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How the Sustainable Development Goals Can Focus Outcomes Measurement
April 25, 2019

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GlassPockets Road to 100

Dr. Squirrel Main is the Research and Evaluation Manager at The Ian Potter Foundation in Australia.

This post is part of our "Road to 100 & Beyond" series, in which we are featuring the foundations that have helped GlassPockets reach the milestone of 100 published profiles by publicly participating in the "Who Has GlassPockets?" self-assessment. This blog series highlights reflections on why transparency is important, how openness evolves inside foundations, helpful examples, and lessons learned.

We all can play a small part in broader global movements, both in our grantmaking and our outcomes measurement. As such, The Ian Potter Foundation is beginning to encourage grantees to learn more about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As the Foundation's research and evaluation manager, I have found grantees often have difficulty pitching their progress and successes in a manner that readily translates across contexts and stakeholders. For example, a grantee may be trying for ongoing funding from local, state and Commonwealth governments and reaching out to an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health organization. The SDGs, especially when contextualized at a local level can speak to all four stakeholders and more.

In terms of outcomes measurement, as a foundation we support the global goals and, as such, are increasingly offering the option to use the global indicators behind these goals. Tracking these SDGs can assist grantees in increasing the sophistication of their measurements: the previous "all of our children are doing well" is now a more clear "we know that 85% of our 112 participants are now developmentally on track (up from 44%) as measured by their AEDC scores." It's easy to see how the latter sentence translates readily into government dollars—and as we know, leverage is the currency of philanthropy.

In addition to increasing grantees' leverage potential, our foundation can better focus the way in which we track and achieve outcomes. Having such clear outcomes is much easier—dare I say "more fun"?—when placed in the context of a global measurement movement. The Ian Potter Foundation was proud to join the GlassPockets movement last year because we believe transparency can benefit the philanthropic sector, particularly given the benefits of shared frameworks for learning. Along that vein, here's what we are learning from our experimentation with using the SDGs.

The Process of Integrating SDGs into Foundation Work

How do we encourage grantees and applicants to use SDGs to measure their outcomes? On a very practical note, it meant adding the relevant SDGs to our application via a drop-down menu in our grants management software (some databases now have add-on modules you can purchase to do this job). While grantees are free to select outcomes measurements that are best suited to their stakeholder needs, since mid-2016 105 out of 379 final-stage applicants have voluntarily opted to select SDGs as potential outcomes. To assist this process, we have specifically color-indicated SDGs on our help sheets, with the goal number listed in parentheses (see, for example, our Environment and Conservation help sheet).

In terms of process specifics, we are gradually transitioning from open-form to suggested goals to SDGs, and have produced documents which outline suggested goals and example metrics for grants in each program area. In Q3 of 2019, we will further narrow the outcomes, which will likely mean that over 85% of outcomes listed on our application will be SDG indicators.

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Squirrel Main


How the SDGs Appear Across the Foundation's Work

The SDGs manifest themselves in very different ways across our broad portfolio. Currently direct outcome measurement, SDG-aligned research and strategic initiatives are the most common approaches where we are finding alignment with SDG work.

Direct measurement can be relatively straightforward. For instance, our science grantmaking focuses predominantly on environmental restoration and conservation, so most grantees find it easy to align their outcomes with goals 13 (Climate), 14 (Water) and 15 (Land). One example is a grant we continued last year to Professor Jessica Meeuwig at the Marine Futures Lab at the University of Western Australia to increase protection, monitoring and reporting of marine reserves around the Australian coastline. Professor Meeuwig selected "Proportion of important sites for terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity that are covered by protected areas, by ecosystem type (SDG 15.1.2)" as one of her long-term metrics. Easy. Watch this space and we will know the results.

In terms of research, we are attempting to go beyond direct goal accomplishment. For instance, we have engaged in some blue-sky thinking in this area and are supporting Deakin University researcher Brett Bryan to bring the SDGs to a local level. So, for example, one of the project's goals reads: "Derive detailed local sustainability pathways for the Goulburn-Murray study area … assessing the range and viability of options (e.g. irrigation reconfiguration, ecosystem services markets, renewable energy) … to ensure a just transition to a more sustainable future…" In short, these researchers are bringing sophisticated mathematical models to old-fashioned community meetings to determine the best way to help communities meet goals aligned with the SDGs that are most important to that community. In his six-month face-to-face check-in, Professor Bryan observed that the Victorian State Government recently decided to use SDGs as THE framework for future environmental reports. This move further underscores the need for communities and smaller grantees to be fluent in "SDGese" in order to remain salient in the political realm over the next decade. To put a spin on the old adage, when government sneezes, grantees catch cold!

Lastly, some grantees apply SDGs beyond research to strategic policy work. To facilitate measuring this type of work, we divide long-term outcomes into technical (outcomes for an immediate group/project/organization) and strategic (large policy/systemic change). The SDGs are very nimble and can be applied to both types of outcomes. For example, a grantee focusing on technical success–like our grant to expand Youthworx's capacity to build its social enterprise–might choose to select indicator (8.6.1) Proportion/number of youth (aged 15-24 years) engaged in education, employment or training for their hands-on training programs, whereas other projects—even by the same organisation—(one example that has been funded by others is Youthworx's National Youth Commission project) focus on more ‘strategic' outcomes such as (8.b.1) Existence of a developed and operationalized national strategy for youth employment as a distinct strategy or as part of a national employment strategy. We encourage grantees to pick what's right for them—and remind them that it's OK to just do solid service delivery, if that's their main modus operandi.

Do the SDGs work neatly for every area of our funding? To be honest, no. Unlike other areas, the arts are much trickier to align with the SDGs. We acknowledge the distinction between vibrancy and sustainability. And, while some arts-focused foundations choose to measure progress based on sub-goals related to culture (e.g., Goal 3 (well-being), 4 (education) and 11 (cities and communities)), we have chosen—for now—to espouse the outcomes listed by Australia's Cultural Development Network and offer those options in our drop-down menus. Out of our seven major funding areas, the arts are the only program area for which we do not have SDGs as outcome measurement options.

Our Role in Building SDG Capacity

In addition to encouraging applicants to select (and measure) SDG-related outcomes on the application, we convene Welcome Workshops after every Board meeting in which grantees gather to learn about our foundation and priorities. These workshops are also an opportunity for grantees within the same program area to discuss dissemination, goal setting and outcomes measurement. To this end, part of our presentation specifically references the SDGs and encourages grantees to consider how their measurements are aligned. We also conduct face-to-face, post-award evaluation site visits with the majority of grantees, and these visits present another opportunity to consider how they will collect data and reflect on learnings related to their long-term outcomes' measurement. We have found that in the last few funding rounds, grantees are very knowledgeable about the SDGs and enthusiastic to collaborate and learn more about existing models of measurement within their field. No one wants to reinvent wheels when shared frameworks already exist.

Measuring the Difference

And, of course we, like you, wonder if the focus on SDGs will make a tangible difference to our foundation's outcomes. Our current active grants have an average duration of 2 years, 9 months (and that average is lengthening), so we have yet to analyse our progress—or, more importantly, learn and improve the trajectory of our progress towards the SDGs. However, in preparation for measuring this new outcome's framework, we have a baseline benchmark to use as a comparison. Presently, for the 833 grants closed (since January 2010—our foundation is 50 years old but our outcomes measurement is relatively new!) for which we have been able to gather long-term outcomes, we are achieving a 71% success rate. Within the next year, as we review final reports, we will begin to encounter the results from the SDGs—which will help us measure and learn from our progress towards these global goals. And ideally—although we acknowledge that 100% success is not the holy grail of philanthropy—we will be able to show how focusing on the SDGs (and the collective learnings and wisdoms associated with progress towards those goals) has assisted us in striving towards a more vibrant, fair, healthy and sustainable Australia.

-- Squirrel Main

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

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