Global goals, local solutions

How communities can help solve our greatest challenges

A group of leaders that include Rachel Bowen Pittman, Executive Director of United Nations Association of the USA, Helen Bond, Ph.D, Howard University associate professor of education, Salah Goss, senior vice president for social impact at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and Ridgway White, president and chief executive officer of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation are sitting on stage as panelists as they discuss how each of their organizations are working toward the achievement of the SDGs. One woman is speaking into a microphone as the other three panelists listen. A screen behind the group has logos for American Leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals, Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings, and United Nations Foundation.
Ridgway White joins other business and community leaders in a panel discussion on American leadership in achieving the SDGs. Photo: United Nations Foundation

As government leaders from around the world recently met at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, I had the pleasure to join with others from across business and civil society to discuss our role in grappling with some of the global challenges being addressed on the assembly room floor.

Each year, the U.N. Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution host an event that takes place alongside UNGA and aims to showcase efforts of U.S. business, government and civil society to achieve the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. During this year’s event, I participated in a panel discussion that offered those of us in the room an opportunity to take stock and learn from each other about the progress and challenges we face in working to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

For people whose work isn’t steeped in the goals, it might be hard to grasp what the SDGs are and why they matter. At the heart of it all, the SDGs simply represent a shared agenda to make the world a better place for everyone to call home — no matter where they live.

That may seem a little too simplistic given the ever-increasing polarization, division and siloed approaches to complex issues that seem to be the hallmark of our daily exchanges in society these days. But the simplicity of the SDG framework is what makes it so promising. It gives us a great way to look at big issues like racial injustice, poverty, education and health through a common lens, and it offers a common language to share what works.

Though simple and straightforward, the goals are also lofty and may make you wonder: Haven’t we been here before? How can we truly get our arms around such intractable issues as eradicating poverty and reducing inequalities?

For the Mott Foundation, the answer is simple: Look to communities. Global agendas can’t be achieved without meaningfully engaging in local, community-based efforts to address the challenges set forth in the goals. Throughout almost a century of grantmaking, Mott has supported local work both at home and abroad because communities are where people most directly relate to the social, economic and political processes taking place in their countries — and where they can be most active in shaping them.

For more than 50 years, we’ve championed community foundations as local leaders of vital change — granting more than $220 million to support the growth and development of the field. In that time, we’ve seen countless examples of how community foundations can bring together people from all walks of life to work toward shared solutions in ways that others can’t. Today the field is growing, becoming better connected and stepping up to help foster lasting solutions in their communities.

Young students in Malinalco, Mexico wear protective hard hats and gloves while working to clean up rubble in a home's yard after an earthquake.
Volunteers from Fundacion Comunitaria Malinalco in Mexico assisted with cleanup efforts after a major earthquake devastated their local community. Photo: Courtesy of Inter-American Foundation

In just the last few years, we’ve witnessed community foundations lead local resurgence efforts time and time again. From helping rural communities emerge from the rubble of earthquake destruction in Mexico, to coordinating the efforts of multiple partners to increase access to early childhood education in the wake of the Flint water crisis.

And as the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people to the brink, community foundations around the world stepped up to help their communities weather the worst of it.

For example, the National Emergencies Trust, a public charity that raises funds to support domestic emergency disaster response, chose to partner with UK Community Foundations to administer and deliver hundreds of millions of pounds in critical pandemic-related aid to communities across the U.K. NET’s confidence that community foundations could ensure an efficient response and swiftly get aid into the hands of people who needed it most, illustrates why community foundations are so valuable and necessary — they are rooted in their communities and care about results.

Three people stand next to tall carts of food boxes in the middle of a sunny and airy food bank room.
A grant from Foundation Scotland helped a team of volunteers at Cosgrove Care offer essential food shopping support to older people in their local community. Photo: Courtesy of Cosgrove Care

Most recently, community foundations around the world again showed us their power to activate networks of local change agents with their immediate response to providing humanitarian aid and support for people whose lives have been devastated by Russia’s hostile invasion of Ukraine.

The deep and long-standing leadership from community foundations is one of the main reasons why Mott believes they are excellent vehicles to lead local efforts to achieve the SDGs. They know how global problems play out in their own backyards and how best to address them at a grassroots level.

Over the last couple of years, progress toward achieving the SDGs stalled in much of the world as the agenda took a back seat to immediate needs brought on by the pandemic. But with the worst of the health crisis thankfully behind us, I think it’s time to shift back into high gear and recommit to the work it takes to make reaching the goals a reality.

For many of us in philanthropy, the pandemic highlighted the need to go beyond addressing humanitarian needs to also confront the underlying, systemic issues of inequity it exposed. Issues that are at the heart of the SDGs call to “leave no one behind.”

So where can we start?

For many of us in philanthropy, the pandemic highlighted the need to go beyond addressing humanitarian needs to also confront the underlying, systemic issues of inequity it exposed. Issues that are at the heart of the SDGs call to ‘leave no one behind.’”
Ridgway White headshot.

When U.S. community foundations signaled their desire to address issues of equity more deliberately in their local communities, Mott commissioned philanthropic researcher Dr. Larry McGill to take a fresh look at the SDGs through an equity lens. The resulting study highlights how matters of racial equity are implicit throughout the SDG framework. What’s more, the study offers key points of connection with the work of community foundations, which is a useful on-ramp to spark conversation that can lead to action.

To date, interest in the SDGs has not been as widespread among community foundations in the U.S. compared with those in many other countries. This is not unique to the charitable sector, however. Collective U.S. response to the SDG agenda has been lukewarm at best.

But that can and should change.

Mott has seen some exciting momentum building among community foundations we support. Across Kansas, down to central Florida and up to Michigan, community foundations are bringing the SDGs home to help them organize and communicate about their work and, perhaps most important, demonstrate how they are moving the needle on solving the toughest issues for good.

Next year marks the halfway point toward the goal of achieving the SDGs by 2030. We’re not where we need to be, but we can get there. I believe the SDGs will feel more real and achievable to everyday people if everyone can place them in their own lived experience or that of their neighbors. Community foundations and other local institutions can make that happen, and in turn, help the world make it over the 2030 goal line.