News and analysis
September 28, 2015

$3-Trillion U.N. Development Plan Sets Ambitious Agenda for Nonprofits

Nonprofit leaders are heralding the United Nations adoption of a new 15-year global-development agenda even as they acknowledge a long, costly road ahead to deliver on its promises.

After years of planning and negotiations, U.N. members formally adopted 17 sustainable-development goals on Friday during a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. Commonly referred to as the SDGs, the goals will serve as a 15-year blueprint for how the world — chiefly governments, corporations, and philanthropists — tackle international development priorities through 2030. They succeed the Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000.

The SDGs include ending poverty and hunger, ensuring access to water and sanitation, advancing gender equality, and combating climate change. Within the new goals are 169 detailed targets, like reducing the global maternal mortality ratio to fewer than 70 per 100,000 live births.

Yes, the ambitious goals are achievable, according to Edmund Cain, vice president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. They were formulated, he and others said, during a long consensus-building process that included business and philanthropy leaders, who were not asked for their opinion in setting the millennium goals.

"The efforts at the 30,000-foot level are finished now," Mr. Cain said of the adoption of the SDGs. " The real rubber hits the road at the country and community level."

Still, with a price tag of $3 trillion and a 15-year deadline, no one sees anything but a challenging path to hew.

"It’s hard to keep momentum as high when you move into the implementation phase," said Laura Frigenti, vice president of the Global Development Practice at InterAction, a coalition of nonprofits that work outside the United States, adding that some will find in-the-weeds work less glamorous than the setting of the broad global agenda.

Lack of Public Attention

Among government officials, researchers, charity workers, and others, the SDGs have received enormous attention, Ms. Frigenti said. But it has been challenging for those working on their development to actively engage the public, although they’ve tried.

"With so many ways to receive information today, in some ways it’s harder than ever to focus public discussion on any one specific issue," she said.

Among the first hurdles in achieving the SDGs is figuring out how to measure impact and how to hold governments accountable, said nonprofit leaders. Another is getting things paid for.

The bulk of the cost will fall to individual countries.

On Saturday, the U.N. said it had secured $25 billion in commitments during the next five years from 40 countries and 100 nonprofits, U.N. agencies, and others to reduce preventable deaths among women, adolescents, and children.

In an interview with The New York Times, philanthropist Bill Gates said that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — which has assets of $43.5 billion — will spend nearly $3 billion annually to help poor countries achieve the SDGs.

"When I meet with heads of state, I can show them how they’re doing," he said of the value of the new goals.

The Gateses have been a sort of megaphone for the new global agenda, dedicating their 2015 annual letter to highlighting the progress made and calling on ordinary citizens to get engaged.

From 2002 to 2012, foundations gave $30 billion to advance work that aligned with the Millennium Development Goals, said Larry McGill, vice president for research at the Foundation Center. Foundation grant making for the SDGs will easily exceed that, he said. That’s in part because there are 17 goals this go-round, compared with the eight Millennium Development Goals. In addition, the SDGs create benchmarks for both developed and developing countries, whereas the earlier goals were only for developing countries.

"Most importantly, philanthropy is in the game from the beginning this time," Mr. McGill said.

Tracking Progress

The Foundation Center has joined with the U.N. Development Program and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors on an effort they have named the SDG Philanthropy Platform to carve out and sustain an active role for philanthropy during the next decade and a half. The Hilton, Ford, and MasterCard foundations pledged a total of $2 million during two-and-a-half years to support it.

Among other things, the Foundation Center and its partners will track all grant making from U.S. foundations that advances the SDGs and make it publicly available to others. Many donors and foundations are already deeply involved in work that falls within the parameters of the new development goals. Those behind the effort said the SDG Philanthropy Platform will allow those working on complementary efforts in similar regions to connect.

Said Heather Grady, vice president at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors: "We think this will make for more effective philanthropy because for the fist time there is an opportunity for more coherence between a foundation’s own portfolio and the efforts of other donors, government, civil society, and businesses working on the same goals."

Send an email to Megan O'Neil.