Philanthropy Bets Big on Sustainable Development Goals

An international roster of donors has dispersed billions of dollars since 2000 to address social issues targeted by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Their efforts highlight four ways that big bets can achieve big social change.

  • Developing and testing innovative solutions – Grants targeting innovations accounted for nearly a third of the $42.4 billion in SDG-aligned big bets. This is a role that other funders, such as governments or international development agencies, often are unwilling or unable to play given the uncertainty and risk inherent in innovation efforts.
  • Implementing and scaling solutions that work – More than half of the big bet dollars went to implement and scale solutions that work. That’s not to say this type of work is devoid of innovation. Taking a solution that worked in one country and establishing it in another frequently entails adaptation to local context.
  • Collaborating to finish the job – Ten percent of the big bet dollars fit this category, which frequently requires system change. Philanthropists often are well-positioned to coordinate such efforts, given their experience collaborating with such diverse stakeholders as governments, NGOs, and multilaterals. As we move closer to the 2030 deadline set by the UN to meet the SDG goals, we expect to see an increase in this category of big bets.
  • Advocating for policy change – Advocacy efforts accounted for roughly 5 percent of big bet spending, an amount that belies the significant impact such spending can have. Bridgespan’s recent study of 15 successful social-change efforts highlighted the frequent need for advocacy.

Most funders targeted four broad categories of SDGs: health, education, gender equality, and environmental issues. A closer look at these four categories highlights the impact of big bets in service of innovation, implementation and scaling, finishing the job, and advocacy.

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