How Do I Know My Non-Profit Partner Is Making an Impact on the SDGs?

2030 may seem far off, but it’s coming up quickly in terms of moving the needle on macro-level national indicators like GDP or maternal mortality.

The response from stakeholders has been highlighted as being insufficient and has even given rise to a new term known as “SDG Washing”.

While many companies have the best intentions, without clearly defined goals, measurable outputs and outcomes, and openness to feedback from NGO partners, their impact may be less than they had hoped.

That all being said – there is more and more attention, discernment, and most importantly, funding being given to those corporate stakeholders which can prove their commitment to impact and have a robust strategy to achieve their SDG’s.

Aside from their internal operations and initiatives within the boundaries of their direct control, corporations have also been looking to the NGO sector to help them achieve their targets.

After working at the intersection of NGO and corporate partnerships for nearly a decade, it has been interesting to see the transition from a “mad dash” of forcibly aligning corporate operations with the SDGs for annual sustainability reports to mindful vetting of appropriate targets due to the increased scrutiny of ESG stakeholder evaluation.

To that end I’ve compiled 5 questions to ask your NGO partner to quickly and effectively understand how they are contributing to the SDG’s and to ensure your partnership goals are being achieved.

These questions are meant to provide a quick and foundational starting point to either vet new NGO partners or refocus current relationships.

  1. What specific SDG targets are you impacting?

This might seem like an obvious one – but the SDG targets are different than the “top level” goals. Let’s quickly look at SDG 3:

The top-level goal; Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, can seemingly encompass a wide range of activities and outcomes but digging down into the SDG targets, one can find they are very focused and quantifiable. As an example, here are some of the specific SDG 3 targets Vitamin Angels is addressing:

  • Target 3.1: By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births
  • Target 3.2: By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under‑5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births

By getting more specific, the scale of commitment needed to address even a single global target becomes clearer. As the conversation around what sustainability means for the private sector continues stakeholders are starting to see more rigorous scrutiny regarding actual impact. Your NGO partner should be able to articulate clearly what targets they are focusing on and how they are achieving their stated goals – which leads us into the next question.

  1. What specific SDG Indicators are you impacting and how are you doing it?

After determining your SDG targets, companies can focus on looking at SDG indicators as a way to understand how the targets are being achieved. Continuing with this example, let’s dive down into one of the SDG 3.1 indicators:

Indicator 3.1.1: Maternal mortality ratio

This level of even higher specificity is what is actually reported to the UN to evaluate SDG progress. This data is collected and submitted to the UN from governments themselves. Understanding which indicator you’re trying to have an impact on can help focus on what type of NGO partnerships you’ll be building and will inform your partnerships activities.

  1. What evidence do you have to support that your program activities are having an impact?

There are typically two general approaches to the issue of impact and both have their pros and cons.

The first one is going with an evidence-based approach – choosing an intervention or initiative that has a proven track record towards achieving SDG indicators and that has been validated by rigorous studies, meta-analyses and/or is recommended by existing authorities with benchmarked best practices. For example, Vitamin Angels provides vitamin A to nutritionally vulnerable populations of children ages 6 – 59 months of age as recommended by the WHO.

This approach can save both time and money and focus on implementation versus further research.

The other approach can rely on trying out new models and innovations to make an impact. While it’s always exciting to try something new and innovative, it also means you’ll be spending resources towards research and development and then verifying the project’s outputs have achieved intended outcomes. This can cost both time and money.

With either approach, your NGO partner should be able to provide clear data that their intervention achieves the intended outcomes (tied to your specific SDG indicator) or a clear strategy outlining how it intends to gather data to measure its outcomes.

  1. What is your monitoring and evaluation (M&E) strategy?

Monitoring and Evaluation of initiatives can be expensive, but it’s necessary to understand what impact program activities are having and also to show progress towards stated goals. More relevant to the corporate partner, it can also tell you what type of data the NGO partnership would be able to provide to your stakeholders and for your annual reports.

Getting an understanding of your NGO partner’s data collection activities, reporting framework, data analysis and verification, third party vetting, and other KPIs will help provide a common language to measure performance together as you move forward. It’s important to note that this data is important even outside of the SDG targets and indicators for tracking progress and providing feedback to stakeholders that are not solely concerned with SDG metrics.

  1. How do you know your activities are having an impact on the intended SDG targets?

This one can be difficult to answer for stakeholders across all sectors – given that most data for SDG targets are collected and sent to the UN by government entities at the macro level – it may be difficult, depending on the range of activities, to understand how your impact filters up to that level. That being said – an NGO that has a strong understanding of their area of expertise should have a working knowledge, or even relationships, concerning the data collection processes at the national level.

In Conclusion

As we move forward we are seeing an increasing number of stakeholders from all different sectors demand more accountability, transparency and competency in fulfilling peace and prosperity for both people and planet. Any single one of the SDG targets is a lofty and worthy goal that requires collaboration, introspection and accountability as we move forward to achieve them.

Ensuring your NGO partner is able to address these 5 questions is a quick and foundational starting point towards your business’s goal of making a sustainable impact on a global scale.