The Story of the Clouds and the Forest

The Story of the Clouds and the Forest

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.

Originally posted at

Photo by Etienne Delorieux on Unsplash

Ben Roberts

I am a systemic change agent and a process artist.  Since March 2009, when I began leading a local weekly “Discussion Salon,” I have been convening and hosting both in-person and virtual conversations on a regular basis, in service to initiatives for change.

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2 thoughts on “The Story of the Clouds and the Forest

  1. That’s one of the most brilliant applications of the new understanding of how trees talk to each other that I’ve seen yet. Thanks for the reframe from “duplicative and fragmented” to “densely networked and collectively communicative.” That shift in mental models could be a game changer in shifting from scarcity to collective efficacy. Many thanks.

    1. Thank you, Bill! I look forward to connecting further via the Collaborative Funding Dojo and beyond, to find practical ways to recognize, support, and apply this shift in thinking together.

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