Case study – Addressing inequality amid plenty: the SDGs and the United States

Vikki Spruill

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an opportunity to not only address challenges in developing countries, but also to make progress on many of the same challenges that persist in ‘developed’ countries.

Each of the 193 governments that committed to these goals, including the US, must consider how to look inward at domestic problems. For many of these developed countries, several SDG targets will be incredibly challenging to achieve.

report by Bertelsmann Siftung analyses the readiness of the 34 OECD countries to achieve SDG targets and ranks the US as 29th out of 34 countries. The US receives high comparative rankings in areas like gross national income, particulate air pollution levels, and overall space per capita. However, in other areas like poverty, climate change and obesity, we rank close to last.

To date, most conversations about American philanthropy and the SDGs have been around how US funders will support goals being achieved in other countries like Kenya, Colombia, and Indonesia. As a philanthropic community, we must not forget to recognize our domestic challenges as part of the SDGs and that making progress domestically will support our role in helping to achieve SDG targets by 2030.

‘As a philanthropic community, we must not forget to recognize our domestic challenges as part of the SDGs and that making progress domestically will support our role in helping to achieve SDG targets by 2030.’

Looking at challenges of poverty in the US, many large American philanthropic organizations are working on these issues, but may not fully see their domestic work as relevant to the SDGs. For example, the Ford Foundation’s increased focus on inequality is addressing the systemic causes of the poverty gap in America. Others like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation invest both domestically and globally to combat climate change and address environmental issues.

Credit Kyle May.

Credit Kyle May

 

Beyond the largest philanthropic actors, countless community foundations and other philanthropic organizations do not fund globally but also work on these issues nationally, and we need to see their work as part of the effort towards these global goals. Examples include significant investment into improving the quality of education for Latino immigrants in Boulder and reducing food insecurity in the Hudson Valley – these are marquee initiatives by small foundations that support US SDG targets in Goal 4 and Goal 2. In San Diego, the San Diego Community Foundation developed a climate change blueprint with strategies for Southern California to reduce economic and environmental impacts of climate change by 2050. This work brings us closer to the targets in Goals 11, 12, and 13.

US corporations are recognizing how the SDGs relate to their philanthropy. Impact2030 was launched by the business sector, including IBM and UPS, as a way to marshal the power of corporate volunteer programmes towards these global goals. The SDGs are an opportunity for corporations – whether they have a foundation, employee-matching programmes, donate in-kind contributions or provide employee volunteers – to work with partners in achieving crucial global changes. Corporations can contribute just as much with their domestic operations as they can with their global ones.

‘Countries can work together on global poverty but each country, including the US, must also focus domestically, especially given the 15 per cent of Americans that live in poverty today.’

The SDGs offer one of the broadest and most unifying global frameworks for eradicating poverty everywhere. Countries can work together on global poverty but each country, including the US, must also focus domestically, especially given the 15 per cent of Americans that live in poverty today.

What remains unclear is whether US philanthropic organizations working on domestic issues, from community foundations to corporate giving programmes, can see themselves in the SDGs. The SDGs offer a framework in which philanthropy – and partners – can map impact and change. Yet the question remains. Can we recognize them as an opportunity to work towards a better planet?

I hope the answer is yes.

Vikki Spruill is president and chief executive officer of the Council on Foundations. Email president@cof.org

For more discussion on the SDG debate, listen to our Alliance Audio podcast.


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