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Community Foundations, Now Is the Time to Talk About the Sustainable Development Goals

Seriously? We should talk about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while a pandemic rages? When issues of racial equity are at a boiling point? And while the country contentiously negotiates the validity of last week’s presidential election?


Yes, now. Precisely because of the pandemic and systemic racism. And in spite of the noise surrounding the election outcome, because we cannot afford to be distracted from these existential concerns right now.


How do you tackle a pandemic? What does it take to bring it under control? It takes single-minded focus, relentless effort, a strategic plan, and collective action.


How do you tackle systemic racism? Single-minded focus, relentless effort, a strategic plan, and collective action.


And, while we’re at it, how do you tackle climate change? How about poverty? How about hunger? How about gender equality?


Each of these issues is represented among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by all members of the United Nations in 2015. And achieving each of these Global Goals is a matter of existential urgency. As are COVID-19 and systemic racism.


At the request of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, I recently authored a report outlining how the SDGs can help structure a strategic, collective response by community foundations to the twin crises of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Released at the annual Growing Community Foundations Conference hosted by the Kansas Association of Community Foundations on October 26, 2020, it highlights concrete actions community foundations can take to address these issues in a coordinated, systematic fashion. It cracks open each of the 17 SDGs to reveal the specific indicators on which the needle must be moved in order to achieve lasting, sustainable change.


The SDG framework amounts to a strategic plan for tackling the world’s most challenging problems. It was created over several years with input from hundreds of thousands of experts around the world. Goal 3 focuses on Good Health and Well-Being. Goal 10 focuses on Reduced Inequalities. At a minimum, we should be looking to these two Goals for guidance on framing a coordinated philanthropic approach to addressing the coronavirus pandemic and racial inequity.


But the beauty of the SDG framework is that it recognizes the interconnected nature of global issues. For example, Good Health and Well-Being (Goal 3) depends on people having access to means of subsistence (Goal 1, No Poverty), good food and nutrition (Goal 2, Zero Hunger), and a healthy environment (Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation; and Goal 12, Responsible Consumption and Production). In other words, achieving the Goal of Good Health and Well-Being is directly tied to the achievement of other Goals, as well.


Each of the 17 Goals has a set of specific Targets to focus action, and a set of concrete Indicators to measure progress. Altogether, the SDG framework includes 169 Targets and 232 Indicators, 190 of which are directly relevant to the United States. The good news is that the framework is comprehensive. The bad news is that it is daunting in its comprehensiveness.


As it stands, the 17-goal structure is not very user-friendly as a toolbox for advancing global change. While many of the SDGs are organized around relatively straightforward concepts — e.g., No Poverty (Goal 1), Zero Hunger (Goal 2), and Quality Education (Goal 4) – the same cannot be said of other goals. Several are more abstract — e.g., Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure (Goal 9) and Sustainable Cities and Communities (Goal 11); some blend two or more concepts together into a single goal — e.g., Decent Work and Economic Growth (Goal 8), and Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions (Goal 16); and others are cross-cutting — e.g., Reduced Inequalities (Goal 10), and Partnerships for the Goals (Goal 17).


Fortunately, the 2015 UN resolution that officially announced the adoption of the SDGs also offered a more succinct, memorable, and coherent way to think about them, namely the 5 Ps, each representing a pillar of the work — People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnerships.


The “People” pillar focuses on the high-level goals of meeting basic human needs and fostering human empowerment.

--Basic Human Needs

1. No Poverty

2. Zero Hunger

3. Good Health

4. Safety

--Human Empowerment

5. Quality Education

6. Decent Work

7. Reduced Inequalities


The “Planet” pillar focuses on the high-level goals of ensuring a healthy environment and promoting responsible consumption and production.

8. Healthy Environment

9. Responsible Consumption & Production


Each of the other three pillars is a category unto itself.

10. Prosperity

11. Peace

12. Partnerships


All 190 U.S.-relevant SDG Indicators can be reorganized to fit into this 5 Ps framework, making it easier to ferret them out and employ them as tools for addressing these 12 broad challenges. More to the point, more than two dozen specific indicators, spanning nine SDGs, are relevant to COVID-19, while matters of racial equity are implicit throughout the framework. This is all spelled out in detail in the Mott report.


Right now, there are no more urgent problems facing the United States than COVID-19 and systemic racism. Sometimes we all have to get on the same page in order to tackle the most intractable problems. The Sustainable Development Goals can help inform an organized approach as philanthropy tackles these existential threats.

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