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Getting Started on the Sustainable Development Goals


A how-to for community foundations and place-based funders

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Natalie Ross

The Council on Foundations works to strengthen, advocate for, and amplify philanthropy in the US and around the world. We empower professionals working in philanthropy to meet today’s toughest challenges by developing and sharing new tools and ideas that can better help advance the common good.

Globally, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a new North Star, driving global change as we work to create a different world by 2030. The Goals are, by design, relevant across sectors that impact social change, including philanthropy. But for those working in philanthropy at the most local level, understanding how to leverage a global framework like the SDGs can be overwhelming.  

Our latest report, Local Leadership, Global Impact: Community Foundations and the Sustainable Development Goals  is a tool that introduces the SDGs to place-based grantmakers in the US and around the world, but also shows how other actors, from governments to the private sector, can collaborate with community foundations to achieve the SDGs.

About the SDGs

The SDGs were adopted in September 2015 by 193 governments, including the United States. These 17 global goals set time-bound targets that aim to eliminate extreme poverty, reduce inequality, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and create more sustainable, resilient, and equitable communities.

While the SDGs represent a global agenda, they require local action to achieve them. Partners — from government to the private sector, civil society and philanthropy — must work together to create a better future for all. During the last 3 years, governments around the world have built momentum around achieving these global goals. At the same time, companies and corporate foundations across sectors and have adopted the SDG framework, from Ericsson to IBM and Citi.

However, most community foundations and domestic, place-based funders have not been as engaged in designing or adopting the SDGs, especially in the United States. Yet, these universal goals are hyper-relevant to the unique challenges facing communities in America and around the world.

The Council on Foundation’s new report, in partnership with Community Foundations of Canada and Comunalia in Mexico, provides an introduction to the 17 SDGs and outlines how place-based funders, whether working in Kinshasha or Kansas City, can utilize the SDG framework to drive change locally and ensure no one is left behind.

Community Foundations are growing globally

Today, more than 1,800 community foundations are operating globally, with more than 800 in the United States. The Community Foundation Atlas is a key tool in locating community foundations around the world.

Most community foundations direct grant dollars to support local and regional priorities, but community foundations are also important global actors. Their work to address problems like hunger and unemployment is the same work needed to achieve the SDGs. Community foundations are especially strong in one way, which is critical for achieving the SDGs: their unmatched convening power. At their core, they build assets, capacity, and trust within a community to strengthen local development for all.

The SDGs give community foundations a roadmap and language for doing, and talking about, local work already in progress. They are also a way to attract new funding. Still, many community foundations around the world are unaware of the SDGs and how they are relevant to their work.

Getting Started

For community foundations and other place-based funders who are not yet using the SDGs, The Council on Foundations report offers ten steps to get started in framing your work through the lens of the SDGs.

  • Learn: Study all 17 SDGs
  • Contextualize: Map the SDGs to Local Challenges
  • Define Targets: Use Existing Data to Create Local 2030 Goals
  • Track Grantmaking: Communicate and Grow Your Base
  • Educate: Tell Others About the SDGs
  • Partner: Build a Local & Vocal Coalition
  • Innovate: Leverage Global Ideas for Local Pilots
  • Co-Create: Build Solutions Together
  • Monitor: Track Progress & Report Out
  • Support: Build an Enabling Environment for Success

For countries like the United States and Canada, previous global frameworks like the Millennium Development Goals did not include domestic targets. As momentum has built since 2015 around the SDGs, a number of US cities have started adopting the global goals, including New York City and Los Angeles. Organizations using the SDGs for the first time may be surprised that others in their community, from companies to non-profits, universities, or local government, may already have adopted or used the framework when creating local strategies or goals.

Existing models offer a way forward

The report also highlights community foundations already applying the SDGs to their work, with case studies from Europe, North America, Europe Asia and South America. These include community foundations working on specific goals, like ending hunger in Brazil or empowering women and girls in Nepal. We also outline initiatives utilizing data to map the SDGs in Florida and Canada and show how to use the goals as a platform to engage corporate donors in Silicon Valley. Community philanthropy networks are also already playing important roles in building understanding and engagement about the SDGs, across North America and around the world.

We believe that when partners come together to innovate, united behind a single goal, progress will happen, and we can ensure that no one is left behind. For governments, nonprofits, foundations, and multinational agencies, community foundations are a critically important partner and convener that can ensure that locally-relevant programming that help us all achieve the Global Goals in every community around the world.

Local Leadership, Global Impact was launched at the first-ever North American Community Foundations Summit on February 5 in Mexico City. The author, Natalie Ross is the Vice President of External Relations at the Council on Foundations. She may be reached at

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