The Sustainable Development Goals and Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Global Community
Global Issues
Philanthropic Organizations
Social/Cultural Issues
United Nations
The Sustainable Development Goals are a broad set of 17 goals adopted by all countries in the United Nations in 2015. They provide a set of universal goals to guide philanthropic organizations around the world as they pursue to make the human condition better. The implementation of the SDGs will require the cooperation of governments, business, and the philanthropic sector.

by Topher Ryan Anderson


Definition and Mission 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a broad set of 17 goals and 169 targets that were adopted by all countries in the United Nations in 2015. These 193 countries account for 99.3% of the world population, and their joint declaration to tackle these goals is the world’s largest cooperative development effort (Rosenburg) The 17 SDGs are pictured below. These goals are being implemented with the intended deadline of 2030. Every year, an international body called the “High-Level Forum on Sustainable Development” publishes a report on the progress of each goal with data collected from around the world. 

History of the Sustainable Development Goals 

The SDGs are the result of an evolution in international cooperation that has happened over the last 70 years. The government for implementing these goals was created back in 1942, when 26 countries signed the United Nations Declaration and founded the international government (United Nations Department of Public Information 2011). This international government has 5 bodies: the Secretariat, the General Assembly, the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and the Economic and Social Council (Morse). It grew over the decades, and now only 3 countries in the world are not members of the United Nations (Vatican City and Palestine) (Rosenburg).  

In June 1992, 178 countries adopted Agenda 21, the first international development plan to improve human life and protect the environment (“Agenda 21...”). Agenda 21 started the Commission on Sustainable Development, which provided a space to monitor progress on Agenda 21 and discuss ways to improve Agenda 21. It also started an annual Conference on Sustainable Development which continues to this day (“Agenda 21…”). Eight years later, the world’s leaders published the Millennium Declaration to begin 2000. Among other things, the Millennium Declaration outlined 8 goals to be completed by 2015 in order to reduce extreme poverty around the world. These goals, known as the Millennium Development Goals, included the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the achievement of universal primary education, and the assurance of environmental sustainability (Deglau). 

The Millennium Development Goals showed some great successes: the number of people living on less than $1/day worldwide was nearly halved; enrollment in primary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 18%, and over 100 million slum dwellers found other housing (“Sustainable Development Goals…”). However, there were problems with the Millennium Development Goals that some countries wanted to see fixed. Critics said that the worldwide goals had been developed by only a few countries, that they left behind the poorest people, and that they didn’t allow for national differences. (Fehling, et. al) 

So in 2012, UN members decided to begin a process for developing the new Development Goals in a more inclusive manner. They developed a 3-year process to develop development goals after the end of the MDGs in 2015. A group of 30 countries worked for 2 years to create “a shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world’s leaders and the people” (Thomson). It incorporated the input of over 30 million people around the world, and was called by the UN Secretariat “most transparent and inclusive process in UN history” (Thomson). Since 2015, there have been 3 annual reports on the progress of the SDGs. 



These Sustainable Development Goals are important because they are a unified set of goals approved by (nearly) every nation in the world. According to Dr. Robert Payton, Philanthropy is an action of the moral imagination (Payton and Moody 2008). With this understanding, it makes sense that getting the entire world to agree on what a better world looks like is a necessary first step in improving the human condition across the world. They allow for social mobilization across the world (Sachs). Additionally, the SDGs create peer pressure between nations. Though they ae not legally binding, political leaders are now able to judge other leaders by their ability to eradicate poverty, advance education, and reverse climate change.  

The Sustainable Development Goals go even a step beyond giving the world’s leaders a clear direction and pressuring them to do so. The United Nations has provided frameworks for developed nations to share funds and research with developing nations so that all nations have the ability to meet their SDGs (“Millenium Development Goals Report” 2015). The creation of these networks spurs investment in nations that would previously struggle to find the resources to eradicate poverty.  

While the pronunciation of clear goals is only the first step in solving the issues, the UN’s experience with the Millienium Development Goals shows that these are an extremely promising method to solve humanitarian problems. Under the inspiration of the Millennium Development Goals, several issues saw marked reductions. 6 million malaria deaths were averted among young children, primary school enrollment increased from 83% to 91% in developing countries, infant mortality dropped by 52% worldwide, and development funds from 1st world countries to 3rd world countries increased by 66% (“Millenium Development Goals Report” 2015). With a broad new set of goals that have been assembled with the help of multiple stakeholders, the new SDGs have the potential to create a transformed world by 2030.  


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector 

The Sustainable Development Goals are closely related to the mission of philanthropic organizations around the world. They provide a set of universal goals to guide philanthropic organizations around the world as they pursue to make the human condition better. Because the SDGs are so broad, nearly every philanthropic organization is able to align their mission with one or more of the SDGs. For example, the World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian aid program, has focused its efforts on Goal 2, which is to eliminate hunger and food insecurity (“Homepage | World Food Program”). Environmental organizations around the world have responded to goals 7, 11, 13, and 14 while staying true to their original mission. Philanthropic organizations dedicated to education can focus on goal 4, while nonprofits fighting for gender equality can work together on goal 5.  

The implementation of the SDGs will require the cooperation of governments, business, and the philanthropic sector. The United Nations’ primary role is to offer the unifying goals, facilitate resource sharing, and do an annual progress report. These functions are helpful, but they will not complete the goals unless governments, businesses, nonprofits, and communities collaborate creatively.  

Key Related Ideas 

  • Millenium Development Goals – The Millenium Development Goals were the immediate predecessor to the Sustainable Development Goals. They focused on eight key areas from 2000-2015, and many of their goals saw remarkable progress. Their success was a major motivator to continue and expand these efforts through the Sustainable Development Goals (“United Nations Millenium Goals Background” 2015).  

  • Paris Accords – The Paris Accords were the result of an international agreement through a UN conference that occurred in 2015. Occurring shortly after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, it was an attempt to unite all countries in the fight for CO2 emission reduction and climate change mitigation. The primary goal was to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius, and the signature of this Accord was a major step towards the achievement of goal 13 (Climate Action) (“The Paris Agreement” 2018). 

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a foundational document in the history of the United Nations. It outlined a series of 28 universal human rights that are to be protected by all nations. This framework is integral throughout the entire history of the United Nations, and the Sustainable Development Goals are an attempt to ensure these rights for all individuals in the world (“Universal Declaration…” 1948).  

Important People Related to the Topic 

  • Ban Ki-Moon (June 13, 1944 - present): The eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations General Assembly from the Republic of Korea was a strong advocate of world peace, especially in the Korean peninsula. He acted as the Secretary-General during the development and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (“Ban-Ki Mooon” 2016). 

  • David Beasley (Feb. 26, 1957 – present): Recently appointed as the Executive Director of World Food Programme, David Beasley is a key player in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. He previously spent four years as Republican governor of South Carolina, and spent ten years working as a consultant with program managers throughout the world. Just last year, his leadership of the World Food Programme prevented four countries from slipping into famine (“2018-WFP Executive Director” 2018). 

  • Ted Turner (November 19, 1938 – present): The chairman and founder of the United Nations Foundation, Ted Turner gave $1 billion to found the United Nations over 20 years ago. Since then, his investment has leveraged over $20 billion to support the UN’s implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Ted made his money as a media mogul, founding the Cable News Network (CNN), Cartoon Network, and other prominent TV and radio networks ( Editors 2017).  

Related Nonprofit Organizations 

  • United Nations Foundation – The United Nations Foundation was founded in 1998 by a generous donation from philanthropist Ted Turner. This foundation has mobilized $20 billion over the last 2 decades to support UN programs and missions. Currently, the foundation’s two primary pursuits are the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the promise of the Paris Accords. (source) 

  • World Food Programme  The World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian agency. It is a program of the United Nations whose sole focus is eliminating hunger by 2030 (goal 2). It uses short term rations and cash supplies to build resilient communities and increase food security. In They distribute over 12.6 billion meals per year to those in need.  (source) 

  • Amnesty International  Amnesty International is an international movement with over 7 million participants. It focuses on investigative journalism where human rights abuses are suspected, and holds governments accountable to their international agreements. It is a great example of a nonprofit organization that focuses on peace, justice, and strong institutions in every country (goal 16) (source).  

  • Natural Resources Defense Council – The National Resources Defense Council is a coalition of lawyers, scientists, and philanthropists who protect wildlife and natural resources in the United States and around the world. They use legislative solutions and legal cases to protect the environment, and are a great example of a nonprofit organization focused on protecting life below the water and on land (goals 14 and 15) (source). 


Reflection Questions

  1. What do you think is the most attainable development goal for the world to accomplish?
  2. If the UN successfully addresses these 17 issues, what issues will they take on next? 



  • “2018 - WFP Executive Director - Biography.” WFP | United Nations World Food Programme - Fighting Hunger Worldwide, World Food Programme, Oct. 2018. 
  • Agenda 21: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.” United Nations, United Nations, 2018. 
  • Deglau, Terry. “Conference, Meeting, Event, Observance, Celebration, International Day, World Day, Session.” United Nations: Millenium Summit (6-8 September 2000), United Nations, 8 Sept. 2000. 
  • Fehling, Maya, et al. “Limitations of the Millennium Development Goals: a Literature Review.” Global Public Health, vol. 8, no. 10, 8 Dec. 2013, pp. 1109–1122., doi:10.1080/17441692.2013.845676. 
  • “Homepage | World Food Programme.” World Food Programme Homepage, World Food Programme, 2018. 
  • Morse, Catherine. “The United Nations at 60.” The United Nations at 60 - Homepage, University of Michigan, 2018. 
  • Payton, Robert L., and Michael P. Moody. Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission. Indiana University Press, 2008. 
  • Rosenberg, Matt. “3 Countries That Are Not Members of the United Nations.” Thoughtco.DotDash, 24 Sept. 2018. 
  • Sachs, Jeffrey D. “Why the Sustainable Development Goals Matter.” World Economic Forum, World Economic Forum, 30 Mar. 2015. 
  • “Sustainable Development Goals Kick off with Start of New Year.” Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations, 30 Dec. 2015. 
  • “The Paris Agreement.” United Nations Climate Change, United Nations Framework to Combat Climate Change , 22 Oct. 2018. 
  • Thomson, Stéphanie. “What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?” World Economic ForumWorld Economic Forum, 16 Sept. 2015. 
  • “United Nations Millennium Development Goals Background.” United Nations , United Nations, 2015. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948. 


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.