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PEAK Grantmaking

Leveraging the Sustainable Development Goals in Your Grantmaking

Grantmaking data shows that foundations around the world have committed more than $50 billion towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since they were adopted in 2015. Predictions assert that by 2030, that number will rise to at least $364 billion. But what are the SDGs, how does current U.S. foundation grantmaking align with them, and how can U.S. foundations start leveraging the SDGs?

What are the SDGs?

The SDGs provide a global framework for tackling 17 areas of economic, social, and environmental development. These global goals represent an audacious and ambitious global “to-do list.”

sustainable development goals

In adopting the SDGs, 193 governments pledged to work collectively and individually towards shared, time-bound goals like ending poverty for all, eradicating hunger for all, and working to limit the impacts of climate change by the year 2030. Created in a highly participatory process that engaged voices around the world, the SDGs apply to every country, including the U.S., both in domestic policymaking as well as in global development efforts.

The SDGs build upon global progress made since 2000 under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While the MDGs focused on only seven specific areas, the SDGs are broader and take a more integrated approach to global development. Tying all 17 goals together is an overarching promise to leave no one behind anywhere.

How do the SDGs link to U.S. foundations?

The price tag for achieving all 17 goals by 2030 is $3-5 trillion per year, which will require significant investment from more than just national governments. Equitably achieving the SDGs will require collaboration, coordination, and engagement from and amongst public, private, and philanthropic sectors.

The August 2018 report by the Council on Foundations and Foundation Center, The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations, shows how global grants by US foundations between 2011 and 2015 already can in many ways align with the SDGs. Globally, U.S. foundations funded Goal 3 (Health & Well-being), Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) the most. In comparison, the least amount of foundation funding went towards Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and Goal 14 (Life Under Water).

bar chart depicting progress on SDGs

The latest data on grantmaking by all foundations to the SDGs can be found at and will be updated through 2030, highlighting the important role philanthropy will play in working to achieve the SDGs.

How to Get Started

As a foundation considering how to leverage the SDGs for your work, globally but also in the U.S., here are four ways to get started:

  • Map Your Programs Against the Goals
  • Join the Conversation
  • Explore Collaborations to “Work Differently”
  • Leverage Non-Financial Assets

Map Your Programs Against the Goals

When beginning to link foundation programs to the SDGs, first analyze where grantmaking may already align. All 17 goals address problems that U.S. foundations have been working on for generations, like alleviating hunger and investing in quality education.

Today, many grants management software solutions can track grantmaking against SDG goals and targets. You can also use the SDG Indicator Wizard at to analyze grant descriptions and/or your foundation mission to identify which SDG goals and indicators you’re already supporting.

Join the Conversation

Once you know where your funding priorities overlap, you can start participating in the global conversation on the SDGs by reframing or adding a new lens to your existing programs. You don’t necessarily have to overhaul your entire strategy; simply re-illustrating existing work to show how it is funding progress to achieve the SDGs will connect your portfolio to other global social development programs as well as opportunities to collaborate with other funders.

The SDGs include 169 specific targets and 230 different indicators. To start, your foundation can incorporate these benchmarks into the work you are already doing by adding versions of these targets and indicators to your programmatic goals.

If your organization is planning to implement a new strategic plan, you can address the SDGs in newly developed organizational goals and program areas. For example, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is not new to investing in water access, but in 2017, they explicitly aligned their Safe Water Strategic Initiative with SDG 6, Clean Water Sanitation. Through this grantmaking strategy, the Hilton Foundation joins the 193 countries that have pledged to achieve a shared vision for every person to have reliable access to safe and affordable water.

Another way to join the conversation on the SDGs (and find partners for future collaboration) is to engage in events alongside the UN’s annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July and the General Assembly (UNGA) every September in New York City. At both annual events, representatives from government, civil society (including philanthropy), and the corporate sector come together to discuss important global challenges, from hunger to climate change and disaster. Hundreds of additional events around the world each year bring together thousands of people, all working in different ways to leave no one behind and achieve the SDGs.

Explore Collaborations to “Work Differently”

Consider how to best leverage your work by collaborating with others working towards the same goals. While many actors are invested in the SDGs, foundations can play a unique role as investors of risk capital. Ask yourself: How can our financial resources serve as a catalyst, perhaps by funding activities or initiatives that others can’t or won’t? How might our foundation “work differently” to achieve these ambitious goals by 2030?How could unlikely partners complement our strengths as a grantmaker?

In many ways, the SDGs provide a place-based strategy to leave no one behind, whether that’s at a global, regional, national, or local level. You may want to join collaborations focused on a specific place to increase your impact. Are you aware of how governments in the countries in which you support international programs are adopting the SDGs? Leaders in several countries around the world have created national platforms to bring philanthropy to the table withgovernments to achieve the SDGs. This includes SDG Philanthropy Platforms in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, and India. Find out more at

Or, you may want to explore joining one of the many collaborations focused on specific issues within the SDGs that have been created since 2015. More than 3,500 new collaboratives have been tracked by the UN via their Partnerships Platform, including large scale collaboratives like the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and focused issue-based initiatives like The Communities for Ocean Action.

Leverage Non-Financial Assets

The SDGs present a great opportunity for foundation leadership, and foundations should consider what non-financial assets they might bring to achieving the SDGs.

You might contribute to the work of the SDGs by educating foundation staff and partners on what the SDGs are and how they can be addressed. Just as your funding priorities will likely overlap with the SDGs, your grantees may already be working on the SDGs. You can help build grantee awareness and familiarity with the goals by sharing information on your website and requiring SDG metrics in your grant applications and/or reports.

Foundations also have the power to connect partners as well as facilitate conversation and action around a shared issue. Using their strengths as thought leaders, foundations can bring together experts to explore and address the goals. In fact, SDG number17 is to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” Just by connecting with others in pursuit of the SDGs, foundations will be investing in one of the goals.

Universality of the SDGs – A Role for All

One of the most powerful elements of the SDGs is their universality: they apply to all countries in the world, not just those in the global South. They therefore provide a shared language that can be applied to work happening anywhere in the world. For multi-national companies, this can mean aligning and tracking investment across the SDGs from core business to employee volunteering, grantmaking, and employee match programs.

Universality also challenges long-held perceptions that only certain countries are failing to deliver sustainable social, environment, and economic development. The SDGs remind us of all our shared challenges. The struggle for clean water in Michigan in many ways mirrors the same challenges in Mali, and hunger impacts residents in Illinois just as it does in India.

We know that foundations already contribute to the SDGs on the city, county, state, national, and global level. To truly achieve these audacious goals by 2030 and tackle the critical global issues that they address, philanthropy is a critical partner for all sectors as we work collectively to “leave no one behind.”