Dana’s principles for impact

The Mott Foundation in 1992 sought Dana’s advice on whether their grant-making principles were appropriate for the scale of impact they were seeking. The principles were: 1. Support the use of scientific thinking and information; 2. Consider citizen, community, and private sector interests; 3. Advance informed citizen participation.

There can be no argument about the value of those principles, but I would add some more to them, derived from my own experiences (and many mistakes) over the years. My own operating principles, in addition to the ones listed above are:

SUPPORT INDIVIDUALS: Find the people who are already leading the direction you want to go, who already have the commitment, the mindset, the skills, and the ideas and empower the heck out of these people. Look for them in a variety of places, in science, in community organizing, in the media, etc. Find out what they need to be even more effective and help them to get it. See to it that these leaders are surrounded by young people, whom they can inspire. The MacArthur “genius grants” and Pew Scholars Program are models of individual-supporting grants, but they are more luxurious and costly than necessary.

BUILD NETWORKS: Help the inspired leaders, who already share basic values of sustainability, but who may be pursuing it by very different paths, to find and stay in touch with each other. They will challenge and support each other, exchange ideas, tools and information, and add up to more than the sum of their individual parts. (A dream of mine is to get all the sustainability leaders of the world connected through e-mail so they can converse daily and spread news instantly. The e-mail connections I already have are invaluable to me.)

ENHANCE INFORMATION STREAMS: A system’s behavior is determined almost entirely by the information at its disposal. The world can’t solve problems it doesn’t know about; it can’t take into account information it doesn’t have; it can’t pursue goals it can’t imagine. As a systems analyst, I’m especially conscious of the importance of information, and I see three great information leverage points, all of which are greatly dysfunctional at present:
– Education, which needs to include, as Garrett Hardin says, literacy, numeracy, and ecolacy – the latter meaning understanding of complex ecological and economic systems
– The media
– The price system, which carries powerful (and woefully distorted) information about the relative costs and benefit of things.

PRACTICE YOUR OWN PROGRAM: To what extent does your program operate in a sustainable way? I mean that in a more thorough sense than recycling office paper. I mean everything from the energy efficiency of your building to the content of your investment portfolio. I’m not advocating total environmental purity, I’m just inviting you to join the adventure of thinking through and experimenting with sustainable ways of living. I’ve been doing it for twenty year, bit by bit, sometimes kicking and screaming. I’m a long way from pure. But the exercise and the learning have been tremendous. I’ve learned patience and humility, how hard it is to be environmentally responsible in a culture that isn’t, and also how rewarding it can be to challenge one’s culture and to live life for what is really important. If we don’t pioneer the sustainable society, who will?

— Donella Meadows, 1992

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

Newsletter Sign Up

The Academy occasionally sends E-newsletters with updates on the work of our fellows, the Donella Meadows Project and more. Sign up here if you'd like to stay connected.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Select your interests below:

Contact Form