SDSN supports its member institutions (universities, research institutes, civil society organizations, and other knowledge centers) around the world to play a leading role in sustainable development in four ways: (1) as research centers; (2) as key partners in problem solving alongside government, business, and civil society; (3) as educators; and (4) as social entrepreneurs in solution initiatives. The SDSN is motivated by the idea that hundreds or even thousands of universities and research centers around the world should be playing these roles at the local, national, regional, and global levels.

The SDSN Assembly is an advisory body to facilitate the two-way flow of information and activities between SDSN members and the Secretariat/Leadership Council of the SDSN. It is chaired by Professor Angelo Riccaboni of the University of Siena and comprises a one representative from each SDSN member institution.