“The SDGs are a powerful common language”

Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director at the Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), on his new plans for the global SDG Philanthropy Platform (SDGPP).

Benjamin Bellegy
Copyright: Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS)

Mr Bellegy, the SDG Philanthropy Platform (SDGPP) was launched in 2014 to raise awareness of the important role of philanthropy in achieving the SDGs, but also to give philanthropy the opportunity to network and learn from each other. WINGS has officially assumed the role of co-lead for the SDGPP starting this year. Why? 
Benjamin Bellegy:
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the global context for social engagement has fundamentally changed. The world faces the most significant socio-economic shock in a generation, coming at a time of severe inequality, ecological fragility, and growing distrust within and amongst our societies and institutions. This situation makes the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) even more urgent. It has created a greater need than ever before for philanthropy to play a critical role in multi-stakeholder engagement.

The philanthropy platform and the related search for answers to the pandemic are directly related to the WINGS strategy. Therefore, the role we have now taken on fits us very well. We are well equipped to introduce and develop new programming; to promote an enabling environment for philanthropy; strengthen the philanthropy infrastructure in the Global South; increase collaboration and connections within the field and with other actors; and make the case for strategic investments in the philanthropy support ecosystem. These contribute to the overall objective of developing global philanthropy's volume, effectiveness, diversity, and impact. WINGS as co-lead can be a catalyst for mobilising more philanthropy around the SDGs and increase the sector's collective voice on social change issues.

WINGS works in concert with UNDP at the global, regional, national and local levels to co-lead the SDGPP. With our convening power and growing network and the vast reach and expertise of our members and their members, we believe that the WINGS network can lead the platform in its next evolution in exciting new ways that haven't been seen before.

SDG Philanthropy Platform

The SDG Philanthropy Platform (SDGPP) was established in 2014, to actively contribute to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by providing philanthropy with opportunities to raise awareness of the role of philanthropy in SDGs, learn about examples of SDG implementation and facilitate networking.

The development of the SDGPP has been supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Ford Foundation and MasterCard Foundation, among others. In the early years, Rockefeller Advisory Philanthropy and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) worked together to develop the platform. The next phase is now being co-led by WINGS and UNDP.

So will we see a huge change in how the SDGPP will be working now?Bellegy: There will be a certain continuity with what has been done in the past in terms of raising awareness about the SDGs and the importance of multi-sectoral collaboration. At the same time, we see this as an opportunity to push the boundaries on new ideas and approaches.

Since the SDGPP was first founded in 2014 by a group of key philanthropy support organisations including Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors who were the lead coordinator for philanthropy, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on the UN side, and Candid (formerly Foundation Center) who provided leadership on data and knowledge, it has always been a collaborative initiative. We will continue to foster that collaboration, ensuring it is an open space where different actors can engage - with the overall goal of getting the philanthropic sector more involved in the SDGs and understanding the connection to their own work, as well as how they can champion the framework for more significant collective impact. In other words, the SDGs are an opportunity for foundations and other actors to pursue really bold ambitions and to identify pathways to transform at scale, to collaborate with other actors, and to look at what their contribution is at a national level and within the bigger picture as regards to progress towards these global goals.

The platform isn't just about philanthropy engaging philanthropy on the SDGs; however – it is also about how we build bridges and relationships with other actors at the global level. We will go beyond philanthropy to work to foster better institutional relationships with other development funders and actors. And, of course, it's about helping our members to create more bridges in collaboration at the national level and across borders, using the SDGs as a powerful common language and as a common framework for collaboration.

How are the SDGs accepted by philanthropic organisations so far?
Bellegy:
We see a growing interest in the SDGs among philanthropic actors, especially among foundations that are trying to address change at scale and are wondering what kind of partnership they need to build to get there.  I think we all as a philanthropy sector believe that right now, with the pandemic, more than ever before, there is an urgency to build back better and achieve the 2030 Agenda to truly make sure we leave no one behind. Philanthropy knows that to build back better, we must understand the needs, opportunities, and challenges communities face in real-time. We must understand what each other knows and who is working on what, where, and how. This understanding can only be achieved in collaboration, and we are lucky to all have the SDGPP at the vanguard.

Overall, we want to figure out and know the potential ways to support partners and members to find funds, shift power, alter strategies, provide flexible funding, and make quick but smart strategic decisions. I believe that the best way to do this is to work together with us and with each other through the SDGPP.

What, in your opinion, is the unique role of philanthropy for the SDGs?Bellegy: Philanthropy has already provided at least USD210 billion in investment towards the SDGs in terms of funding. That doesn't even take into account the qualitative value the sector has provided, individual and grassroots giving. While this may seem significant, the SDGs have a price tag of up to three trillion dollars. Perhaps more than many other donors, philanthropy is in a unique position to drive change. Big global players and the small yet mighty local actors can connect with and support communities directly, collaborate around decision-making, try out new funding mechanisms, take short- and long-term funding approaches, de-risk investments, and test out innovative solutions while supporting existing ongoing needs.

I see the SDGs as an opportunity because the first thing you need to collaborate is a common language and common goals. So that's why I think the SDGs are incredibly relevant and important. We know that collaboration – especially cross-sector collaboration – is key to impacting society on a bigger scale. As we're facing very urgent challenges at the global and local levels right now more than ever before as a result of the pandemic, we need to find new ways to have an impact at scale. That certainly makes the SDGs framework very relevant. The relationship that you build between organisations and sectors: this is what will continue and what will stay. That's why we believe our focus for the platform is so relevant: we are utilising it as an opportunity to foster multi-sectoral collaboration and to share knowledge to achieve a collective set of philanthropic and community goals.

How do you connect this to your call for unlocking philanthropy's potential?
Bellegy:
It's not so much about how we can align and coordinate philanthropic funding, with other development funding sources, like government agencies or multilateral organisations. This is also important, but the bigger question is how we can unlock the potential of philanthropy. By unlocking I mean, knowledge, skills, smaller but catalytic funding and testing new approaches and financing mechanisms, especially in developing countries, to contribute to achieving the global goals.

It is also about how we can engage more actors in growing and improving philanthropy and giving at the local level as part of their strategies. The platform can elevate among development funders the importance to increase investments in stronger local civil society and philanthropy support ecosystems that can unlock long-term local resources for development.

Furthermore, I think it is very important that the platform also has a policy dimension that we will reinforce. We believe this is very important. For some reason, the philanthropic sector is probably the only sector in the world that has never organised itself at the global level to promote the sector and to promote favorable policies for the sector. WINGS is starting to fill this gap, and the SDG platform is a new opportunity to do this.

Can you detail your plans for the SDGPP?
Bellegy:
We will be working to promote investment in developing and strengthening philanthropy, individual giving, and social investment (including its supporting infrastructure).

Now, more than ever, we have the ability to strengthen the sector, which will result in closing the intersectional SDG COVID-19 funding gap by enabling philanthropy to undertake more effective grantmaking and to test other financial instruments using existing philanthropic wealth and knowledge, to support better economic outcomes. For example, this year, in response to the pandemic, we saw the use of bonds to respond to the pandemic instead of increasing endowment payout. Ford Foundation offered for sale $1 billion of taxable Social Bonds. This approach demonstrates just how it is possible to act in new ways to leverage different financial instruments.

Our plan is also for the philanthropic sector to have a seat at the table where development policy discussions are taking place. WINGS is a facilitator in gathering together the different voices from the philanthropic field and the different subsectors.

We believe that everybody should jump on board and use this space and the opportunity to have a positive influence on both development policies and on civic space policies that affect the capacity of our sector to achieve the SDGs. We are seeing a concerning trend in many countries to restrict civic and philanthropic freedom that the Covid-19 crisis is accelerating. Various governments across the globe have used the pandemic to crack down on civil society. This is a dangerous contradiction as they need citizens’ actions and private funding more than ever to face the challenges of this very crisis.

There are also new opportunities now that didn't exist before that the SDGPP can really leverage for philanthropy and civil society. For example, WINGS now have a seat on the Steering Committee of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, led by UNDP and the OECD, which provides philanthropy with a voice. We’re also about to announce an important new initiative supported by the European Union which will reinforce our ability to promote enabling policies and more collaboration around the SDGs globally. This will only increase the importance of the SDGPP as a key instrument and channel.

Other initiatives such as the country-level UN SDG Accelerator Labs have been set up in recent years and partnering with them could provide an opportunity to make breakthrough ideas philanthropy ready and bring them to the sector to fund and collaborate on. We will also be working with UNDP to support and reactivate the national level in-country SDGPP in specific target countries with local philanthropy and to engage in multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Will this mean that the philanthropic sector will take on a much more active role in development policy discussions at the global level?
Bellegy:
Absolutely. This is something we need to change. Philanthropic networks are very well positioned to bring forward the diverse voices of all the people they work with. Simultaneously, the platform will be helping national networks and other support organisations for the field to develop the tools and incentives required to create meaningful collaboration with other sectors on the SDGs. We have a great opportunity there as the UNDP is the lead UN agency for socio-economic recovery to the Covid-19 crisis and wants to leverage the Platform to benefit from our sector’s views, expertise, and collaborative power.

Do you also see a role for philanthropy in supporting human and environmental rights activists who are working on SDGs issues but are prone to risks in many countries?
Bellegy:
Yes, absolutely. That is what I meant when I said that we want to use the platform also as an opportunity to foster the network's agenda in promoting a favorable environment for philanthropy and civil society. It is at the core of our objectives for the field to promote an enabling environment and to push back against the shrinking space for civil society. This is definitely part of our messaging and is at the core of what we want to do.

What developments do you want to see for the SDGPP by the end of the year?
Bellegy:
First, I wish to see a pool of partners coming on board because we are still working on financially supporting the initiative. Of course, that's one critical aspect because it will determine how ambitious we can be and how much we can take advantage of the great opportunity we have. By funding collaboration, policy advocacy, and narrative change work, we can all broaden our vision.

Second, we hope to see strong engagement by the WINGS members, who are themselves networks of support organisations for and in the field, and by foundations that want to be a catalyst for mobilising more of philanthropy around the SDGs in the COVID-19 era and are interested in the development of the philanthropic sector. We need a strong engagement by them because only if the network really engages and starts to share recommendations, ideas, and learnings with us will we have a stronger impact and the ability to empower each other.

Then, thirdly, we're still discussing with potential partners about just how ambitious we can be and the scope of our work for this new phase. What we do know is that we have big goals with UNDP who we will of course, continue to work with in sharing relevant information and best practices around the engagement of this sector. We are also still working with Candid and the SDGfunders.org website as well and determining how to link it more closely with the SDGPP web platform.  We also hope to secure resources to develop toolkits and best practices, to help the philanthropy sector engage with and champion the SDGs, and for other actors, like governments and multilateral organisations, to better understand how they can engage with the diversity of the philanthropic sector.

My plea is: We already have a platform; therefore, come with us on this journey to actively collaborate to build a better and more sustainable future for all to achieve the SDGs and reduce the socio-economic impact of COVID-19.

Interview conducted by Dr. Annette Kleinbrod, Advisor for International Development Cooperation at the Association of German Foundations

Website of the Philanthropy Platform

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