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Catalytic Philanthropy is a missing piece in the SDGs puzzle

6 January 2020

Recently, there has been a surge of momentum around Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the collection of 17 global goals designed to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all worldwide. They range from gender equality and quality education to climate action and industry, innovation and infrastructure.

In September this year, the first UN Summit on the SDGs took place since the adoption of the 2030 agenda in 2015. In addition to this, the inaugural gender equality tracker launched over the summer, and a new fundraising platform has been launched in the UK which matches projects with founders asked on the impact of their work specifically in the context of the SDGs.

We are now entering the ten-year countdown to the deadline set for meeting these goals – and it is painfully apparent that more must be done over the next decade in order to meaningfully meet them. Last month, a UN-Backed report warned that every single European nation remains off-track against all 17 SDGs. Meanwhile, the inaugural gender equality index found that no country globally is set to achieve gender equality by 2030 –  reports this month estimate we are looking at another 99 years before this is secured globally.

Evidently, we are battling against widespread obstacles globally in the fight to meet the SDGs by 2030 – barriers which supersede the workings of individual governments, charities and businesses.

Catalytic philanthropists worldwide need to step forward and engage fully and strategically with the goal to meet the 2030 agenda. They are uniquely positioned to make big bets and take high risks with their own private wealth, absorbing the loss from inevitable failures along the way, in ways which businesses and governments are restricted.

Low risk appetite has rightly been identified as a significant obstacle standing between capital, and attaining the SDGs. SDG-related investments still need to be commercially-viable, According to Nancy Lee, a senior policy fellow at Center for Global Development, development finance institutions’ tolerance for risk being not that dissimilar to those of commercial institutions. High risk appetite catalytic philanthropy capital (equivalent to seed/venture capital) is desperately needed to prove models for scaling by development finance is institutions.

Governments alone do not have ample enough capital to divert to the SDGs. The UN has pinpointed the mobilisation of the private sector as critical to overcoming this barrier. While action is visible from the private business sector – in October, 30 leaders of multinational companies launched the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance at the UN, committing to placing a heavy emphasis on aligning their businesses with the goals – this is not without its own problems. Businesses in the private sector are still beholden to stakeholders and the drive to be profitable in their industry.

This is where catalytic philanthropists come into their own. They have the levels of private wealth the UN is seeking to mobilise – and they also have the freedom to deploy it how they wish. They can take the risks with this capital which governments and most businesses are unable to do, absorbing loss from failures which occur along the long journey to success. Privatizing failure and socializing success is the mantra of catalytic philanthropy.

Beyond risk-taking, a key element of catalytic philanthropy is domain expertise. Meeting the SDGs is not simply about donating large amounts of private wealth to initiatives. It calls for strategic engagement in seeking out sustainable, long-term solutions which tackle problems at their roots.

The Bill Gates Foundation is a prime example of collaborative efforts between philanthropists, governments and the public and private sectors in pursuit of implementing widespread effective change across key identified areas, including poverty alleviation, education in developing countries. They are not working to address every problem, but keep a tight focus on researching sustainable long-term solutions to specific areas.

Strategically, it is also possible for catalytic philanthropists to identify issues to tackle which, if solved, could have a positive ripple effect across multiple SDGs. Catalytic philanthropists are well-placed, with their ability to be flexible and take risks with their own capital, applying it strategically to a niche issue, rather than having to follow guaranteed economically-viable programmes, to travel down this path.

Vision is one such example – a golden thread running throughout multiple SDGs. Poor vision impacts education, gender equality and economic growth amongst others. For example, before the age of 12, 80% of learning is through vision. Therefore, ensuring global access to vision screening and corrective vision methods would positively impact on a whole range of SDGs, alongside the obvious SDG no. 3 – good health and wellbeing.

Catalytic philanthropy will not be the only driving force behind meeting the SDGs by 2030, and it will not provide the only answers. It will take a collaborative approach, which plays to the differing strengths of a vast array of groups and individuals alongside catalytic philanthropists – governments, the UN, charities, businesses, funding groups to name but a few.

Going into 2020, catalytic philanthropists must speak up in the SDG conversation – and simultaneously speak even louder with their actions – to demonstrate their integral role stemming from their unique positioning, in meeting the SDGs.