Keynote Address on Partnerships and the SDGs at Global Partnerships Week 2017

Vikki Spruill's Remarks

Good afternoon. Thank you, Tomas, for that warm welcome and introduction. I am honored to join all of you today to continue the discussion on how partnerships can help achieve the universal Sustainable Development Goals, and share what I’ve learned about how philanthropy is engaging in this shared commitment. After working with foundations in the U.S. and around the world on utilizing the SDG framework in their grantmaking over the last two years, I’m confident that philanthropy is a vital piece to achieving the global goals and a willing partner to the various sectors you all represent.

I also want to thank my staff who are here with you all today and lead our work on the SDGs — Natalie Ross, our Senior Director for Global Philanthropy and Jeff West, our Director for Corporate Philanthropy.

At the Council on Foundations, we are a nearly 70 year old leadership association for foundations and grantmakers, working to amplify, advocate for, and strengthen philanthropy, in the U.S. and around the world.

Our national vantage point affords us the expertise to understand philanthropy and help demonstrate and encourage excellence in its practice. Our varied membership of grantmakers broadly includes three major categories: community foundations, private foundations, and corporate foundations of all types, sizes, ideologies, and geographies. Today, the philanthropic sector is large and diverse — there are more than 80,000 foundations just in the U.S. and almost 30 percent of U.S. philanthropic funding goes to international causes.

Throughout history, philanthropy has been a consistent driver of change in communities throughout the world. Many of us don’t even realize how early investment by philanthropy in history has created programs and solutions that we take for granted today. It is thanks to philanthropy, and specifically the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s and 1940s, that we now have a vaccine for yellow fever. Philanthropic investment led to the public adoption of programs like 911 emergency service, highway markings, and Andrew Carnegie’s support that created both Pell Grants and Sesame Street. Throughout American history, philanthropy has been an innovator for social change. We need to continue that innovation today — and we will — to tackle the goals outlined for us in this new collective framework.

Globally, philanthropy has also played an important role within the international development community, whether with funding that sparked the Green Revolution or multi-generational commitments to supporting communities around the world to sustain and strengthen local civil society, even in times of conflict or following humanitarian disasters. As a sector, foundations inherently believe in the transformative potential of an idea, and in turn, philanthropic leaders have committed significant resources into research and development that ultimately saves millions of lives.

As we all aim to think big and tackle complex systemic problems, we must lead together. No single foundation, donor, agency, or social enterprise can build sustainable outcomes and impact at scale. By partnering across sectors and maintaining focus on outcomes, we can leverage resources, and strategically align activities to achieve maximum impact. Collaboration begins with relationships and establishing trust between organizations. Events like today are powerful reminders of the potential of partnerships and what we can achieve together. They motivate and challenge us all to think about how to leverage each other’s strengths by agreeing to a set of values that form the framework for goal setting. Shared goals can help us agree on funding priorities by identifying root causes we are working to address and ensure measurement via shared indicators of success.

Today, the optimism of the Sustainable Development Goals shows that we believe global sustainable development is within reach. While it’s true that the SDGs are incredibly ambitious in scale and scope, that’s partly what makes them so exciting — the potential and promise they hold. It’s also what makes the contributions and unique value of philanthropy so important to the framework’s ultimate success.

Globally, the SDGs have growing momentum, which is why they are a topic of focus for this event today. For philanthropy, the fact that the SDGs are universal means that the work of any foundation, so long as it seeks to better humanity, is part of a larger global development effort. In this way, a community foundation focused on issues like affordable housing in the U.S. is as much “a part” of the SDGs as is a longstanding global aid organization that has worked to support multilateral global frameworks for decades.

We also know that the SDGs do not represent or fall into partisan politics — the framework includes 17 goals, but does not prescribe policy solutions to get us there. This is why they are relevant to all foundations, who have diverse approaches to achieving social change and why I think they remain relevant to the U.S. today, regardless of changing national leadership.

We know we can’t achieve the SDGs if we continue business as usual, working in silos and not collectively addressing root problems. For philanthropy and for all of us, I think the questions our former president posed when the goals were adopted are critical: “As an international community, how do we meet these new goals that we’ve set today? How can we do our work better? How can we stretch our resources and our funding more effectively?”

Over the next fifteen years, the Foundation Center estimates that philanthropy will make at least $360 billion in grants toward the SDGs. That's significant. At the same time, experts estimate that it is going to cost trillions of dollars to achieve all 17 goals for every person in the world. You don't have to be a math wiz to figure out that partnering with philanthropy can't fill the SDGs financing gap alone. That said, I'm confident philanthropy can play a powerful catalytic role in achieving the goals.

So where is philanthropy already working to achieve the SDGs? I want to provide four examples, working in the U.S. and around the world, where foundations are leading and supporting cross-sector partnerships around the SDGs, to illustrate how I think all of you might be able to partner effectively with philanthropy.

To date, the Council has convened more than 250 foundations in five cities to explore how the SDGs as a universal framework can power U.S. communities to achieve shared, global goals like cutting poverty in half, ending hunger, or ensuring sustainable jobs for all. These conversations have been linked, where possible, to cities where U.S. Mayors have committed to utilizing the SDG framework for their own planning purposes.

Later this week, we are holding our fifth conversation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with more than 70 foundation staff, talking about key SDG targets on issues like health, education, jobs, and inequality. We’ll be joined by the mayor of Minneapolis, who committed her city to the SDG agenda in 2015, and exploring how philanthropy can partner effectively to work towards achieving the global goals within the United States.

New York City, where we held a meeting with philanthropy in early 2016, is a prime example of how a city government can utilize the SDGs to bring together multiple sectors around shared interest in social change. The OneNYC plan, created by the Mayor’s office, is linked to the SDGs as a strategy with Global Vision : Urban Action. One year into this plan, the city reports that private philanthropy has to date mobilized more than $1 million to expand public-private partnerships that strengthen economic development and grow small businesses, a key focus of the work to build a “growing, thriving city.”

Foundations in the U.S. often have place-based strategies, where they make enduring commitments to work across sectors within specific communities. More than 800 community foundations in the U.S., with assets of more than $75 billion and grants worth more than $7 billion per year, are anchors in their communities and often neglected when calculating how the U.S. might achieve the SDGs. We passionately believe foundations of all types are needed to truly embrace and achieve the SDGs in the United States.

The universality of the SDGs provides an opportunity for U.S. philanthropy to apply the framework at home — and if the U.S. hopes to achieve the goals, we need to collaborate at all levels — in cities, in states, and nationally. If we consider the SDGs an American framework and think about how they can be achieved in the U.S., mayors are a key partner, with philanthropy, in moving the needle on goals that impact Americans, including inequality.

An enormous amount of food is wasted in the United States each year. It is estimated that 72 billion pounds of safe, wholesome food goes into landfills or is not harvested. The U.S. spends more than $162 billion growing, processing, and transporting food that is never eaten.

The White House, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Environmental Protection Agency have supported work for the U.S. to achieve Target 12.3 of the SDGs, which would reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. In late 2016, the Rockefeller Foundation, USDA, and EPA announced a new collaboration around Goal 12 with 10 civil society and private sector partners. This online hub,, provides information and solutions for cutting food waste in half — in the U.S. and around the world.

This public-private partnership, which began within government and now is supported by philanthropy to continue independently, working with business and nonprofit partners, is a perfect example of how foundations can be key partners that catalyze action around the SDGs.

For many years, the private sector has been a powerful engine for social impact in the communities they serve and work. In the last decade or so, these efforts have evolved into a more strategic approach to development that aligns the expertise and knowledge of the business with its philanthropic efforts. And given the ambitious framework of the SDGs, progress towards implementation will be limited without strong partners from the private sector.

In the second year of the SDGs, the private sector and corporate philanthropy are leading private philanthropy in embracing and utilizing the global framework — many foundations actually have some catching up to do!

We see many examples of the growing participation from corporations around the world around the SDGs. Just a few weeks ago, IBM launched “IBM Digital — Nation Africa,” a $70 million investment in building digital, cloud, and cognitive IT skills to help support a 21st century workforce in Africa. To support this initiative, they’ve partnered with UNDP, who will, among other things, leverage their network of existing government partnerships to expand the program throughout the continent.

And while money is important, companies like IBM are also harnessing the immense technical expertise in their arsenal by enlisting their employees to help tackle the global goals. Take Impact 2030, for example. Impact 2030 is a global private sector led collaboration created to mobilize employee volunteers to directly and substantially contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. Companies ranging from UPS and Dow Chemical to Medtronic and PWC are providing the time and talent of their workforce to engage in communities around the world by using the SDGs as their framework. They’ve also formed the Impact 2030 Network which is comprised of additional multi-stakeholder organizations from civil society, the public sector, and academia to support this initiative, highlight the key role for partnerships in achieving the SDGs.

For the last two years, the Council on Foundations has joined our global partners on an initiative called the SDG Philanthropy Platform. This growing coalition is working to ensure that as the SDGs are adopted globally, philanthropy is joining government, civil society, and the private sector in achieving these shared goals. For all of us to understand the financial investment of philanthropy into the SDGs ,we need to track grants — so the partnership has launched the website, tracking how U.S. and non-U.S. philanthropy is funding the SDGs in the U.S. and around the world.

The Council also sits on the board of a global philanthropy network called WINGS — Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support. At the end of February, 300 people from 60+ countries gathered in Mexico City and there were several conversations about how philanthropy networks can utilize the SDG framework in different national contexts.

As an example, in determining how to implement the SDGs, the government of Kenya recognized the need for more data to be shared by development partners across sectors. The Kenya Data Forum, created in 2015, is an initiative aimed to realize a data revolution and help the country’s philanthropy sector to engage more easily in discussions with government and other stakeholders on data issues around various thematic areas. The Kenya Philanthropy Forum, housed at UNDP, brings together East African Association of Grantmakers, the Kenya Community Development Foundation and other partners and is a common “voice” for more than 50 foundations and trusts in Kenya engaging with the government on the SDGs. During the recent high-level political forum in Nairobi in late 2016, a side event around the role of philanthropy in achieving the SDGs in Kenya but also globally, convened international and domestic philanthropy to discuss the role of foundations in achieving the SDGs.

In Colombia, the national network of family and corporate family foundations has worked to build awareness of domestic philanthropy around the SDGs. The government established the High Level Governmental SDG Commission to implement the global goals at all levels in Colombia, and philanthropy has a seat on that national body. The sector has a new interactive mapping of philanthropy’s investment in the SDGs across the country, and is also building the data collection capacity of foundation staff to ensure effective data about the philanthropic sector is collected in Colombia.

Similar networks of philanthropy are also engaging on the SDGs in Ghana, Indonesia, Zambia, Mexico, and India and can be partners with all of you, especially the private sector, in delivering the SDGs on the ground in different countries around the world.

Philanthropy is critical to the success of the SDGs not just because we are another sector, but because we are a unique sector. Much of what distinguishes our field — collaboration, experience engaging individuals at the grassroots, a willingness to take risks and leverage resources, and overall flexibility in financing innovative solutions — are critical components of global development. Accordingly, philanthropy wants to be seen as an active partner, not just a source of additional funding, and wants to be brought in from the beginning to take advantage of our sector’s unique abilities and expertise.

So how can others partner with philanthropy? We spend a lot of time working with, for example, federal agencies like the State Department to discuss how to best partner with philanthropy via public-partnership offices through our Federal Liaisons program. We are often working to articulate the non-financial benefits of partnerships with philanthropy — since foundations bring much to bear beyond their checkbooks.

And one of our key partners has been the Department for Housing and Urban Development, who I know is with us today. Last year, HUD’s Office of International and Philanthropic Innovation released a report called Scaling Solutions: Strategies for Building Effective Philanthropy Partnerships that highlights the non-financial benefits of a partnership with philanthropy — including foundations as network weavers, capacity builders, thought partners, narrators, advocates, and conveners.

As you consider the financial benefits of partnering with foundations to achieve the SDGs, I urge you to also consider the expertise and rich knowledge our sector can bring to collaborations — especially as place-based funders have deep experience and connections within local communities, whether here in the U.S. or other countries around the world.

As we are here to talk about effective partnerships to solve big and complex problems we face in the world, I challenge you to think beyond your singular areas of expertise. Join together with unlikely partners. Think big and think bold about how to look at situations from new perspectives, and link up with partners approaching a similar problem from an entirely different angle — learning both from others in your region, others around the country, and others around the world.

I am optimistic about our collective potential to achieve the global goals and look forward to working with our network of foundations and all of you to consider how to continue encouraging our sector to see their work as a key part of implementing the SDGs, here at home and around the world. Thank you again for inviting me here today and good luck with your conversations this afternoon as you continue to explore partnerships to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on all
Partnerships and Collaborations
Sustainable Development Goals


Connect with Council Staff