Ongoing Case Research on Philanthropic innovation for sustainability

Par Marta Rey-Garcia , Ph.D., Associate Professor of the University of A Coruña and PhiLab international research member
Par Rosane Dal Magro , Ph.D. Candidate at Université de Montréal and PhiLab Student
10 July 2020

philanthropic innovation for sustainability

Ongoing Case Research on Philanthropic innovation for sustainability: A multiple case study on how foundations support Sustainable Development Goals

Our ongoing research will explore the contribution of grantmaking foundations to the environmental dimension of SDGs in innovative ways. Social innovation is clearly on in demand when it comes to tackling the root causes of sustainability problems such as poverty, inequality, or climate change. As outlined by the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Moreover, global concern is emerging around the economic, social and governance implications of ecological challenges, in spite of climate change denial and ideological and political polarization. As both politics and markets fail to address this concern, it is an opportunity for civil society organizations to lead innovative solutions to sustainability challenges, in partnership with social movements and other actors, specifically, philanthropic foundations. An example of this, brought by Martinez-Cosio and  Rabinowitz Bussell in 2013, would be the potential contribution of private foundations to achieving just sustainability transitions that encompass “social justice philanthropy” and decarbonization.

However, some evidence suggests that philanthropy underfunds sustainability challenges and particularly environmental ones. Moreover, the scarce funding focuses on popular topics (e.g. biodiversity or landscape conservation). 

Canada is a case in point. In a context of escalating social awareness about sustainable development, the environmental dimension still gets little funding, from the top 150 grantmaking foundations in 2015, according to Philanthropic Foundations Canada. In 2016, the Environment Funders Canada (Previously the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network) made a study in order to begin building a dataset of funding aligned with the SDGs.

Furthermore, knowledge is scarce about the undertakings of the different types of foundations working for environmental sustainability internationally, their financial and human resources, their philanthropic strategies and their ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) performance. Their interventions’ antecedents, strategies and outcomes remain unexplored. 

Our ongoing research will explore why, how and with which results grantmaking foundations can contribute to the environmental dimension of SDGs in innovative ways. 

Thus the short-term goal of the project is to pilot a multiple case study (3-4 Canadian foundations and their respective ecosystems). This case-based research combines a variety of mixed-methods, including desktop research, analysis of academic and gray literature, and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with experts and relevant actors. First, a list of Canadian foundations, created by a snowballing process from PhiLab, Environment Funders Canada and Community Foundations Canada (CFC) networks, will define which foundations will be included in the multiple case study. Second, a semi-structured questionnaire is being produced based on a conceptual framework about the antecedents, enablers and outcomes of foundations innovating for SDGs. This exploration aims to pave the way for researchers’ and practitioners’ discussion on how philanthropic foundations can foster SDGs and United Nations’ 2030 Agenda internationally. The project has potential implications for the foundation sector inside and outside Canada. An examination of the activity of private foundations under the lens of SDGs can help them reflect about their own mission, understand the connections between their social value chain and sustainability challenges, reformulate their activities so that they more effectively contribute solutions to those challenges, and more effectively structure their communication or advocacy efforts.

To follow the development of this research project, consult our Research Project Page under Axis 5: Philanthropy and Environmental Justice.