Millennium Development what?

Alliance magazine

In view of the publicity given to them, it would be easy to think that the Millennium Development Goals are the approach to beating poverty. But how much notice do individual philanthropists and social investors take of the Goals? Are they even aware of them? And how useful are they to financial advisers and others who work with donors when talking to people about their giving? Alliance talked to a number of these advisers to try and find out.

In one case, they were crucial. The MDGs are central to the work of California-based Youth Philanthropy Worldwide, says CEO Nicole Sanchez. Their programme is organized around the Goals. It makes people feel that they are part of a larger effort, she believes: ‘The collaborative nature of the MDGs is reassuring to a young person who may doubt their impact as a single individual.’ She also feels that young people are more likely to respond to the MDGs because ‘they are the ones who will inherit the scourge of AIDS, environmental degradation and the growing gap between rich and poor unless they mobilize around these issues now’.

‘All projects, fundraising initiatives and advocacy work are referred to as a “Goal 3 (or 4 or 1 or 8)” project,’ she explains, ‘so that we can demonstrate which of the MDGs is actually being affected by a young person’s work. We start “big” and continue to work with them until they have designed a very specific project with very tangible results.’ Not that projects always fit neatly into one or other of the MDGs: ‘It isn’t always that easy and clear because the Goals overlap so significantly, as they should.’ She adds: ‘We would never turn away a project that addresses an issue not specifically mentioned in the MDGs, for example child soldiers or nuclear non-proliferation. We find ways to make them fit.’

Rien van Gendt of Van Leer Group Foundation also finds that the MDGs are important for the people he works with – the European Foundation Centre Social Investment Group, the European Venture Philanthropy Association, and roundtables with wealthy individuals (largely with clients of Profonte). ‘People are sometimes not interested in looking at just poverty or health or HIV/AIDs. They ask for a larger framework because they feel that there should be an over-arching concept, and then the MDGs are quite appealing to them.’

He echoes Nicole Sanchez when he talks of people wanting their money to be part of a collective effort: ‘They see huge problems and pretty small amounts of money they can give, so if you see it as part of a larger effort, you can see that the problems could be solved, whereas your bit alone is never going to solve them.’

A compassionate element to people’s giving often helps them relate to the MDGs: ‘Very often they don’t have a mandate yet but they feel they need to get some focus, so I see what makes them tick. Very often it’s the loss of a child or having lived abroad or something else that has affected them strongly. If it’s to do with health or education, they will ask me for a suggestion for what they should do, and the second question is always whether there’s a larger framework. And the MDGs provide an interesting framework for them.’

In contrast, Stephen Johnson of The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) believes that ‘for many donors, the goals are probably just too “macro” a context to be very helpful in informing and guiding their giving’.

However, he says, TPI has a growing number of clients who are interested in international giving. ‘Where a donor has expressed or demonstrated an interest in global giving, international development and/or poverty reduction, then we will often mention the MDGs, and there is often a real appreciation for the benchmarks and the context that the Goals provide.’

Jan Petit of Profonte mentioned that two international corporations whom they were working with to help them set up their social/corporate responsibility schemes ‘both specifically wished to include the MDGs in their mission statements’.

A useful frame

Several people we talked to felt that even where the Goals themselves are not strictly relevant to a donor’s aims, they do provide a good context. Christine Sherry of TPW (The Philanthropy Workshop) West talks about the MDGs with donors because ‘we consider it important for them to understand the larger political context no matter what their personal funding strategies or perspectives.’ In fact, they talk about the MDGs with their philanthropists as part of the Washington module and international trip, which are regular parts of their donor education programme. ‘It is part of our education on development policy and strategies. For example, this year we met with Jeff Sachs in our Washington module to learn about his views on development strategies.’

Steve Toben of the Flora Family Foundation also feels that ‘the MDGs have great value as an organizing principle for philanthropy – especially for foundations and donors new to international grantmaking. The MDGs provide a distillation of the essential objectives in international development, and they articulate comprehensible, measurable goals that can be applied in specific national and sub-national settings.’ There is no need, however, for him to make explicit reference to the MDGs in his work, not because they are irrelevant, but because the Council of the Flora Family Foundation have wide experience of international giving and, for them, ‘the MDGs simply confirm their long-time aims’.

It’s useful for donors to have a framework in which to make decisions, agrees Nigel Harris of New Philanthropy Capital. Such a framework might relate to the UK charitable sector or international development. Whether it’s the MDGs or not is, in his view, less important than that the framework should be valid.

Investors and entrepreneurs

Rien van Gendt uses a commercial analogy in relation to the MDGs: ‘It’s as if I came to them as an entrepreneur and said to them, there is this product, and would you like to invest in it? And then they ask me, so what is the market? So they’re used to thinking in terms of larger frameworks.’

Nigel Harris also uses a market analogy: as a banker advising a client, he says, he might want to talk of ‘asset allocation as well as stock selection’; in other words, he might want to talk about how to allocate a whole portfolio rather than just buying individual stocks. The MDGs can be seen as providing a framework for thinking about ‘the whole portfolio’.

He also talks of a supply and demand side to funding. The supply side is the donor and their views and values – ‘who they are, what they are, what they want to achieve’. The demand side is what the market – in this case international development – needs, and here the MDGs constitute a ready-made guide.

‘People very, very rarely mention the MDGs’

Some of the advisers we talked to, however, scarcely if ever mention the MDGs to their clients, for a number of reasons. Melissa Berman of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors is one. ‘Personally, I have only once had a conversation with a philanthropist about the MDGs, and this was with an individual who had been deeply involved in the UN for decades.’ She feels that their donors are more likely to become and stay engaged if ‘they have defined their own goals and approach’.

‘Had a donor showed even a distant interest in development, I would surely have mentioned the MDGs,’ says Volker Then (Bertelsmann Foundation). Jan Petit of Profonte adds that what wealthy individuals always look for is ‘passion and willingness to make a difference’.

Doug Miller of the European Venture Philanthropy Association says that few of the people he talks to (‘10-15 per cent’) are interested in international development. Among these few, ‘people very, very rarely mention the MDGs’, although their preoccupations may touch on areas relevant to them. These preoccupations include debt relief, the terms of trade between North and South, AIDS and healthcare issues. Many are concerned about poor governance and the effective use of aid. ‘Many of the international development agencies are seen as ineffective (a lot of people driving around in new Landrovers telling other people what to do),’ adds Miller.

Whether Stephen Johnson talks to TPI’s clients about the MDGs ‘depends on a number of factors, for example, how knowledgeable the donor is about development theory and approaches, the client’s appetite/tolerance for context, and whether the Goals are relevant to the donor’s philanthropic strategy.’ Many of TPI’s donors, he says, have philanthropic aims to which the MDGs are ‘patently inapplicable’.

Those to whom he does mention the MDG’s respond, he says, ‘with varying degrees of interest’.

Russian reservation

Olga Alexeeva, formerly director of CAF Russia, thinks that while many Russian donors are aware of the MDGs and have a general desire to have them inform their philanthropy, this has yet to be translated into practice. What’s more, she adds, their interest in the MDGs is exclusively as they relate to Russia itself. ‘One thing is clear about Russian donors. The only context in which they are ready to discuss the MDGs is to help Russia to achieve them. None of the Russian donors I’ve spoken to are ready to support other countries.’

She believes this is because of the isolation of the communist era, and because of a ‘fear’ that neither the Russian government nor people would approve of wealthy compatriots ‘spending money to help Africa or Asia’.

Foundation resistance

What of the European foundation world? Sevdalina Rukanova, who coordinates the European Foundation Centre (EFC) Social Investment Group, says that over the last four years the EFC has made systematic efforts to raise awareness of the Goals. She talks about the Goals ‘mostly with foundations; sometimes with corporate funders and new donors’. She adds that while most people she comes in contact with are aware of the MDGs, they often ‘do not make the link with their work, even if they actually support MDG causes such as HIV/AIDS, nor have they given them much thought.’

She believes that many European foundations feel they should concentrate their efforts elsewhere: ‘The question about funding the MDGs Campaign has come back again and again but foundations have shown some resistance.’ A few have done it, however.

She feels that, for many foundations, the Millennium Declaration provides a wider framework: ‘It is a political statement, an expression of a set of core values (peace, equity, prosperity, at the global level) around which concrete agendas are being developed; the MDGs focus very strongly on the poverty alleviation agenda, which is crucial but not the only one.’

Do they fit?

Sometimes the MDGs do not synchronize with donors’ philanthropic aims. Bruce Schearer of Synergos feels that ‘the Millennium Development Goals provide an extremely useful overarching framework for the global community. They don’t attempt to provide a “fit” for the entire scope of the interests and activities of philanthropists.’ High net worth individuals, he says, ‘are diverse in their knowledge’; they have energy for a wide variety of approaches.

That said, Synergos does stress that the MDGs are a framework that ‘all governments have agreed upon’ which is broad enough to embrace the interests of many members of Synergos’s Global Philanthropists Circle. However, he has encountered much scepticism about the idea that achieving the MDGs is simply a matter of money. ‘Many of our members are looking for new, innovative ways to address poverty issues.’

Even with an organization to whose aims the MDGs seem irrelevant, they can sometimes exert an influence. As Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund points out, the majority of its investors ‘are interested in social entrepreneurs and solving concrete social problems and bottom-line results’. She adds, however, that Jeffrey Sachs has done much to draw public attention to the MDGs. ‘In some cases, people have heard him speak and come to us to discuss practical ways to move towards realizing those goals.’

Other frameworks

So frameworks are important and, if it’s not the MDGs, what is it to be? Many of those we talked to have devised their own.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, says Melissa Berman, ‘have “The Philanthropy Roadmap”. It’s a simple planning tool that focuses on motivation, issues, approach and involvement.’ At TPI, in cases where the Goals are irrelevant to a client’s philanthropic aims, programme staff will often carry out research to help donors ‘formulate their goals, devise appropriate philanthropic strategies, and make the most effective use of their social investments’. Volker Then mentions a general interest among his clients in microcredit and in achieving impact through leverage on the market – ‘an issue where I regularly use the Carbon Monitoring Project as a reference’.

‘Source material for a wider framework’

Few private donors, then, see themselves as directly contributing towards the achievement of the MDGs but the Goals often provide a useful context for investors and a handy means for advisers to help donors think about what they want their money to do. >

But no one pretends that achievement of the MDGs will be the end of the story. As Nigel Harris remarks, international development is made up of many different issues – ‘health, education, women’s empowerment, etc’. The MDGs are part of an effort to achieve things in these fields, but not the whole of it. They are, he suggests, ‘source material for a wider framework’.

Alliance would like to thank the following for contributing to this article:
Olga Alexeeva Head of Development, CAF Global Trustees, UK
Melissa Berman President, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, USA
Nigel Harris CEO, New Philanthropy Capital, UK
Stephen Johnson Vice President, The Philanthropic Initiative, USA
Doug Miller Chairman, European Venture Philanthropy Association, UK
Jacqueline Novogratz CEO, Acumen Fund, USA
Jan Petit CEO, Profonte, Netherlands
Sevdalina Rukanova International Programmes Coordinator, European Foundation Centre, Belgium
Nicole Sanchez CEO, Youth Philanthropy Worldwide, USA
Bruce Schearer President, The Synergos Institute, USA
Christine Sherry Executive Director, TPW West, USA
Volker Then Director, Philanthropy and Foundations, Bertelsmann Foundation, Germany
Steve Toben President, Flora Family Foundation, USA
Rien van Gendt Executive Director, Van Leer Group Foundation, Netherlands

Andrew Milner is Alliance Associate Editor. He can be contacted at

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