SGP has three "pillars" in its comprehensive approach to sustainable human development: environmental protection, poverty reduction and community empowerment. This approach recognizes the intrinsic linkages between environment and human development issues, particularly at the community level, and advocates that the most effective approach is to integrate environment concerns with sustainable development. The SGP approach leverages shifts towards environmentally sustainable livelihood options, and increases education and awareness on environmental issues. According to the 2006 GEF study on 'The Role of Local Benefits in Global Environmental Programs', the GEF recognized that local benefits and needs are eligible for GEF support in order to secure global environmental benefits, proving the effectiveness of the SGP approach pioneered since the beginning of the Pilot Phase in 1992.
Communities targeted by SGP are often the poorest and most vulnerable, and typically have low levels of technical and institutional capacity to adequately address global environmental problems. More than 60% of SGP grants target poor communities in participating countries, which have the greatest need for assistance. Indigenous peoples, who have the knowledge and experience to create sustainable solutions to environmental challenges, are also targeted by at least 15% of SGP grants. SGP helps utilize the full potential of women and men, and transforms marginal and vulnerable sectors into active actors for sustainable development. In addition, as another priority target group, more than a quarter of SGP grants support women's empowerment. In a global survey in 2009, it was estimated that SGP generated more than half a million jobs for local communities around the world.