For more than a decade, I’ve worked on developing foundations’ capacity for social change and impact, so I was curious what the outcome would be from a gathering of 20 philanthropic sector leaders in Brazil last August. The goal of the meeting was to identify key leverage points and collaborative pathways to support the country in attaining its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. My hypothesis was that the workshop would merely perpetuate the traditional focus of philanthropic work on issues such as education and youth. I was happily surprised when a more systemic approach to social transformation emerged.
A Global Process
The opportunity to build alignment among Brazilian philanthropists was created by the SDG Philanthropy Platform, a global initiative coordinated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Reos Partners was selected to facilitate a series of workshops in Brazil as part of a process already underway in other Global South regions, particularly Africa and Asia.
The UNDP conducted an initial assessment of the philanthropic landscape in Brazil. A Steering Committee for the SDG Platform was established, consisting of representatives from seven philanthropies. The group included the main umbrella organizations and some of the biggest and most prominent foundations in the country.
The Steering Committee prioritized six of the 17 SDGs for the Platform’s work: 4) Quality Education, 5) Gender Equality, 8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, 11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, 15) Life on Land, and 16) Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. This prioritization reflected the main themes that philanthropy had traditionally sought to address in Brazil.
The themes the Steering Committee for the SDG Platform chose, including education, gender, and economic development, revealed a preoccupation with inter-sectoral issues aimed at achieving a wide impact. For example, the Sustainable Cities and Communities theme offers a platform for aligning many different initiatives in a specific geographic area. In this way, it is part of a growing philanthropic interest in dealing with complex, multistakeholder challenges.
Current Priorities in Brazil
According to the Group of Institutes, Foundations and Enterprises (GIFE) 2016 Census, based on interviews with 116 of the main foundations and institutes in Brazil, these organizations prioritize Education (84% of the respondents), Youth Professional Training (60%), and Culture and Arts (51%) as areas for investment.
Research shows that this preference sometimes weakens the effectiveness of philanthropic efforts. For example, in developing countries, direct involvement in training teachers or vaccinating children, which is a local approach, tends to have less of a positive long-term impact than investment in good educational and health policies, which is a systemic approach.
On the GIFE 2016 Census, Brazilian philanthropic organizations put support for NGO management in fourth place (50% of the census respondents), but more detailed data show that this investment is predominantly directed to success of a thematic initiative, not to NGO capacity building or social capital development per se. Only 16% of GIFE’s members are pure grantmakers, while almost three times as many choose to operate their own programs. This reality reinforces the perception that philanthropy has an overall thematic, top-down approach to change.
In summary, Brazil has a well-funded and sophisticated philanthropic sector (GIFE members invested almost US $1 billion in 2016), but organizations in this sector tend to manage their own programs and generally do not promote wide community participation and civil society capacity building. One of the consequences of this trend is that, since the beginning of the 2000s, most Brazilian civil society organizations have experienced serious funding crises, which have weakened their ability to drive social change. (In 2013, these crises led to a Reos Partners project on the future of Brazilian civil society.)
With this background information in mind, during our first SDG Philanthropy Platform workshop in São Paulo on August 25, 2017, Reos Partners facilitated a system mapping exercise to identify key challenges faced by Brazil. Through this process, the group identified what they saw as “mental models” that form the root problems of Brazilian society, for example:
- “The public realm is no one’s land.”
- “Me first.”
- “The public sphere is a government responsibility, but government does not work.”
- “If everyone does it [corruption], why shouldn’t I do it?”
- “I am not worth anything in this society, and therefore I cannot claim my rights.”
Participants grouped the mental models into four areas:
- Lack of social contract
- Human rights for the right humans
To everyone’s surprise, these groupings weren’t associated with the themes traditionally addressed by philanthrophic organizations in Brazil. Nonetheless, participants agreed that they are central to all of Brazil’s problems—and therefore serve as potential leverage points for solving them.
The next activity in the workshop was to link these mental models to SDGs that the group should focus on. Although the Steering Committee had already done some prioritizing, the objective was for the group to produce a deeper, more effective analysis and to agree on the pathways forward. The participants divided into three groups. Each group was tasked with choosing three SDGs to act on, based on the potential leverage points that had been identified.
The surprises continued.
The three SDGs that received the most attention were issues that cut across all of the others:
16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (chosen by all three groups)
17 – Partnerships for the Goals (chosen by all three groups)
10 – Reduced Inequalities (chosen by two groups)
Only one group chose SDG 4) Quality Education as a priority, although this area garners by far the most philanthropic investment in the country.
UNDP, the Steering Committee, and Reos Partners are now preparing the next workshops, which are expected to extend well into 2018. They will include prototyping and testing and scaling up initiatives and collaborative pathways to achieve these four SDGs.
Beyond Business as Usual
From my perspective, a process that was interesting from the beginning has become even more so. With the help of a strong convening alliance, a solid platform, and a powerful set of facilitation methodologies, we have been able to go beyond doing business as usual. We now have the opportunity to co-create a set of initiatives focused on what seem to be the fundamental challenges faced by Brazil.