‘The first thing we do, let’s study all the lawyers’ (with apologies to William Shakespeare)


Peter Laugharn


Last week at the global dinner at the Council of Foundations conference, Ed Cain of the Hilton Foundation mentioned that his brother, a lawyer, had come to understand and support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because of a letter he had received from his professional body, the American Bar Association.

I was curious about the contents of that persuasive letter, so I googled around a bit for further details. I found this letter from the ABA president to UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon about the SDGs, and this 2013 resolution committing the ABA to the pursuit of sustainable development. I believe that these two documents are instructive for those who would like to see philanthropy taking a more active role in promoting global development goals.

ABA involvement in the sustainable development agenda is long-term, policy-based, strategic, and well articulated. The ABA has been following the issue for two decades, since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro ‘Earth Summit’. They are known to other actors, and consistent in their involvement.

Unlike the Council on Foundations and other philanthropy platforms, the ABA has a policy formulation process. The 400,000-member ABA has a 560-person ‘House of Delegates’ and a mechanism for agreeing on an institutional point of view and pursuing it. Within the realm of law and jurisprudence, the ABA has advocacy ambitions, and the aspiration that its points of view will be communicated to Congress, or the White House, or the United Nations. Its support for the sustainable development agenda is full-throated and doesn’t appear to be controversial even within a profession as disputatious as lawyerdom (the 2013 resolution document indicates ‘no known minority views’).

Regarding the SDGs themselves, the ABA has articulated the strategic alignment it sees between its work and the SDGs. The key philosophical principle linking the ABA and the SDGs is a concern for the rule of law. The ABA has reviewed the entire SDG agenda and concluded that it is largely in line with ABA priorities and policy objectives. The ABA has also identified ‘additional practical expertise’ in several areas, including ‘human rights, gender equality, fair labour practices, corporate social responsibility, energy, infrastructure, climate change and ecosystems’. It has also identified specific areas where its expertise can add value to the key SDG documents, for example ‘providing legal meaning to the terms “ensure” and “inclusiveness” which appear prominently in several goals without elaboration’.

There has been significant historical collaboration between the UN Secretariat and the ABA. The Association has send delegations to previous conferences, and has committed to ‘engage with and support the UN once the SDGs and related agenda are finalized’. The ABA has a Task Force ‘exploring ways the ABA can provide leadership, nationally and internationally, on sustainability, as well as assisting the UN to attain outcomes’. It is in dialogue with the US Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Mission to the UN regarding the US consideration of various drafts of the SDGs.

The 2013 resolution commits to sustainable development, defined as ‘the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations’. It outlines current activities and recommends their acceleration. The ABA has consistently urged the US government to take a leading role in global discussions, and US state and local governments to develop their own programmes. The Association urges lawyers to run their own businesses in a sustainable manner, as well as engaging in global and national efforts to support the rule of law. The ABA commits itself to providing information to its members, increasing public recognition of sustainable development, developing rating systems, and collaborating with others on the topic. It also urges law schools to promote a better understanding of the principles of sustainable development in relevant fields of law.

What lessons for philanthropy?
What can philanthropy, and specifically the Council on Foundations, take from the ABA’s example? While there are many differences between the two organizations – in mandate, scope, traditions and resources – there are significant ideas to ponder.

First, philanthropy can approach sustainable development and the SDGs systematically – but this will require clarity, consistent attention, some resources, and a long-haul perspective.

Second, if a diverse membership organization like the ABA can formulate policy, perhaps CoF can as well, at least on issues where we have broad consensus. This goes beyond the traditional meetings with Congressional representatives on philanthropic bread and butter issues like the tax treatment of foundations. It does not go as far as lobbying, as it does not need to advocate the passage of specific legislation. But trying to formulate policy from within the CoF membership would require a change in the purpose of at least part of the CoF’s gatherings. I personally feel that this change would be welcomed by most members – that the challenge would not be controversy, but rather human and financial resources, and ability to maintain a consistent focus.

Third, philanthropy would do well to think deeply about our comparative advantage in the arena of global development goals: if the rule of law is the organizing principle of ABA involvement in the SDGs, what is the equivalent key idea for philanthropy? Last week’s CoF conference covered many topics in global development, from climate change to technological innovation to vibrant civil society. Each of these areas is a crowded field with many actors, and philanthropy’s distinct value-add is often not very clear.

How might philanthropy make a unique contribution to the SDG agenda? Are there valuable efforts that may not happen if philanthropy is not involved? While I don’t presume to have one single answer to these questions – I imagine there will be many – I would put in one suggestion: community philanthropy as a long-term, local, sustainable grassroots level in the financing and capacity building of the SDGs. The topic of community philanthropy was well addressed at CoF in two sessions featuring the Global Fund for Community Foundations, USAID, the World Bank, WINGS, the Mott Foundation and the Monitor Institute. This is an area where foundations have distinct specialized expertise and where other stakeholders will probably not act boldly. Financing of the SDG agenda is a pressing topic, and this foundation expertise adds a valuable angle not found elsewhere.

In the meantime, I think philanthropy leaders would do well to study the efforts of other groups to contribute to the global development agenda, and continually ask ourselves, how could we do better?

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

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