The United Nations made headlines around the world in September 2015 when it adopted an ambitious set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to end extreme poverty, protect the planet, and ensure health and prosperity for all by 2030. Delivering on these goals won’t come cheap. The UN estimates that it will require an additional $2.5 trillion in funding each year above what is currently being spent by government, business, and philanthropy.
Government and business have the deepest pockets and, no doubt, will shoulder the largest financial burden. But they cannot do the job alone. Philanthropy also has a critical role to play. It brings not just much-needed money, but often a willingness to support big thinking, innovation, risk-taking, and collaboration.
The power of those contributions is particularly evident in philanthropic “big bets” that aim to speed progress on specific social issues, such as pediatric AIDS or quality education. The Bridgespan Group’s research has established the outsized role big bets can play in propelling social change. Building on that work, we set out to research the flow of big bets to areas targeted by the SDGs—hoping to discern patterns that could inform future philanthropic efforts.
UN Foundation President and CEO Kathy Calvin has elevated the need for more research of this sort, pointing to insufficient data as a barrier to more rapid progress on the SDGs. “A core challenge within the philanthropic community is that there isn’t enough data on where the dollars are flowing vis-à-vis the SDGs, or enough transparency on what impact the dollars are having,” says Calvin. This Bridgespan study is part of a constellation of efforts aiming to fill that void and help funnel more dollars, more effectively to achieving the SDGs.
Tracking Donor Big Bets Aligned with the SDGs
Bridgespan began by identifying and researching the big bets made by 90 leading US and international philanthropists. We sought a representative sample of three types: traditional foundations, wealthy individuals, and corporate foundations. For each, we identified grants of $10 million or more between 2000 and 2016. Although the SDGs did not take effect until January 2016, and thus did not directly motivate the philanthropic activity, the 17 goals provided a useful framework to categorize them.
For each big bet, we made a judgment call about which SDG to categorize it under, given that the goals are interrelated. Among the 90 funders we studied, 52 made big bets aligned with the SDGs. They collectively deployed $42.4 billion via 836 big bets over the 17-year timeframe of our research.
Not surprisingly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives away six times more money than the next largest global funder we studied, tops the roster with just over 500 SDG-aligned big bets (about 60 percent of the bets in our database), totaling nearly $20 billion.
More than half of the other funders we researched also made big bets in SDG areas. Most did so outside of their home countries, reflecting a broad commitment to global development issues. Moreover, these funders sharply increased their financial commitment to SDG-aligned big bets even before the UN ratified the new goals in September 2015. When we compared five-year spans ending in 2010 and 2015, pledged spending rose 84 percent.