected in 2017 and 2018. As more data from both domestic and international foundations comes in, we estimate that total foundation giving for 2016 will increase by another 15 percent or so by December, when we’ll have a more complete data set, and as more international foundations share their data for research purposes. If that trend holds through 2030, it’s quite likely that foundations will contribute more than the $364 billion originally estimated by Brad.

Picking winners

It’s not a surprise that Goal 3 (Ensure healthy lives) and Goal 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all) have received the lion’s share of the funding to date (both more than $18 billion). In addition to regular health-related spending, foundations also have contributed significant sums in response to various health emergencies, both natural and man-made. That list includes avian influenza, Zika virus, Ebola virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and outbreaks of yellow fever, as well as public health emergencies caused by war, cyclones, and earthquakes. At the same time, the goal to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all has long been important to many funders and continues to attract significant funding, even in the SDG era.

Though it has received considerably less funding than the other two, it’s interesting to note that Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality) ranks third in our data — our preliminary analysis hints at a promising scenario for gender equality-related funding — while Goal 16 (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies and justice for all) is close behind in the fourth spot. Indeed, a deep dive into Goal 16-related funding reveals that a lot of the grants made in support of efforts in this area overlap with Goal 5, gender equality, which suggests to us that peace and justice are strongly correlated with gender equality and that funders are well aware of the linkage.

Who are the top funders and recipients?

Not surprisingly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tops the list of  funders who have supported SDG-related efforts in terms of dollars given, while the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is currently in the fourth spot, which is quite remarkable for a community foundation. It’s also exciting to see foundations from outside the U.S. on the list, with the Wellcome Trust and Big Lottery Fund — both UK-based — occupying the second and seventh spots, respectively. This is particularly important because it suggests that while foundations outside the U.S. are making sizable grants to advance the SDG agenda,  the global development community may not be aware of the extent of that giving since the data is not being widely shared. Needless to say, the main goal of is to highlight these funding trends and use the data currently available to tell a more compelling and complete story about the progress being made toward achieving the SDGs.

What’s in a number?

The foundation funding total to date (more than $50 billion) represents a tally of all foundation grants identified by Foundation Center that are consistent with the seventeen SDGs and their targets. The number is not meant to suggest that foundations have intentionally aligned all that giving with the SDGs and/or internalized the SDG framework, although that may be the case for some. In addition, about 97 percent of the total is grantmaking by U.S.-based foundations, although more  international grantmaking data is being included as it is made available to us.

It’s important to emphasize that the funding totals we are reporting are based on actual data on nearly a million grants we have collected to date — not on surveys, pledges, or good intentions. As many of you know, sharing grants data has never been easier, and the more data we share as a sector, the easier it will be to demonstrate to the world how institutional philanthropy is meeting the challenge of the global goals.

To learn more about SDG-related foundation funding and how to share your data with us, please visit

Arif Ekram and Lauren Bradford are manager and director, respectively, of global partnerships at Foundation Center.

This article originally appeared on Philanthropy news Digest on 15 May 2018. The original article can be found here.

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