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More Than a School

April 25, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center’s work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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SDG_schoolsAs a unifying, universal agenda for countries around the world, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a unique opportunity to deliver innovative solutions and much-needed development assistance to the world's poorest countries and regions. Philanthropists the world over have answered this rallying cry and are playing a critical role in filling technical and funding gaps between what is required and what is available, while also providing important intellectual capital. While the current impact of these efforts is not to be underestimated, it is crucially important that philanthropic dollars are directed in the right way, to the right projects, at the right time. Without lasting buy-in from populations and communities targeted by these investments, impact can fade rapidly and disappear altogether over time. But to really have an impact, this funding needs to go beyond standalone projects and contribute to longer-term systems change.

Here's an example of what we're talking about. A foundation or individual donor decides to pay for the construction of a new school in an impoverished village. The odds are good that, when built, the school will have an immediate impact on the local population. But if the school is not supported by parents and local stakeholders, there's a decent chance that, within a few years, it will fall into disrepair. To achieve real, lasting impact, the school should be viewed as a community-based project that, among other things, provides local youth with a competency-based curriculum and skills training that prepares them for market-driven employment opportunities.

These are real-world challenges for philanthropic investment

It is critically important that philanthropists (and other social investment types) understand the complex development "ecosystems" of the countries in which they work. Why? Because no issue is an island, and many issues overlap in a complex web of cause and effect. Those wanting to have a long-lasting impact in a country must understand this reality, invest wisely, and work with local and national stakeholders to make sure the solutions they support truly are sustainable.

One thing we have seen time and again in the development field is philanthropy and government not working with each other. This often leads to missed opportunities for collaboration, additional funding, and innovation. Philanthropy can benefit from the public sector's knowledge of current policy and development frameworks, the specific and interrelated needs of the target population, and details about what has, and has not, worked in the past. Similarly, governments too often miss out on philanthropy's deep field knowledge, agility, and tolerance of risk. To improve this situation, we believe philanthropy and government need to locate where their interests converge, identify instances where they can collaborate, and share lessons learned.

Let's take another look at the school project we mentioned. An individual donor or foundation provided the funds to build the school, but who else was consulted? There's a pretty good chance it was built without the involvement of the government, NGOs, civil society organizations, local businesses, school officials, teachers, or parents. Which is unfortunate, since collaboration with a range of partners and community stakeholders would have resulted in a facility that was better suited to the needs of the local population. Getting local buy in would have ensured that someone was thinking about training for teachers, meal planning, and long-term project management. And by reaching out to government, NGOs, and civil society organizations, the donor or foundation could have filled funding gaps and secured the kind of expertise needed for long-term success.

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

But is that school just a school? Not really. Schools are, or should be, places where many variables come together to allow children to learn, develop, participate, and, yes, even eat a nutritious meal or two. Without that kind of focus on all the factors that go into educating a child, or any of the other complex problems addressed by the SDGs, we will fall short of our goals. That's why, if we hope to bring about systemic change at the national and regional levels, it is imperative for philanthropy to shift its focus from single-issue to integrated solutions and to work together to figure out what is and isn't working.

The SDG Philanthropy Platform is an innovative vehicle to enable partnerships in global development. It builds bridges and advances progress on the SDGs by encouraging philanthropy, the UN, governments, the private sector, and civil society to work together. It also has published a guide, Investing in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Kenya, to help philanthropic and other social investment organizations and individuals map and engage with the complex social change ecosystem in that country. Through our efforts, philanthropy is adopting a systemic and inclusive approach to funding and policy work, shifting from a focus on standalone projects to an embrace of meaningful collaboration. 

Combo_headshot_karolina_mzyk_jessica_russellWe all must see the school in this story not as an individual school but as a part of a wider ecosystem. We must look at everything that makes a project a success and work to enable that success through dialogue, partnerships, and the recognition that philanthropy needs to be a full partner in the conversation. And we must never forget that schools are built by many hands and, like the SDGs themselves, tend to create the greatest impact when no one is left behind.

Karolina Mzyk-Callias is a policy specialist and Jessica Russell is a communications consultant at the SDG Philanthropy Platform. For more posts in our FC Insight series, click here.

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