Keep an Eye on the IKEA Foundation. It's Getting Bigger, and Goes Where the Pain Is

The IKEA Foundation has been around since 1982 and back then, it focused its giving exclusively on architecture and interior design programs—a sensible interest for a fledging furniture store, but hardly an appropriate philanthropic focus for a multinational corporation.

Flash forward a couple of decades and Ikea is a very different foundation. And, boy, has it gone to the other extreme. 

Just take a look at its four priorities: disaster response and relief, empowering women and girls, fighting against child labor and for children’s rights, and helping refugee children and their families. You might think that Angelina Jolie was running the place, with an agenda like that. This is a funder drawn to alleviating human suffering in its rawest forms. 

And then there's the growing gusher of grant money. Last year, the IKEA Foundation’s annual report revealed that it had increased its giving by 21 percent. In terms of numbers, the foundation awarded over €100 million, or over $140 million.

Related: The Ikea Foundation is Ramping Up

IKEA's philanthropy has been rising because it's committed to giving away 3 percent of its profits, so as the economy has improved, grantmaking has gone up. We bet the foundation will give away even more this year. 

Which leads me to the foundation's latest big move: A whopping $31.5 million gift to UNICEF, announced just this week.

A look at how the money breaks down gives you a sense of what this funder is worried about. 

  • The biggest chunk, $16.1 million, will fund programs that empower and encourage kids in Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan to own the decisions that affect their lives and the communities in which they live.
  • The second biggest chunk, $5.5 million, will go toward the support of family and community centers in Rwanda with the goal of improving child care.
  • Money is also being funneled to early childhood and development programs in China, as well as help for orphans and vulnerable children in China.
  • $2.5 million will be used to support programs that protect children from violence, exploitation and from being unnecessarily separated from their families in Jammu/Kashmir India.

One interesting thing to note here is the emphasis on China. Not so many funders focus on China, which is seen as a country doing all right compared to many places. In fact, though, about 30 percent of Chinese live on less than $2 a day. And while that figure is much lower than in many other countries, it adds up to about 450 million people. 

That's a lot of people, with a lot of children in the mix, which a key focus of the foundation. 

IKEA has a goal of helping 100 million children by 2015, and it seems to be on track. Since 2000, the foundation has committed over €80 million (nearly $100 million) to UNICEF and Save the Children in support of their respective programs to end child labor by fighting its root causes in India and Pakistan. Just this year, the foundation gave €7 million (around $9.5 million) to Save the Children and its partners, Breakthrough and Pratham to help the organizations bolster their collective efforts to stop child labor in India.

The foundation has also committed €76 million (around $95 million) to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) and other refugee organizations to provide shelter, care, and education for refugee children and their families in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Bangladesh. Back in 2011, the foundation donated €62 million over three years (about $50 million) to UNHCR to help the agency’s efforts in assisting 120,000 Somali refugees who had recently arrived at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

More recently, the IKEA Foundation stepped forward to do something about the Syrian refugee crisis, one of the biggest humanitarian crises of recent years, and one that many funders have simply ignored. The foundation donated 150,000 mattresses, quilts, and bed linens to make those refugees more comfortable. That may seem like a trivial thing, until you imagine sleeping on a hard and cold desert floor with your family—or try to picture just many shipping containers it would take to move 150,000 mattresses. 

The IKEA Foundation’s huge donations to humanitarian efforts around the world might seem to make it a really attractive option for grantseekers. Unfortunately, it does not accept unsolicited grant applications and much of its money goes to the world's biggest NGOs and international agencies.

But, as we said, IKEA's philanthropic giving is growing, and this has led to an increase in the number of partners the IKEA Foundation takes on. Could this mean that IKEA is open to loosening its grantmaking policies? We couldn’t say. But whether or not the foundation will loosen its grantmaking policies in the future, there seems to be little doubt that Ikea is poised to be a big name in the international development grantmaking space.