Are the SDGs the North Star for Corporations?

Each September, delegations of public and private sector representatives from almost every country meet at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to discuss how best to work together to solve the world’s most endemic political, economic and security challenges. On the development front, a framework called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serves as a collective action agenda, with progress measured against 17 primary goals and 169 targets covering a broad range of issues inclusive of poverty, health, education, hunger, women and girls, city sustainability, climate change and others. Experts estimate that it will take approximately $2 trillion a year—through the expiration date of 2030—to finance the goals. That’s a total need of about $26 trillion. If we can find a way to fund the Goals, we have the potential to end global poverty and hunger, protect the planet from degradation, ensure human beings can enjoy fulfilling lives, and foster peaceful and inclusive societies.

This means we have a lot of work to do. For years, SDG organizers and activists have pushed the private sector to play a more robust role in developing and delivering on the framework. And many corporations have stepped up to the plate in the process, even aligning their own activity with the Goals.

Recent rhetoric around “urgency” and “need” and “responsibility” on the part of private actors has been deafening. For many of these organizations, focusing on the Goals is synonymous with understanding what their company’s future might look like. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, rapid automation, global climate shifts and growing power of a socially conscious customer-base, sitting on the sidelines may mean getting left behind. The imperative to pursue these global mandates can either be to mitigate risk or to truly appreciate the value of profit and purpose. Regardless, the zeal with which corporate leaders and institutions are reaching for the baton feels unprecedented.

Conversations during UNGA week were abuzz with one key question—how can the private sector approach the SDGs in a way that actually achieves our shared global objectives? In response to this, the Global Impact Investing Network, in partnership with The Abraaj Group and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, convened business leaders to discuss what they’ve been doing to meet this goal and what more will be needed.

Inspired by the enthusiasm of the participants—and the ambitious thinking of changemakers in the room, here were some things we heard:

First, we have to start talking about the SDGs as a framework, not a silver bullet.

It was inspiring to hear representatives from Safaricom, Royal Phillips, and LADOL broadly agree that the SDGs create a construct for real conversation. Specifically, the Goals offer an organized way of aligning business activities with delivering impact. The segmentation of goals—and even more importantly, their targets—help businesses understand which of their peers are tackling the same problems and encourage collaboration towards these ends. In our own Impact Investing work, specifically through the Impact Investing Network Map, we’ve seen firsthand that there’s real value in understanding who’s playing in your space. By identifying likely allies, organizations are motivated to work together to achieve better results.

Second, the private sector must be the nexus for change, not an afterthought.

Capital and investment have often powered the wheel of innovation, for better or worse. As our panelists pointed out, businesses are not just a key stakeholder in systems-wide change, but a key organizer. Particularly in emerging markets, they are required to work with local communities, align different sources of capital, and inspire local government to serve the immediate needs of their own supply chain. That’s a unique position to be in. Take healthcare, for example. To revolutionize the healthcare system in emerging markets, as was explained from the mainstage, the solution is not as simple as building one hospital. Businesses need to create relationships with pharmaceutical companies, train doctors and nurses and even improve local transport and infrastructure to facilitate effective treatment. As representatives of Abraaj’s Growth Markets Health Fund, Royal Phillips, PBUCC and the IFC made clear (through their partnership in the Growth Markets Health Fund), even the most catalytic investments or innovative solutions need everyone around the table.

Third, without refreshed norms on how the private sector operates, progress will be stunted.

Even with the best collaboration and innovation, how we measure success needs an update if the goal is to maximize impact alongside profit. And that requires a move from short term wins to long term sustainability. As Amy Jadesimi pointed out from the stage, we’ve allowed the industry to drift dangerously away from what “long term” used to mean in the 70s and 80s. Corporate trailblazers—like Paul Polman of Unilever—continue to urge businesses to rethink how they measure success and with what frequency. But many agree that to do this, we need to first educate those calling the shots, and that extends beyond the C-Suite. Shareholders need to be informed of the value of sustainable thinking and long-term planning. They need to be encouraged to use their voice and to exercise their votes in alignment with what they believe to be fundamental to the success of a company long-term. Financial managers need to be at the helm of product innovation, exploring new mechanisms that leverage both social and financial returns. Stakeholders—every entity or individual affected by a businesses’ core activity—must be engaged holistically. Even across private assets, there’s a role for Limited Partners to play with General Partners and fund managers to actively demand that they work with their portfolio companies to think beyond just the bottom line—for financial and social benefits.

Achieving the SDGs are more of a reality today than ever before. They are integral to the well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Some corporations are ready to move to fulfill this mandate, while others are waiting to be inspired. If we can use the framework of the SDGs to usher in this new way of thinking, acting and partnering—with the private sector as an integral and active participant—we may truly have an opportunity to massively reduce global poverty.

Be Fearless Spotlight: The Henry David Thoreau Foundation

This Spotlight is crafted in partnership with GOOD and authored by guest writer Caitlin Kelly as part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector.

The Henry David Thoreau (HDT) Foundation, first established in 1998, has spent the last 17 years handing out funds to some of the most delightful—and unpredictable—people imaginable. HDT’s grant recipients are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. They’re also passionate about the environment, offering dozens of innovative strategies each year to prevent further damage to the oceans and the air, the rivers and the soil. And they want to get started on all of it, right now.

Who is this elusive group of Thoreau Scholars? High school seniors—who are often thought of as capricious teenagers rather than the changemakers, social entrepreneurs, scientists and world leaders that they will soon be.

Dr. Jennifer Galvin, the HDT’s director, likens the foundation’s investments to a very smart wager. “We are making big bets on individuals and institutions – more of a social venture,” she says. The foundation provides funding to faculty members and to individual students. Their Thoreau Scholars arm has provided up to $30,000 to eight to ten Massachusetts high school seniors every year for college tuition. For this limited number of slots, the foundation receives about 1,000 student applications. Students apply online and supply letters of recommendation to support their proposals. The applicant pool is always so impressive that, Galvin jokes, “They’re either making it up or they’re the next Bill Gates! We definitely have to cross-check their credentials.”

“Each of the Case Foundation’s five principles are markers for us,” she adds. “Our Faculty Grant Program allows us to take risks on programs that might never get off the ground otherwise. We want longevity, not one hit wonders. We want to incentivize people to stick with environmental work… so that our scholars and faculty members can take the risks they want in the environmental arena—and whatever problems they want to solve, I want to support them.”

While all the Thoreau Scholars selected are bright and creative, 65 percent of them are also drawn from public high schools. That includes Christopher Golden, who today is a Harvard graduate, as well as the director of a nonprofit in Madagascar. His team, according to HDT’s website, has “developed a ‘recipe book’ of remedies based on local plants, which has been distributed to numerous villages to preserve and promote indigenous remedies in an area where hospitals are distant and expensive.” Golden believes that kind of optimism is precisely why Thoreau Scholars stand out.

“The program is designed to reward people based on their passions, to foster their belief that they might just be the person with the solution,” he says. “My fellow scholars are all hyper-intelligent, but the point of the scholars program isn’t test scores or academic accolades. It’s about passion and leadership.”

Galvin says the question at the heart of the HDT program is, “’How do you build resilient, energetic, environmental leaders?’… I want them to think of themselves as fearless leaders now, whether interested in policy or education or bench science, whatever drives them the most. They all have incredible stories about why they care so much.”

Galvin also does much more than write a check and await a report, treasuring the close personal relationships she fosters with—and among—her scholars and faculty members. “I email. I’m on the phone. Some are now my closest friends and colleagues, and they are in the four corners of the world. It’s like herding cats, but I love that!”

The first class of Thoreau Scholars graduated in 2003, and some of them have already gone on to start energy companies or become college faculty members in their respective fields. Galvin measures the impact of their work in different ways, she explains, whether it’s about honing scholars’ critical thinking abilities, their individual connections or their leadership skills. “Some are easy to measure in the short-term and some take longer to play out.”

“I saw the connections at a very young age between environmental health and our physical health,” she says. “I was always really good at zooming in and out, and seeing how the dots are connected.” That might be why the foundation casts such a wide net and looks for those who are taking risks, experimenting and forming unique collaborations—offering support to biologists and botanists alongside those pursuing public health, law and chemistry. “I want to cross-fertilize different sectors to reframe the narrative and shift thinking,” says Galvin. “Environmental problems don’t fit neatly into boxes and their solutions don’t either.”

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.