May 7, 2019

Renewing Common Purpose and Collective Action

Kathy Calvin

The president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation reflects on the power of philanthropic collaboration.

This article is from Bridgespan's supplement on big bets for the Spring 2019 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. Click here to download a PDF of the full supplement.

By: Kathy Calvin

Twenty years ago, Ted Turner made a big bet on the United Nations by pledging $1 billion to UN causes. At a time when many philanthropists were giving money for buildings with their names on the side, Turner gave his money to an idea: that our world’s biggest problems can be solved when people, nations, and organizations choose to solve them together. Turner’s vision represented a stark departure from other philanthropic initiatives, not only for the breathtaking scale of his commitment, but also for the sheer magnitude of the mission he foresaw, which harnessed the UN’s reach and mandate to tackle global challenges in the poorest places on the planet. His commitment was pivotal. His vision gave an important boost to the UN and international cooperation; it enabled investments in transformative issues including sustainable energy and girls’ rights; and it empowered new partners and supporters to work with the UN and with each other.

The dawn of a new century ushered in an era of partnerships dedicated to serving our common humanity. In addition to the UN Foundation, the international community made multiple big bets in how we collaborate and set goals—from the UN Millennium Development Goals, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

In the years since, there has certainly been turbulence, but there has also been incredible progress thanks to this new generation of partnership for purpose: Fewer children are dying of preventable diseases such as measles and malaria, fewer families are living in extreme poverty, and fewer women are dying in childbirth. This progress didn’t happen by chance; it happened because of collective action. But we cannot afford to be complacent. Progress needs protectors, and we have new battles to fight and hard-won achievements to defend.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals lift our global ambitions for progress to even greater scope and scale and ground that commitment in the bold promise to leave no one behind. But we are not on track to meet them. The Paris Agreement on climate change provides a path for safeguarding the environment for all of humanity, yet we have not all embraced the actions required to get there. The United Nations Charter gives us a principled and strategic vision for relations between nations that will produce more peace than conflict and more opportunity than scarcity, yet global forces risk driving us apart when we have so much more to gain from pulling together.

This is precisely why the moment is ripe for renewed big bets on multilateralism and investment in the belief that communities should come together in collective action and common purpose. This will require big bets on the institutions and systems that were created to advance change. It will also require big bets to address emerging issues on the horizon, from the data revolution to new threats to health and well-being, that cut across sectors and communities, and it will require big bets to mobilize and support the innovators who will build a better future for us all.

This is a time for creativity, determination, and boldness. While innovation and risk-taking are needed, the core guiding principles remain as solid as they did when Turner made his big bet 20 years ago: More unites than divides us; the world gains from effective collective action; and the UN provides a unique and principled platform for uniting nations and peoples around common purpose.

Kathy Calvin is the president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation.

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