Engaging the voluntary sector with the Sustainable Development Goals

People, Impact & Planet

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  1. Key summary

  2. Scope

  3. Contextual background

  4. The role of the voluntary sector in achieving the SDGs

  5. An action plan for engagement

  6. People, Impact & Planet

  7. Conclusion and next steps

1. Key summary

Out of 143 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets that are relevant in the UK, UKSSD found that 24% are being performed well; whilst 57% either have gaps in policy coverage and/or inadequate performance; and the remaining 15% either have no policy in place and/or poor performance.

The voluntary sector has a pivotal role to play in achieving the SDGs — there is therefore a pressing need for the sector to collectively self mobilise, if the goals are to be successfully achieved by 2030.

In this report we theorise how voluntary organisations made engage with the goals directly, as facilitators working closely with the government, and/or indirectly, by effectively itergrating the goals into their internal policies and effectively working to stop the 'cycle of need' in the sector.


2. Scope

The purpose of this report is to encourage voluntary organisations to actively engage with the SDGs, and to provide relevant information and guidance.

An extensive review of both academic literature and sector specific research was carried out. Stakeholder theory was then used to create a framework for engagement with the SDGs.

This research project focuses particularly on voluntary organisations; however, with amendments it may be applied to other civil society organisations.

3. Contextual background

From Millennium Development to Sustainable Development

In September 2015, 193 world leaders joined forces at the United Nations General Assembly, agreeing to work together to eradicate poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change issues. The result of this meeting was the formulation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a wide-ranging plan of action broken down into 17 goals and 169 targets (1) .

The United Nations describes the Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’) as the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all (2)  and they include:

Goal 1 No Poverty

Goal 2 Zero Hunger

Goal 3 Good Health and Well-being

Goal 4 Quality Education

Goal 5 Gender Equality

Goal 6 Clean Water and Sanitation

Goal 7 Affordable and Clean Energy

Goal 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth

Goal 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Goal 10 Reduced Inequality

Goal 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities

Goal 12 Responsible Consumption and Production

Goal 13 Climate Action

Goal 14 Life Below Water

Goal 15 Life on Land

Goal 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

Goal 17 Partnerships for the Goals

If successful, these goals could transform the landscape of the world the we live in and civil society has the pivotal role of helping to implement effective sustainable-development policies, both domestically and internationally. However, with society becoming more unequal, disconnected and divided (3) ; one in five of the UK population now living in poverty (4) ; and, climate change posing as a major threat to both current and future generations (5) — an urgent call for proactive engagement with the SDGs is now required. There is a pressing need for the Government to work collaboratively with businesses, civil society and individuals, to ensure that the UK achieves the SDGs. As such, a  progressive leadership approach is required across all the sectors, in order to adapt to today’s societal pressures and demands.

4. The role of the voluntary sector in achieving the SDGs

Active role: voluntary organisations as facilitators

The SGDs are expected to be delivered by 2030 and build on the achievements of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (‘MDGs’) that were set in 2000 and ended in 2015 — also in a bid to reduce poverty levels and fight inequality issues.

The MDGs were to a certain extent successful and resulted in a 50% reduction in worldwide poverty(6). The process of arriving at the MDGs was heavily criticised due to a top down approach being applied, which ultimately resulted in a few influential countries being involved in the goal setting process. This meant that developing countries and civil society organisations were not fully consulted during the initial phase of the agenda (7). Additionally, the overall success of the MDGs was measured by reference to national averages and failed to reflect the fact that some of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups were not adequately assisted and were effectively “left behind”(8) .

The SDGs were therefore set with the shortcomings of the MDGs in mind, in the hope that this time no individuals would be left behind. They offer a significant improvement on the MDGs and take into account issues such as inequality, poor situational capacity and environmental concerns, all of which the MDGs failed to adequately address . Furthermore, unlike the MDGs, the SDGs are universally applicable. This means that they apply equally to both developed and developing countries; although, the significance of individual goals will vary from one country to the next (9) .


Broadly speaking, the role of the voluntary sector in achieving the goals is twofold. Firstly, voluntary organisations, especially International Non Governmental Organisations, have the pivotal role of helping to facilitate and implement key processes that will ensure that the goals are met both domestically and internationally. The roles of individual charities will vary across the voluntary sector. Some service delivery charities for example, are able to reach into underrepresented communities and regions and have extensive experience in delivering services to these groups thus making them a key stakeholder. As such, by actively engaging with the goals, charities will ultimately help to ensure that the targets set by the United Nations are achieved.


Inactive role: adopting policies that break "the cycle of need"


 Defining the cycle of need

In addition to direct engagement with the SDGs, charities may also engage with the goals indirectly. This would be more in terms of changing internal policies and processes, to help break the cycle of need. Breaking the cycle of need involves adopting socially responsible policies that help to strengthen the sector as a whole, and ultimately ensure that the good work being carried out in the front to help support beneficiaries/service users, is not marred by practices that compromise other stakeholder groups.

An example of such a scenario would be a charity (Charity A) that aims to eradicate extreme poverty in the UK. Through its charitable activities, Charity A would effectively be helping to meet the targets set for Goal 1 (No poverty). However, if Charity A has discriminatory practices within its organisation and fails to address issues of diversity and inclusion, it effectively creates a separate set of beneficiaries and a need for a charity with objects centred around anti-discrimination/diversity and inclusion to intercede (Charity B). Charity A therefore unintentionally acts as a hindrance to the accomplishment of Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities).

However, if Charity A continues to actively work to eradicate extreme poverty in the UK, whilst also making a conscious effort to address issues of diversity and inclusion within its organisation, it will actively achieve its objectives whilst passively helping Charity B to accomplishment its own set of objectives. In addition to this, Charity A effectively contributes towards the overall achievement of the goals. This concept can be applied to the treatment of a wide range of stakeholder groups, including, but not limited to: communities; carers and families; employees and volunteers; organisational partners; the public; members and supporters; and, trustees. The list of stakeholders however may differ from one charity to the next, due to the unique nature of the sector.

Stakeholder research in a voluntary context

Stakeholder theory has been applied extensively in voluntary sector academic research i.e. by Dhanani & Connolly (2012) into the discharge of accountability through public discourse(10; research by Ebrahim (2003) into accountability mechanisms for NGOs(11; and, by Edwards & Hulme (1995) into NGO performance and accountability(12. The origins of stakeholder theory can be traced back to Freeman and Reed (1983)(13), who identified that organisations have different groups (stakeholders) whose interests the organisation needs to manage effectively.  Freeman and Reed (1983) originally considered the stakeholder connection to be a series of simple one-to-one relationships between the organisation and each of its stakeholders. However, more contemporary studies such as Key (1999) (14and Post et al (2002)(15)  posit that the relationship is often multifaceted and resembles a ‘stakeholder network’, with the organisation at the centre, and each stakeholder having a group of stakeholders of its own. These various stakeholders may be inter-linked and closely inter-related16). Furthermore, Donaldson and Preston (1995) assert that stakeholders have a legitimate interest in the dealings of the organisations(17)  ; however, it is important to identify which of the stakeholders are most important and how legitimate their interest in the organisation is.

Therefore, from an academic point of view, there is a significant amount of research around stakeholder engagement. Granted, not all scenarios will be as simple or easy to judge as the aforementioned example; however, by using the SDGs as a baseline, charities may be in a position to engage better with a range of stakeholder groups. This stakeholder-led approach will undeniably challenge and stretch several charities, especially when dealing with conflicting stakeholder groups and limited resources; however, a multi-stakeholder approach is the only way forward, given the mounting pressures and societal challenges.

5. An action plan for engagement

Active engagement


For charities that wish to engage actively with the goals, the first step to take is  to carry out an analysis of the 17 goals, and establish which, if any, align with the charity’s objects. In this situation, the charity would be taking on the role of a facilitator — actively helping to accomplish the goals. This has the advantage of potentially helping charities to think of new ways to serve beneficiaries/service users. Additionally, depending on the nature of the charity, it could be involved in: advocating and holding the government accountable to communities, and using information acquired on the ground to advise the government on implementation measures that may be used.

The United Nations recommends that stakeholders, including voluntary organisations, should first gain an understanding of where their country, sector, region, and/or city stands with regards to achieving all seventeen goals.  In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been developing metrics to measure performance against the SDGs; however, as outlined in the Environmental Audit Committee report (2018)18), the information is still being compiled and many gaps still exist.  The report also highlights that awareness of the SDGs has grown in some parts of civil society and business, for example through the Better Retail, Better World project. However, the Government has not yet done enough to drive awareness and embed the SDGs across the UK – including within Government itself’. Given the urgency of the situation, there may therefore be a need for the voluntary sector to proactively self- mobilise and start thinking of ways to engage with the goals.

The UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) is an independent network of organisations from different sectors, that is actively working to drive action on the SDGs in the UK. The UKSSD published its first report titled ‘Measuring up’ (2018)(19) — a comprehensive review of the current UK performance on the SDGs. Based on its findings, UKSSD states in the report that ‘while there is an enormous amount to celebrate, the most vulnerable people and places in our society are increasingly being left behind’. Out of 143 relevant targets, UKSSD found that 24% of the targets were performed well and classed as being of good performance; 57% either had gaps in policy coverage and/or inadequate performance; and 15% either had no policy in place and/or poor performance. Goal 1 (No Poverty), for example, is on a negative trajectory, as poverty levels are rising in the UK and are expected to continue going up if no intervention is made.  Therefore, there is still a significant amount of work that needs to carried out by the government, civil society and businesses —if the goals are to be achieved by 2030.

In July 2019 the government will present its Voluntary National Review to the United Nation, further detailing the progress that has been made by the UK in achieving the SDGs, since their adoption in September 2015.

Inactive engagement, using the PIP policy framework

The largest charities could potentially engage with the SDGs both actively as facilitators and inactively through the adoption of progressive policies. However, for small charities and smaller large charities, lack of resources may make engaging actively with the goals challenging. This is largely due to the fact that an external consultant may be required to not only help the charity implement the goals, but also to ensure that robust reporting practices are employed, so that meaningful data is gathered. Charities with resource constraints may therefore consider engaging indirectly with the goals, as any form of engagement will help to ensure that the goals are achieved.

We have therefore developed a simple framework, to help charities integrate the SDGs into internal policies. In developing the framework, we mapped the goals and compiled a list of targets that are applicable to almost all voluntary organisations, in a bid to lesson the workload for charities with low resources that may wish to take the first step in engaging with the SDGs. The framework has been kept simple, so that even small charities may use it, although some of the targets themselves may pose a challenge for the smallest charities . For the purposes of this framework, the targets are listed under three broad headings: People, Impact and Planet (PIP). The targets have been left as fairly high level, to enable charities to set their own specific goals.

The first thing charities will therefore need to do, is analyse current policies and practices against the targets. An action plan may then be put into place outlining goals that that the charity has set for itself and what measures the charity plans to put into place to achieve the goals set.


We have included a toolkit on our website, with resources to aid charities that wish to engage with the goals and will continue to update it with additional resources, including example reports.

6. People, Impact & Planet (PIP policy framework)

The PIP policy framework uses the SDGs as a baseline for adopting progressives internal policies. Social policies are included under the people heading; sectoral accountability/transoraency related policies are included under the impact heading ; and, environmental policies are included under the planet heading.

Examples are included below, that voluntary organisations may choose to replicate. These targets are generic and have been carefully selected as they are applicable to most voluntary. With that being said, voluntary organisations may opt to select additional and/or alternative targets, if the organisation deems them to be more suitable.  

The generic targets and action points are discussed in detail below.


People targets


SDG1.2 By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions

SDG1.2 Poverty rates in the UK are rising, and more children are being affected as a result.  4.1 million children now live in poverty, an increase of 500,000 in the last five years. In addition to this, in work poverty has reached its highest level in 20 years, resulting in an increasing number of workers finding themselves living in poverty. This is despite employment rates being at a record high. 

JRF’s Executive Director, Claire Ainsley, has called for 2019 to be the year of action —  appealing for employers to play a part in solving the poverty crisis by paying the real Living Wage, and providing training to help employees in low paid roles to progress into higher-paid roles.

SDG3.4 By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being

SDG3.4 Stress, anxiety and depression are the main causes of sickness absence at work, according to MHFA England. Mental ill health is also responsible for 91 million working days lost every year,  and it is estimated that each year one in four people in the UK have mental health problems at some point.


There is therefore a great need for employers to understand how to support staff at work and promote mental health and wellbeing. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a initiative that aims to encourage employers to have trained first aiders for mental ill health. Having someone trained on site, may help to provide much needed support.

SDG5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere

SDG10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status

SDG5.1 and SDG10.2 Although progress is being made with regards to female representation at SMT/board level, the charity sector still lags behind both the public and the private sector in terms of BAME representation, according to research carried out by Inclusive Boards in 2018. Likewise, young people below the ages of 25 are also significantly underrepresented, they make up less than 1% of trustee boards.


It is imperative for each organisation to put measures in place to improve diversity and inclusion, and ultimately help to ensure that the sector remains inclusive. ACEVO and the IOF are calling for sector leaders that want to improve diversity to sign up to their 8 leadership principles and commit to making diversity and inclusion a priority.

SDG10.4 Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality

SDG10.4 Employers with more than 250 employees are required by law to report on their gender pay gap, and to publish the information annually on both their website and on the government’s website. The gender pay gap is effectively the average difference between the amounts paid to men compared to the amounts paid to women. 


Although reporting on gender is not mandatory for charities with less than 250 employees, voluntary reporting could significantly help to reduce inequality in the work place. As would voluntarily reporting on diversity pay gaps. 

SDG16.1 Significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere

SDG16.2 End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children

SDG16.1 and SDG16.2 Trustees have a duty to safeguard the people that come into contact with the charity from abuse and mistreatment, both domestically and overseas. This includes not just beneficiaries, but also staff and volunteers. Safeguarding is generally a key risk that could have detrimental effects if not appropriately managed.


Charities should therefore update and regularly review their safeguarding policy, and put appropriate controls and measures in place. There should be more robust measures in place, to ensure that any issues with regards to violence, abuse and/or exploitation are appropriately reported and addressed.

SDG16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

SDG16.7: The final Civil Society Futures report (2018) highlighted the need to shift power and bridge divisions – it proposed that civil society should commit to a “shared pact”, as outlined below.

Power: consciously shifting power in big ways, sharing more decision-making and control, being a model for the rest of society and doing whatever is needed so that everyone can play a full part in the things which matter to them.

Accountability: holding ourselves accountable first and foremost to the communities and people we exist to serve, revolutionising our approach – including being more accountable to each other and to future generations.

Connection: broadening and deepening our connections with people and communities – especially when it’s hardest – for this is the heart of civil society’s purpose, bridging the frequent divides that span our society and investing in a new social infrastructure for civil society.

Trust: devoting the time and resources necessary to building trust – our core currency and foundation – earning trust by staying true to our values and standing up for them, and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them”.

If followed through, this PACT could ultimately help to ensure that decision making is more inclusive, participatory and representative in the voluntary sector.

Impact target


SDG16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

SDG16.6There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to maximising, measuring and reporting impact. However, one unifying factor across the sector is the need for greater accountability and transparency in reporting practices. The purpose of the Trustees Annual Report under SORP 2015 is to discharge accountability to stakeholder groups. It therefore calls for charities to openly report on both successes and failures in a balanced manner.


Charities may be able to increase trust by simply demonstrating accountability through meeting the expectations set by their stakeholders, as well as by being open and transparent in reporting practices(20) (21)To ensure that the voluntary sector remains effective, accountable and transparent, charities need to make balanced reporting the norm across the whole voluntary sector.    

Planet target

SDG13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning.

13.3The effects of climate change are wide spread, and it is undeniably one of the most pressing issues faced globally.  Climate change could significantly affect the world's water systems for example, resulting in an increase in floods and droughts, which in turn will have an adverse impact on food supply. According to the United Nations, ‘evidence is increasing that climate change is taking the largest toll on poor and vulnerable people’. There is still time to mobile efforts and tackle climate change; however, it will require the active engagement of governments, businesses, civil society and individuals.

Charities should therefore consider measuring their carbon footprint. Once it has been measured, the charity may then set a target to reduce it, and where possible, work towards becoming carbon neutral.


7. Conclusion and next steps


The voluntary sector has a pivotal role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals — there is  therefore an urgent need for the sector to self mobilise and start engaging with the goals. By engaging with the goals, charities will ultimately help to ensure that the targets set by the United Nations are achieved and that the mistakes of the Millennium Development Goals are not repeated, which resulted in the poorest and most marginalised groups effectively being left behind.

For a charity that wishes to engage directly with the goals, it could take on the role of a facilitator —  actively helping to accomplish the goals.  Additionally, depending on the nature of the charity, it could also be involved in advocating and holding the government accountable to communities, as well as using information acquired on the ground to advise the government on implementation measures that can be used.

Charities could also engage indirectly with the SDGs, by using our standard PIP framework, and putting in place a strategic plan for integrating the goals into internal policies.

Next steps

Our mission is to provide resources and services that empower charities to be more socially responsible and to actively engage with the SDGs. To achieve our mission, from now until 2030, we'll be focusing on some ambitious plans and targets, to help charities better engage with the goals and will continue to update the PIP toolkit with useful resources.

Published 25 February 2019



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