The Story of the Clouds and the Forests

There’s a story one often hears in conversations about systemic transformation that goes like this…

We are headed in the wrong direction and there’s very little time to reverse course.  Because of the scale and speed of the change that is required, the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of small groups currently working towards change can’t possibly get us where we need to go.  They are too fragmented.  They compete with each other and duplicate efforts.  They can’t leverage enough resources or influence to challenge the entrenched power of the status quo.  To fix this problem, we must concentrate our support on a smaller number of much larger groups.  And those groups must also do a lot more collaborating and coordinating than is currently taking place.

What if that story is the equivalent of missing the forest for trees?!   

As we now know, that is literally the mistake scientists were making before they understood how collaborative, intelligent, and symbiotic forests truly are.  We can use this metaphor to write a new story of systemic transformation, and the role of funding in supporting it.

As the old industrial growth paradigm dies back, a new collaborative and regenerative one is emerging all around us.  Like trees in a forest, the myriad initiatives based on this paradigm are not simply small, separate entities, competing with one another for scarce resources.  They comprise multiple ecosystems than can hold, distribute, and recycle the money they use to do their work.  They can move at the speed of trust, which is the only way to head in a regenerative direction.

When clouds rain on a mature forest, the forest allocates the water, based on a complex set of relationships and structures that have evolved over long periods of time.  Forests even release chemical signals that seed clouds and help trigger them to drop their moisture.  The clouds do not get down on the ground and study the lakes, rivers, and soil to figure out where their water will do the most good or where it might cause erosion.  Nor do they create their own water management infrastructure to contain, release, and evaluate the impact of the essential resource that they provide.

Funders of transformation must act like clouds if they wish to nourish whole ecosystems of change.  The task is far too complex to be managed from the top down.  Even the most well-intentioned of funders face huge challenges in sensing what is needed on the ground, especially at the edges and at the community level, where transformational potential is greatest.  Many funders who wish to support systems change now understand the limitations of their decision-making capacity.  They recognize that “deep democracy” is part of the DNA of a Just Transition and are trying out new, participatory approaches that center the grassroots.  This shift in the funding world might be poised to spread widely as stories about it are shared.

Meanwhile, networks of people and organizations that are committed to transformational work have been developing the capacity to act like forests.  They have built up trust-based soil through decades of work, learning from successes and composting failures.  That soil is now home to a vast mycelial network of relationships, capable of moving information and nutrients in highly complex ways.  This has given rise to diverse ecosystems of initiatives, ready to grow and mature if they receive sufficient nourishment.  In order to call for that nourishment, these ecosystems are learning processes of democratic governance so they can move, store, and recycle money in collaborative ways, prioritizing cooperation and symbiosis to generate more opportunities for all.

What would happen if more funders chose to act like clouds, and trusted the forests they wished to see thrive?  What would happen if more fundees doing the work on the ground trusted that they were parts of forests and sent collective signals that they were ready for rain?  Perhaps we would find that these emerging forests are far mightier, more widespread, and more mature than we realized.  Perhaps we would discover that the speed of trust is much faster than we thought.  Or that we have actually also been traveling in the right direction for a very long time.


This post was written as part of the invitation process for the TRCC Collaborative Funding Dojo, which runs from May 17-June 30th.  Please join us if the ideas expressed here call to you and your wish to learn and practice ways to act on it, or share stories about how you are already doing so.

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About the Lead Author

Ben Roberts
Ben Roberts
Ben Roberts is a systemic change agent and “process artist,” working in service to what Joanna Macy and others have called "The Great Turning." Inspired in 2010 by the internet’s largely untapped power to convene and support new modalities for participatory dialogue, he has been a pioneer in bringing large group conversational processes into the virtual realm via platforms such as Zoom and Slack, and in blending and creating synergies between virtual and in-person engagement. Ben’s work focuses on: - Weaving communities, networks, gatherings, and movements - Co-leading the core teams of collaborative projects and initiatives - Creating open spaces for emergent dialogue Ben is driven by a belief that we are being deeply challenged at this moment in history by the urgent need for systemic transformation, the continued dominance of "Business as Usual," and the yearning for constructive programs with the critical mass to fully demonstrate that new paradigms are possible. At the same time, he recognizes the importance of Collapse as a context for engagement, and has been influenced by the call from Vanessa Machado de Oliveira for us to hospice modernity/coloniality in order to develop the capacity for something truly new to emerge. Ben sees dialogue as an ideal tool to address such complexity and uncertainty. He also recognizes that our dialogic processes must evolve, just like everything else. He is currently experimenting with a “conversation weaving” approach that entangles many small group conversations in hybrid space over a period of as little as a day or as long as several months.

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