Defining Your Impact with the UN SDGs: Using the UN Sustainable Development Goals to Classify the Impacts of your Social Enterprise

You’re launching a social enterprise. You run a high-impact non-profit. Or you work at a for-profit corporation, but want to think more critically and strategically about proactive, positive impact.

You want to do “good” — have a positive impact and effect change. But how do you define what “good” means? How do you communicate the positive impact of your organization to investors that are aligned with your cause?

This set of 17 targets, also known as “the global goals” or just “the SDGs,” was agreed upon and adopted in 2015 as part of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs offer a high-level categorization of impact, and outline the key targets and measures identified for investment in each area to achieve the global goals. Because it’s an internationally agreed-upon list, it’s one of the closest things we have as a society to a consensus definition of areas of positive impact and need.

At Ecotone, like many organizations and institutions around the world, we use the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to help our clients classify their areas of impact. For example, let’s say there’s a bakery that offers employment and job skills training for formerly incarcerated people. That supports SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Tying their work to those SDGs helps the bakery quickly communicate their goals to the public, their customers, and potential investors. An investor or grantmaker who wants to invest in peace and justice can instantly identify the bakery as being aligned with their mission.

As the SDGs continue to be used by organizations around the world, we’d love to see it become a more widely understood shorthand for impact. That bakery hiring formerly incarcerated people could display the icons for SDGs 8 and 16 in their front window and on their website — almost like medieval shields displaying the icons of each clan.

Then, when that bakery is ready to measure the impact they’re having, they can refer to the SDGs to guide which metrics they should be paying attention to. Rather than saying, “We’re a nonprofit, of course we’re doing good,” organizations can — and should — provide evidence that their work is achieving progress in an area determined to be important to society as a whole. Using the SDGs to categorize social good is the first step to measuring and accounting for impact, and to using the evidence of impact to design programs and business models.

Our work to help organizations account for their impact — and create business models to fund, scale, and sustain that impact — starts with connecting their work to a global definition of good.

Have you thought about how your work connects to and fulfills the Sustainable Development Goals? Which of the 17 goals are most relevant for your organization?

Further reading

Get the basics:

Dig deeper:

SDGs usage:

There has been some misunderstanding about using them for fundraising. This is directly from the usage guidelines:

“The SDG logo and 17 SDG icons may be used for both informational (primarily illustrative) and fundraising purposes.

Fundraising uses are those that are intended to raise resources to cover costs of activities in support of the SDGs.



(originally posted to Medium on 2/12/18)

Ecotone Analytics Recognized at 2017 Environmental Initiative Awards

Better Futures Minnesota, project partners win 2017 Environmental Initiative Award for sustainability efforts

Annual Awards program celebrates businesses, community organizations, and governments who achieve sustainability outcomes through partnership

(Minneapolis, MN)– Nonprofit Better Futures Minnesota, along with many of their partners, are being honored on May 25 at the 25th Anniversary Environmental Initiative Awards for their work to increase the amount of materials being reused or recycled in construction and demolition waste.

Through their work, in 2016 alone they diverted over 1570 tons of waste from construction projects that would have otherwise ended up in landfills.

Reusing and recycling construction and demolition materials not only has a positive impact on the amount of waste in our landfills, but also reduces emissions from those landfills. Last year, they estimate that they avoided 750 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“In just two years of consistently gathering research, we’ve been able to quantify the environmental impact of deconstruction—reusing and recycling building materials—compared to the common practice of demolishing a building and sending the materials to a landfill.  The results are phenomenal. Reduction of Greenhouse Gases, creation of jobs, and a boost to the local economy are all benefits from this new and innovative technique,” said Thomas Adams, Better Futures president and CEO.

The organization, which works to provide jobs, training and resources to men who have had a history of incarceration, homelessness, poverty, and untreated mental and physical health challenges, worked with project partners like the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the State of Minnesota’s Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, ReUSE Minnesota, Ectone Partners and more to develop best practices for their workforce to reuse and recycle materials.

“This business model exemplifies the triple bottom line, which is something every organization should strive toward,” said Mike Harley, Executive Director of Environmental Initiative. “The co-benefits that come to life in this project—improving air quality, helping our neighbors, and creating a profitable business—could have only been achieved with a diverse group of perspectives coming together.”

In Minnesota, more than 80 percent of the 1.6 million tons of construction and demolition waste was landfilled in 2013, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Through deconstruction, Better Futures Minnesota can recycle and reuse at least 85 percent of materials.

In honor of Environmental Initiative’s 25th Anniversary, four organizational and two individual awards will be presented on May 25, 2017 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion.

About the Environmental Initiative Awards

Environmental Initiative is a nonprofit organization that builds partnerships with business, government and nonprofit leaders to develop collaborative solutions to Minnesota’s environmental problems. The organization has honored collaborative environmental projects through their annual awards program since 1994.



Determining the Discount Rate for the Social Cost of Carbon

Yesterday, Minnesota Public Radio reported that Administrative Law Judge LauraSue Schlatter determined that the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimations should be used to inform the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s decision making on sources of electricity generation. The federal estimations are about ten times the current valuation of the costs of future damages from CO2 and air pollutant climate change. The article states a “range of valuations,” between $11 and $57 dollars, and that a figure would be decided on later this year. So….how are these numbers determined, who determined them, and what would be the most reasonable to use?

Below, I’ve pasted in some passages from the technical documentation from the EPA for determining these estimates. In a nutshell, there are multiple agencies using multiple and various models that model the future value of damages. These are then aggregated, and then a discount rate is applied. The discount rates vary based on different theories and estimations of future scenarios.

For our clients, Ecotone has been using these federal rates, as well as the current value of carbon credits on the California market. The safest of the rates we will be using going forward will be the Federal rate for the current year, at the 3 percent discount rate.

From the EPA technical documentation:

The Discount Rates Selected for Estimating SCC

In light of disagreement in the literature on the appropriate market interest rate to use in this context and uncertainty about how interest rates may change over time, we use three discount rates to span a plausible range of certainty-equivalent constant discount rates: 2.5, 3, and 5 percent per year. Based on the review in the previous sections, the interagency workgroup determined that these three rates reflect reasonable judgments under both descriptive and prescriptive approaches.

The central value, 3 percent, is consistent with estimates provided in the economics literature and OMB’s Circular A-4 guidance for the consumption rate of interest. As previously mentioned, the consumption rate of interest is the correct discounting concept to use when future damages from elevated temperatures are estimated in consumption-equivalent units. Further, 3 percent roughly corresponds to the after-tax riskless interest rate. The upper value of 5 percent is included to represent the possibility that climate damages are positively correlated with market returns. Additionally, this discount rate may be justified by the high interest rates that many consumers use to smooth consumption across periods.

The low value, 2.5 percent, is included to incorporate the concern that interest rates are highly uncertain over time. It represents the average certainty-equivalent rate using the mean-reverting and random walk approaches from Newell and Pizer (2003) starting at a discount rate of 3 percent. Using this approach, the certainty equivalent is about 2.2 percent using the random walk model and 2.8 percent using the mean reverting approach.26 Without giving preference to a particular model, the average of the two rates is 2.5 percent. Further, a rate below the riskless rate would be justified if climate investments are negatively correlated with the overall market rate of return. Use of this lower value also responds to certain judgments using the prescriptive or normative approach and to ethical objections that have been raised about rates of 3 percent or higher.

Technical Doc:

December 2015 update, with the values for the SC-CO2:




Ecotone Partners Mentioned in Oliver Russell White Paper

Oliver Russell & Associates, a purpose-driven brand consultancy and Certified B-Corp out of Boise, ID, has released its second white paper in a series on building purpose-driven companies. The paper, titled “Prove It! discusses the credibility of purpose-driven brands, and the importance of third-party verification of outcomes. Ecotone Partners GBC, INC. from Minneapolis is mentioned as an exemplar of social and environmental impact accounting for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises:

The consulting world is adapting to provide solutions for social entrepreneurs. One example is Ecotone Partners, a specialized firm in Minneapolis that helps companies measure, manage, and communicate their social, environmental, and business impacts.

Big accounting and professional service firms such as Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Grant Thornton, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and McKinsey & Company, among others, are moving into the social impact auditing space. These programs are likely aimed toward larger, more established corporations that are coming to understand that the market is taking social impact seriously.

“There is definitely a trend for social impact reporting to become closer and closer to accounting,” Jeremy Nicholls, CEO of the Social Return on Investment Network, told The Guardian. “One of the things that is now increasingly being looked at is the inter-relationship between financial reporting and social or environmental impact—or natural capital.”

The first white paper in the series was released on October 7th, 2015, entitled “Create It!,” and the third will be released later in Q4 2015, called “Share It!”

Download “Prove It!” here, after an e-mail sign up: