U.S. Foundations and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals: Promising Convergence

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September 27, 2013; PhilanTopic


One of the nice things about this blog posting by Brad Smith, the president of the Foundation Center, is that, unlike many in our sector, he is fully conversant in the Millennium Development Goals, the plan developed by the United Nations to make substantial progress against global problems of poverty, health, education, and the environment. Noting that the Foundation Center has only been asked once since 2000 to calculate how much foundation funding has addressed the eight Goals, Smith presented a brief analysis of foundation spending per the eight categories for 2011, which we reprint below:



No. of Grants

No. of Fdns.

Eradicate extreme poverty




Achieve universal primary education




Promote gender equality




Reduce child mortality




Improve maternal health




Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, other diseases




Ensure environmental sustainability




Develop partnership for global development




Smith’s statistics focus on basically the largest 1,000 or so foundations, do not eliminate or correct for duplications or grants that addressed multiple goals, and provide no substantive insight into the content of the grantmaking beyond the descriptive words. As Smith notes, even this brief presentation “whet[s] one’s appetite to know more.”

Part of the subtext of the Millennium Development Goals is that they were generated not by individual grantmakers, or even individual nations, but by an international body and agreed to by the 189 member nations of the United Nations. In recent years, the U.S. has typically resisted these international agreements—the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (the Mine Ban Treaty), as examples—resisting the notion that this nation can and should be part of international agreements due to a very strange fear of a loss of sovereignty. However, as exemplified by last week’s Security Council agreement on removing chemical weapons from Syria, the U.S. is rediscovering the legitimacy of international bodies and working together with other countries, as in the commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.

As the UN’s 2013 report on progress toward the Millennium Development Goals demonstrates, there has been significant progress on some goals that probably would not have been achieved had there not been an international framework among nations for action. Among the major areas of MDG progress include a halving of number of people living in extreme poverty, more rapid progress than expected in the provision of clean water, a decline in mortality rates due to malaria by 25 percent over ten years, and a decrease in the proportion of undernourished people from 23.2 percent in 1990–1992 to 14.9 percent in 2010–2012. However, progress has been slower than desired in gender-based inequalities, primary school education, sanitation, and maternal deaths.

Smith’s analysis shows top foundation grantmaking according to the eight MDG areas, but it’s not clear what the grantmaking does and how it contributes to the specific strategies being pursued by the UN member states. Moreover, despite the impressive grant totals in some cases, the number of foundations isn’t large, and one can guess that in some subject areas, the bulk of the grantmaking may be attributable to only a handful of foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in combating diseases.

The question we would add to Smith’s is whether the foundations that are making grants in the MDG subject areas are actually thinking about how their grantmaking actually fits and coordinates with the UN’s articulated strategies.—Rick Cohen