The global issues that we face today can seem overwhelming -- too much for any person, any one organization, or any one government to tackle. As we size up the global challenges we face — from advancing gender equality to eliminating poverty — it’s crucial to recognize that these issues do not exist in silos. For instance, progress we have made on issues related to health and security are exacerbated by climate change. By looking at these challenges holistically, we have a better chance at making progress on a range of issues, including improving access to food and clean water.

What can humans accomplish, collectively, by 2030? Can we eliminate poverty? Hunger? Can we adequately address climate change? How will we track our progress and know that we have accomplished our goals?

That’s where the Sustainable Development Goals come in, a framework designed by the United Nations for “peace and prosperity” for both people and the planet.

What Are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The United Nations created a set of 17 distinct but interrelated goals to guide global development between 2015 and 2030. Each goal has a set of targets - 169 altogether - with subsets of indicators - 232 in total. These targets and indicators help funders, investors, organizations, and the UN assess progress and completion of the SDGs.

While each goal has separate targets and indicators, they’re all interconnected and stakeholders across many sectors must work together to drive solutions.

The Role of Donors to Address the SDGs

The UN SDGs may seem too lofty for an individual donor to make an impact, but these global problems need all hands on deck. Think of the goals not as a new and different project, but as a framework for the work you’re already doing. The goals can be further divided geographically, creating smaller areas for donors, organizations, and governments to address.

These issues can be tackled at many levels: Direct services, research, capacity building, and systems change. Influencing policy is one approach for funders who want to engage in systems change work to create impact.

Donors can use the SDGs to bring clarity and alignment to their work. Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors provides a starting point for funders who want to orient their work around the SDGs. Organizations can use the SDGs to describe their impact and progress. It may take some time to digest the global undertaking that the UN is working to realize, but the value is becoming clear to many in the philanthropic and business worlds. Donors can catch up on the progress of the SDGs in the SDG Tracker from Our World in Data and in the 2019 report SDG report for the UN.

Here are a few fast facts:

Evaluation and Accountability

With targets come questions of evidence and accountability. How do we collect the data and information that we need to track progress? Who is responsible for meeting final targets?

One problem: SDG tracking isn’t incorporated into common tools used by organizations and governments, according to Erik Arnold, chief technology officer, Microsoft Tech for Social Impact.

“The SDGs are a little bit inaccessible,” Arnold said at the Global Washington Goalmakers 2019 conference.

Although the SDGs lack a true accountability mechanism, donors, NGOs, and governments need to hold themselves and each other accountable in addressing global issues and achieving the SDGs.

“At the end of the day, we are trying to change lives,” said Diana Fletschner, senior director of research, Monitoring and Evaluation at Landesa.

Accountability must rely on evidence. Effective evaluation is not a given. Learn more about building effective evaluations for the global goals. Impact investors can similarly evaluate the progress driven by investments.

Unfortunately, the current evidence suggests that progress has not been sufficient. Most U.S. states are not meeting SDG standards. While global progress has been made, it has been inequitable. Those most in need have seen the least progress. The 2018 High-level Political Forum, a venue for review of progress, revealed early learnings. This event highlighted ways for governments and NGOs to improve their practices, hopefully encouraging quicker progress in the future. Donors can use this information to better serve their target populations.

The UN SDGs:

SDG 1: No Poverty

No poverty: The first target for this goal is the end of extreme poverty - living on less than $1.90 per day. (This measure is somewhat controversial, considering that subsistence farmers may not make $1.90 per day or suffer poverty.) Research from the Brookings Institution has identified 31 countries that are in the greatest need of philanthropic support to achieve SDG 1. Consider donating to a vetted fund like the Alleviate Poverty & Promote Economic Growth Fund, which works to reduce and eliminate poverty and systemic economic depression around the world.
Other targets offer the elimination of nation-specific poverty levels, equitable access to resources, reduction of vulnerability, and sound policy frameworks. These goals apply to every nation, including the U.S. Work is needed everywhere to fully realize this goal. The Bright Funds Foundation poverty funds in New York or San Francisco are two ways to make an impact closer to home.

As you think about your giving strategy, consider how global issues often overlap. For instance, poverty is related to:

SDG 10 Reduced Inequality: Children of color in the United States are far more likely to be poor than white children. One way donors can help at a systems level: Support equity from birth.

SDG 13 Climate Action: Climate change has serious implications for the poor, who usually face the worst effects and have the fewest means of protection and recover. Donors can help by tackling climate change, helping communities build climate resilience, and developing climate adaptation plans.

SDG 2: Zero Hunger

Zero hunger by way of universal access to safe, nutritious food. Targets for this goal include growing agriculture, increasing the sustainability of food systems, genetic diversity of crops and farmed animals, and proper protection of markets and trade. The TEEBAgriFood Report describes the state of the food system and all related systems globally. This is a good place for donors to learn about the complexities of food and nutrition problems. The world is not currently on track to meet SDG 2 by 2030, but there are opportunities for donors to make an impact outlined in the Global Nutrition Report.

Related SDGs:

SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation: Improving water quality and sanitation can be an integral part of reducing malnutrition. Find out how funders are making a difference in both of these areas simultaneously.

SDG 16 Peace, Security, and Strong Institutions: Conflict reduces food security and leads to malnutrition. These neglected crises need donor support to tackle issues of malnutrition and conflict. Individual grants are helping build peace in Nigeria.

SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing

Good health and wellbeing cover a wide range of topics, including reducing maternal and infant mortality, ending major epidemics, halving road injuries and deaths, creating universal access to health coverage and reproductive healthcare, and addressing communicable and noncommunicable deaths. Research and capacity-building are central to addressing all of these targets. The breadth of issues provide ample opportunities for funders to find a niche to operate in. Maternal and child health trajectories are off course to meet the 2030 target. The Improve Global Health Fund works to boost health infrastructure and access around the world.

Related SDGs:

SDG 2 Food and Nutrition: An obvious consequence of a lack of access to nutritious food is poor health. Stunting is caused by a lack of proper nutrition in children. Donors can give to Curamericas to make an impact on stunting in Guatemala. More generally, community health workers can reduce acute malnutrition with financial support.

SDG 7 Clean and Affordable Energy: Reliable access to energy that is created by sustainable solutions like solar panels can reduce maternal mortality in developing countries where women are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth.

SDG 4: Quality Education

In this context, quality education refers to everything from early childhood education, free primary and secondary education, and technical and vocational education offered in sustainable and equitable ways. An important distinction for SDG 4 is that the focus is not simply school access and attendance but the quality of the education attained. Unfortunately, many education programs have focused purely on the former points, leading to a conundrum: Parents report high satisfaction with low-performing schools. Bright Funds’ Improve Education Fund works to increase access to and quality of education around the world. Additionally, it has designed a fund to specifically support education in the United States. Meanwhile, the Luminos Fund works to get kids out of child labor situations and into schools.

Related SDGs:

SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: Career and technical education (CTE) can prepare students for the workforce, resulting in individual success and workforce improvement for businesses and the economy. CTE can also help students graduate and complement liberal arts education.

SDG 16 Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions: Research shows that education attainment in Somalia decreased support for armed groups. Funders can support education in conflict-ridden countries to increase peace, and help to educate former combatants to further entrench peace.

SDG 5: Gender Equality

Gender equality: Equal opportunity, rights, and access to resources for everyone, regardless of sex at birth. By some analysis, this is the linchpin for all the SDGs.

“Gender cuts across all the SDGs,” says Alex Reid, Deputy Director, Head of Goalkeepers at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Indeed, many of the other global goals explicitly reference the need for gender equality in their targets and indicators. Despite its importance, the Gender Equality SDG is not on track for the 2030 target. Donors have numerous opportunities to make an impact on this goal, which no country has yet achieved. Donors can contribute to the Global Fund for Women to provide support for women-led organizations working to improve the lives of women or the Groundswell Rapid Response Fund which works to ensure reproductive justice. See Giving Compass’ gender equality guide to learn more.

Related SDGs:

SDG 4 Quality Education: One of the targets to track progress on gender equality is child marriage. Unfortunately, we are set to miss this target. One way to reduce child marriage is to increase girls’ education. India has found success with the Development Impact Bond model, which helped nonprofit Educate Girls exceed expectations.

SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: To make progress on two SDGs at once, donors and impact investors can support women’s leadership in business. Building a gender lens investing strategy or working internally at organizations to promote gender equality is good for both women and the economy.

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Clean water and sanitationTargets for this SDG include universal access to clean and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene products as well as system-level improvement of use, distribution, and cleanliness of water and water-related ecosystems. Donors who want to work on the most basic needs can give to the Provide Clean Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene Fund, which works to create sustainable improvement through education and policies. This is an issue that has impacts around the world, and the United States can be a good place to start your work.

Related SDGs:

SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: Improving water systems is also a way to create new jobs. Funders can work to build better water infrastructure and communities, the way that Bayview-Hunters Point is.

SDG 9 Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure: While this goal may seem to focus on rural areas, there are many people living in urban communities who do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. Systems-level improvements are needed everywhere to reach this goal. Investing in or funding innovative solutions can help achieve this improvement. This start-up is helping growing cities develop the communication and infrastructure tools they need to do deal with the sewage created by their expanding population.

SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Affordable and clean energy: SDG 7 aims to end energy poverty with renewable resources. A study from Berkeley suggests that renewable energy is already cost effective, supporting the argument for increasing energy access using renewables. This guide can help you compare options and decide which you are interested in investing in.

Related SDGs:

SDG 5 Women and Girls: We are not on target for SDG 7, partly due to neglect of clean cooking, which is primarily a women’s issue. Focusing on clean energy for women and girls is empowering, literally.

SDG 13 Climate Action: Climate change has been driven by fossil fuels in the pursuit of cheap and abundant energy. Tackle energy access and climate action at the same time by donating to the Leadership Fund dedicated to supporting community-based organizations that create pathways for the just transition to a clean energy economy. Impact Investors also have an opportunity to make take on these issues simultaneously.

SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Decent work and economic growth: SDG 8 calls for country-level economic growth, as well as a reduction in unemployment for everyone, with a focus on women and youth. Central to this goal is improved labor laws that protect workers from exploitation, including ensuring equal pay. Trade and other systems-level factors are also important. This guide to workforce development can help donors understand opportunities to make an impact. If you’re looking for a direct way to make an impact, consider donating to the Alleviate Poverty & Promote Economic Growth Fund to support economic growth in the United States and around the world.

Related SDGs:

SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities: Economic growth has been inequitable, hindering SDG 8, but funding vocational skill development for women and girls, and other marginalized groups can reduce this inequality. Innovation can expand access to financial systems. Find out how it can be done effectively and at scale.

SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Products: Social enterprises that focus on the “triple bottom line” -- profit, people, and the planet -- can create good work and responsible products at the same time. Starting, investing in, and purchasing from social enterprises that prioritize the fair treatment of employees, protecting the planet, and profitability is a great way to make an impact. Learn how to successfully address all of these elements.

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

Industry, innovation, and infrastructure: SDG 9 calls for equitable improvement of infrastructure, including financial and information technology infrastructure to improve the economy of countries and individuals. The goal is to spur innovation and drive sustainable industries that work for everyone. Learn how funders can participate in ecosystem-building to grow the economy and how governments can support the expansion of entrepreneurship.

Related SDGs:

SDG 4 Quality Education: In the United States, many rural areas don’t have access to reliable internet at scale, making broadband a priority. Particularly, rural schools struggle to get high-speed internet. Without it, students in rural areas may be at a disadvantage and miss out on online learning opportunities, such as AP classes.

SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: Existing infrastructure can provide the foundation for economic growth, but building new infrastructure also offers an opportunity to create decent work. Approaches that engage workers in infrastructure development in ways that are beneficial for them and their communities can address these goals simultaneously.

SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities

The reduced inequalities SDG calls for equality within and among countries, particularly focusing on the most disadvantaged individuals and nations. Discrimination against race, gender, economics, and disability should be discouraged on policy and cultural levels. Economic advancement of poor and marginalized communities is emphasized. International power disparities are also included in this measure. Healthy migration between countries is also included.

Donors can donate to the Uphold Human Rights Fund to address human rights abuses that contribute to inequality within countries. The Children’s Opportunity Fund helps provide quality education to poor children in Montgomery county in the Washington D.C. metro region. The Rapid Response Fund for Movement Building provides support to low-income individuals and people of color in the Bay Area to help raise their voices.

Related SDGs:

SDG 3 Good Health and Wellbeing: All over the world inequality persists in healthcare access and treatment. In Sub-Saharan Africa, and America alike, there are systemic barriers to healthcare equality. Women’s health has taken a backseat in scientific research. Poor women and women of color report poorer health, fewer checkups, and higher reliance on clinics than wealthier women and white women. Donors can support people of color as they fight to improve healthcare. By prioritizing women of color in funding, donors can begin to close healthcare gaps. Including women’s mental health in wellbeing is also key to long-term success.

SDG 4 Quality Education: Education is considered by many to be the answer to inequality gaps around the world. However, higher education in the United States is failing to advance equality, and economic segregation is hurting underprivileged students. However, by helping colleges support low-income students, donors can make an impact.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Sustainable cities and communities: SDG 11 aims to provide adequate, safe and affordable housing and infrastructure in an eco-friendly manner. It also includes the preservation of cultural and natural heritage and the creation of freely accessible parks and green spaces. Developing mutually beneficial links between rural and urban communities is prioritized.

Related SDGs:

SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities: As gentrification takes hold, cities like Austin feel the inequality squeeze. Sustainable cities need to be equitable. Funders can help cities engage in community-led urban design to create people-focused cities that work for everyone, not just the rich.

SDG 16 Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions: Violence and instability in some countries lead to migration. As more refugees are integrated into urban areas, these   communities have an opportunity to create sustainable solutions for their residents. Donors can support cities in their efforts to respond to refugee crisis directly, or through community foundations.

SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Products

Responsible consumption and products: The sustainable and efficient use of natural resources is the core of SDG 12. Reduction of food waste and the use of harmful chemical are included. Creating policies that incentivise environmental responsibility is also key. While Americans say that they do not want to buy products from companies that exploit the planet, it can be hard to identify, find, and afford products that are environmentally friendly. However, donors can start by learning the traits of truly sustainable brands in order to make progress toward this goal.

Related SDGs:

SDG 14 Life Below Water: Products that are used by humans do not necessarily end up where they belong. Donors can make an impact to reduce ocean plastic at many levels: Support upstream changes like shifting away from plastics and downstream cleanup that turns ocean plastic into new products.

SDG 10 Reduced Inequality: Poor and marginalized communities suffer the brunt of environmental ills. Responsible products that create less pollution help to reduce burdens placed on these communities. It is also essential that these groups are included in the work, profits, and creation of  sustainable products. Support social innovators that are thinking about their triple bottom line - people, planet, and profit.

SDG 13: Climate Action

Climate action: SDG 13 requires both steps to reduce further climate change and preparation for the changes we are already set to face. While the responsibility for reducing further climate change largely falls on developed countries that produce most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, everyone needs to prepare for the consequences of climate change, including sea level rise, droughts, floods, storms, and ecosystem shift and loss. To make an impact, donate to the Bright Funds Foundation Climate Fund or Cool Effect Coolection.

Related SDGs:

SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities: Poor communities will suffer the most from climate change. In the U.S., poor southerners will endure storms without the support and resources to stay safe and recover. Donors can help to build climate resilience in the south. In some countries, particularly low-lying island nations, climate change will force massive migration. Programs like New Zealand’s climate refugee visa can help these fleeing individual find safety and security. Take climate action with these groups in mind. Donate to Minneapolis Climate Action and Racial Equity Fund or Thousand Currents to advance climate justice.

SDG 17 Partnerships for the Goals: Essential to the goal of climate action is government participation. Democratically elected governments often respond to pressure from the public, yet half of Americans don’t believe that climate change will affect them. Unfortunately, climate change will impact everyone in a variety of ways - from increased migration, agriculture, and national security, to physical and mental health. Changing the messaging around climate change and engaging skeptics is essential to turning inaction into action.

SDG 14: Life Below Water

Life below water: Protecting the oceans is essential for humans as well as sea life. SDG 14 calls for the reduction of pollution, overfishing, and climate-change induced ocean acidification. All of these targets should be hit while increasing conservation areas and helping small island nations get the supplies that they need from the ocean in a sustainable way. Donors can contribute to the Bright Funds Foundation Conservation Fund to make an impact on the ocean. You can also learn more about how philanthropists can support the ocean.

Related SDGs:

SDG 2 Zero Hunger: One key element of reducing and eliminating hunger is ensuring access to sustainable food sources. Overfishing to feed short-term demand threatens food security for years to come. Reducing inefficiencies in fishing processes, funding research into genetically engineered alternatives, and increasing transparency are all ways for funders to make an impact on these goals.

SDG 13 Climate Action: Climate change has enormous implications for the oceans. For example, increased temperatures lead to ocean acidification, which kills coral reefs throughout the ocean. Funders can help to identify reefs that are more likely to survive, and offer innovative funding to support their preservation.

SDG 15: Life on Land

Life on land: Sustainable forest management, preventing the spread of invasive species, preservation of inland water ecosystems, combating desertification, maintaining biodiversity, and ending poaching all make the target list for SDG 15. Support the Protect the Environment Fund to make an impact for life on land.

Related SDGs:

SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: To some, SDGs 8 and 15 may seem to be in direct opposition, but in fact it is essential that these goals are addressed together. Conservation requires local populations to be economically stable so as to prevent the plundering of natural resources for short-term economic gain. Financially comfortable communities can afford to take care of their natural surroundings, and become invested in them. Support conservation efforts that engage communities and consider their financial needs.

SDG 17 Partnerships for the Goals: Many of the targets on this list require government intervention, including policies to prevent poaching, to designate protected areas, and to regulate the use of land to avoid pollution. Organizations need to partner with local, state, and federal governments to work towards these goals. Donors can help social movements make an impact to move the needle on these issues. Organizations can push for legislative change to make a difference. The Woodland Park Zoo was instrumental in increasing poaching laws in Washington State through their advocacy.

SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

Peace, justice, and strong institutions: Perhaps one of the most significant, but least understood SDGs is 16. This massive and encompassing goal includes targets surrounding violence and exploitation, including sexual exploitation, as well as the establishment of just laws and enforcement systems. Representation, transparency, corruption prevention, and equality are all highlighted. Legal identification for all is an important element of this goal.

The ramifications of succeeding or failing in this goal are massive. Conflict, violence, abuse, and corruption all undermine the other goals addressing global issues. One key barrier to this goal is mistrust. Those working toward peace and justice often face barriers from history and culture. Nonprofits and funders who support them must work to overcome the odds and create peace in place of conflict. The Peace and Security Index can help inform donors' efforts.

Related SDGs:

SDG 5 Gender Equality: Unfortunately, women face extra burdens during conflict. Sexual violence and exploitation during conflict have life-long implications. Data can help to identify where women are faring best and worst, pointing to improvements. Additionally, conflict can interfere with women’s access to basic medical necessities.

Fortunately, women can also contribute to the creation of peace. Around the world, women are working to end the conflicts that create suffering in their communities. Find out how it is working in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Donors can offer women working to build peace financial, logistical, and technical support.

SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: Economic depression creates an environment conducive to violence. As violence destroys infrastructure and security, further economic difficulties develop. The cycle can lead to extremism. Donors can work to interrupt this cycle by supporting education and job creation efforts. Building skills, supporting enterprises, and providing individual grants are all ways for donors to increase the availability of decent work and economic growth to help establish peace.

SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals

Partnerships for the goals: The SDGs are the biggest project in the world, and require collaboration. The targets for this goal include domestic resource mobilization, increased access to technology, increasing capacity, and addressing systemic issues. These targets are designed to highlight the importance of partnerships within and between countries, particularly between more- and less-developed countries.

Here are ways for donors and organizations to partner for impact:

Public-private partnerships: Businesses can become involved in achieving the SDGs as part of their CSR work. Governments can help to identify opportunities for business to support SDG-related work, and businesses can provide their unique capacity and insight to address issues efficiently. Governments can also work to incentivize private finance toward the SDGs. The UN and the World Bank have created programs that facilitate businesses’ work on the SDGs.

Technology Partnerships: The UN’s Blockchain for Impact project is designed to find the best ways to use blockchain technology for social good and bring that technology around the world. Donors, companies, NGOs, and governments can all work to increase the success of this program and other tech partnership initiatives.

Community Partnerships: Community foundations are optimally places to work on the SDGs in a local context. These organizations have unique insight into their community and are already familiar with the local stakeholders, including government and other local organizations. Donors can support community foundations to increase the resources for existing partnerships. Donors can also bring together stakeholder groups to address local problems together, creating coalitions to “multisolve” problems.

Financial Partnerships: There are several ways to fund work on the SDGs. For example, the Gates Foundation paid off a loan that Nigeria borrowed from Japan to fight polio. This arrangement was designed to incentivize the country to address its own problems while leveraging philanthropic investment. Direct loans, venture philanthropy, impact investing, recoverable grants, and development impact bonds are other ways of collaborating through financial partnerships.

Related SDG Articles:

Achieving Local Impact Using the SDGs: Donors can help drive progress in cross-sector collaboration and make an impact by deploying funding mechanisms for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

U.S. Can Become a Leader in Achieving Sustainable Development Goals: U.S. leadership is embracing the SDGs across multiple industries to drive progress at both local and global levels.

International Cooperation Can Solve Hunger and Malnutrition: A Global Food Policy report shows that the number of undernourished people in the world has increased since 2015 due to failures in policy reform.

Inequalities in Health, Gender, and Climate: To ensure equity in health for people everywhere and provide Universal Health Coverage, the United Nations Foundation proposes focusing on gender equality and climate change.


While the SDGs are lofty goals, donors can work to tackle small pieces of these interconnected challenges to improve the world and contribute to the larger solutions. Are you ready to reframe your work around the UN SDGs? Consider the goals, targets, and indicators that can be used to guide your efforts and establish partnerships with others.